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 re-created the full emotional depth of their life together.
“Kaddish” is both an extended elegy and a dual biography. For the poet himself, it is a “release of particulars,” the “recollections that rose in my heart,” which he views with a mixture of lingering nostalgia for childhood and a dread of how details apprehended in innocence take on a darker cast when seen in terms of the course of a person’s life. His own journey from early youth to his present middle age is a parallel to the path that Naomi took from a youthful beauty, “her long hair wound with flowers—smiling—playing lullabies on mandolin,” to Naomi “At forty, varicosed, nude, fat, doomed.” Her mental illness and paranoia, which baffled and frightened him in his youth, are now a lurking threat to his own mental stability, especially as he has experienced visions and hallucinations of awesome power. The direction of their lives, of everyone’s life, is toward “the names of Death in many mind-worlds,” and it is this awesome certainty that has driven Ginsberg to open the paths to his subconscious. Rebuked by his mother’s madness in life, and by her silence now, the poet thinks with gratitude of his mother no longer suffering, but he realizes that he will not find any kind of peace because he still has not “written your history.”
The central incident in the second section concerns the trip that the twelve-year-old Ginsberg took with his mother on a public bus to a rest home....
(The entire section is 1130 words.)