Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Ultimately, a prayer for the dead is recited to cleanse the pain of the speaker. Yet it appears in “Kaddish” that Ginsberg only makes things worse for himself. One theme of the poem is the double nature of remembrance: how it both heals and hurts. This juxtaposition is typical for the elegy. For the speaker, remembering his mother is a method for praising her life—except that here, her life is revealed as one that incurred such immense pain that remembering and retelling the horror of it becomes another form of pain, a reiteration of past sorrows, a recapitulation of the poet’s loss.

In one moment, Ginsberg describes his whole poem as a lament. If one thinks of lament less as regret or mourning and more as wailing—and in that sound it is a song of grief—one comes closer to the poem’s overriding theme of calling out, of moaning. This crying is articulated at the end of the “Proem”: “Death, stay thy phantoms!” Ginsberg suggests that living is painful enough, full of psychological adversities such as those experienced by Naomi, that death would be helpful if it simply did not unleash its gestures of remorse. In a larger context, her suffering embodies the fear of the unknown, everyone’s fear of the unaccountable. Perhaps that fear in and of itself is a reason people say prayers for the dead.

In that, one finds another theme of “Kaddish”: the poet’s need to write poems. Ginsberg has always filled the role of the prophet-poet, and those familiar with his work will recognize the bardic nature of “Kaddish.” In this sense, the poem is an act of primordial utterance, spoken to the dead out of respect for the dead.