Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529
Allen Ginsberg's "Kaddish," alternately titled "Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956)" is a poignant, stream-of-consciousness eulogy for the poet's mother. The title, "Kaddish," is the word for a Jewish prayer, especially one recited for the deceased.
Ginsberg was born and raised in New York and moved to San Francisco in the 1950s. He is credited with being a founding member of the American literary and social movement known as the "Beat Generation"—a movement that rejected social norms of dress, behavior, and motivation and encouraged the individual to reject mainstream material culture in favor of pursuing a spiritual quest. Ginsberg made a name for himself about five years before the publication of "Kaddish" with the publication of his book, Howl.
"Kaddish" does not have characters in the way that a novel or epic poem does; it is an extended, five-part poem in free verse that reflects on and commemorates the life of Russian émigré Naomi Ginsberg. The narration is episodic and filled with images which are introduced in close succession as these images come to the narrator's memory. While none of the characters other than the titular one are especially well developed, there are several individuals that appear in the poet's stream-of-consciousness narration.
Naomi Ginsberg moved from Russia and grew up in New York, where the author was raised. Ginsberg imagines his mother walking the same streets as he does when she was a young girl. He imagines her drinking "cheap sodas in the morgues of Newark." The poet occasionally describes his mother in quite graphic detail ("forty, varicosed, nude, fat,") and describes instances where she fell violently ill as a result of the medication she took. On one occasion, the poet went with his mother to a mental hospital. Though his mother was perpetually ill, the poet seems to respect her maternal commitment to him ("'Don’t be afraid of me because I’m just coming back home from the mental hospital—I’m your mother—'"). He also describes his mother as a devout Communist, staunchly critical of American capitalism.
Louis Ginsberg, the poet's father, also appears in some of the poem's images. The poet does not seem to intimate that his parents had an especially affectionate relationship. In the opening part of his poem, Ginsberg avows that, as his mother is dead, she will have "no more fear of Louis." The poet remarks that Louis is humiliated at times by his wife's mental illness and the public antics that result therefrom (such as when she makes a scene at the prescription counter of a pharmacy).
Finally, Naomi's sister Elanor is a recurring figure in the poem. Elanor has died before Naomi, apparently of a heart attack ("we kept it secret—you killed her—or she killed herself to bear with you—an arthritic heart—But Death’s killed you both"). The poet remarks that Naomi has died within a year of her sister, and he ponders whether Elanor is happy ("within a year, the two of you, sisters in death. Is Elanor happy?"). The poet avers that Elanor and Naomi (who also had a brother, Max) had frequent quarrels with one another.