The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Kaddish” is a long elegy infused with stream of consciousness; it is divided into six parts with long poetic lines and passages of prose. The title comes from the Judaic prayer, recited in daily services, in praise of God and in memory of the dead. The term itself sets the elegiac tone of the poem, announcing principally that the poem is in memory of the poet’s mother, Naomi Ginsberg, who had died three years earlier.

The title also anticipates the poem’s first-person point of view and suggests a confessional tone. To say that the poem is confessional is to suggest that the poet directly addresses the reader (or, in this case, his mother, as a posthumous reader) without the mediation of a persona. More important than the confessional stance, which could imply simply an autobiographical approach, is that Allen Ginsberg is revealing intensely private experiences that have not only shaped his life but also formed the muse of his poetic sensibilities. Thus, he claims early in the poem that “Death is that remedy all singers dream of.” Singer here represents the poet, whose historic duty has been to sing the truth. This concept of the singer brings to mind the beginning of Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.), which begins “Arma virumque cano” (I sing of arms and the man). “Kaddish” becomes a song for the dead, begun, as the first six words indicate, in present tense, but with the distance of recollection: “Strange now to think of you.”

The first section of the poem, called “Proem,” acts as a prelude for what follows in the other five sections. It has the aura of a musical overture, highlighting the themes and motifs that will come forth in their full complexities later. The first two lines announce the poem’s modus...

(The entire section is 737 words.)