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Kaddish Summary

American poet Allen Ginsberg is an exemplar of the so-called "Beat Generation," a generation that came of age in the 1950s, representing a literary and social movement centered in artistic communities—such as Ginsberg's Greenwich Village—that sought to bring poetry back to the streets and to the common people. The beat poets also encouraged people to seek personal freedom and enlightenment rather than pursue any particular kind of social justice. Ginsberg was educated at New York's Columbia University but spent his college years and beyond experimenting with drugs and sexuality. Ginsberg first generated public interest with the publication of Howl and Other Poems (1956) which included graphic descriptions of his homosexual experiences with other men. By the time Kaddish and Other Poems was published, Ginsberg was living in San Francisco (where he moved in the 1950s).

The poem "Kaddish" (the title poem of the collection in which it was published) is also known as "Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956)." As the alternate title suggests, it is a literary memorial to the poet's mother. It is rife with allusions to topographical locations (such as "Greenwich Village" and "Patterson"). The extended poem's name is taken from the name for a Jewish hymn. The poem is written in free verse and is episodic in nature, including a series of loosely connected images by means of which the poet remembers select details off is mother's life.

In the poem's five sections, Ginsberg obliquely explains how his mother was Russian and had two siblings, Elanor (who died before her) and Max. The poet begins by describing a walk through the neighborhood in which Ginsberg grew up (the Lower East Side of Manhattan). He remarks on the travels (specifically her journey to America and then back to Europe) made by his mother during her lifetime. He later describes her battle with mental illness. A particularly vivid image is one of the poet attending her to the hospital on a stretcher "vomiting chemicals thru Jersey." In the second part, the poet acknowledges his mother's raw humanity, even likening her to a sexual object, despite her physical wounds and signs of aging. He also discusses her Communist sympathies. In the third verse, the poet summarizes her life succinctly (from her childhood Newark to her later life in a hospital). In the fourth part, the poet invokes his late mother to ask "what have I forgot?" It uses repetition to cite various character traits of his mother (such as her abortion, divorce, and stroke). These lines essentially constitute a eulogy to her imperfect being. In the final stanza, Ginsberg invokes God and introduces the image of crows in a field under which his mother is buried.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

One of the central formative experiences of Ginsberg’s life was the decline into mental illness of his mother, Naomi, a wrenching psychic ordeal that he internalized for the first four decades of his life before confronting his feelings in the poem “Kaddish,” which he composed in bursts of confessional exhilaration from 1958 through 1961. The trigger for the central narrative section of the poem, a biographical recollection of his mother’s life, was a night spent listening to jazz, ingesting marijuana and methamphetamine, and reading passages from an old Bar Mitzvah book.

Ginsberg then walked out into New York City, and with his mind racing with the rhythms of the Hebrew prayers, he found himself covering the same ground his mother had known in her early youth. As his thoughts turned to her life, and to his inability to talk to her directly as an adult, he remembered that she had been buried three years before without the traditional Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. Determined to honor her memory before God, to face his own doubts about death and about his relationship with his mother, and to come to terms with his life to that point, Ginsberg began with a direct exposition of his feelings, “Strange now to think of you, gone,” and withheld nothing as he...

(The entire section is 1,939 words.)