The Poem

“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...

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Forms and Devices

Ginsberg’s two principal formal devices in “Kaddish” bring about the poem’s impression of sadness and remorse. The first is what could best be called stream-of-consciousness writing—that is, the unending and unyielding movement of thoughts and emotions. One can see this stream of consciousness most obviously in the poem’s punctuation, in particular the dash. The use of the dash is relentless; in each use, it announces an associative and subsequent thought or emotional condition. For example, in the second section, “Narrative,” a prose stanza reads: “Once locked herself in with razor or iodine—could hear her cough in tears at sink—Lou broke through glass greenpainted door, we pulled her out to the bedroom.”

Lou is the poet’s father. What is typical of this passage is that the dash separates images into categories that resemble the pattern in which the poet remembers them. By not relying on traditional syntactic constructions or regular sentence patterns, Ginsberg heightens the tension between memory and experience. He intensifies the severity and the unswerving nature of the narrative itself. Because he leaves out the expected punctuation of periods, for example, thoughts never end but keep moving, the way the poet himself keeps moving by walking on the streets of New York City, as announced at the beginning of the poem.

A second device is the poet’s simultaneous juxtaposition and linkage of song and prayer. Both...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Suggested Readings

Hyde, Lewis, ed. On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984.

Miles, Barry. Ginsberg: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.

Portugés, Paul. The Visionary Poetics of Allen Ginsberg. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Ross-Erikson, 1978.

Rosenthal, M. L. The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.