“Kaddish”

by Allen Ginsberg
(1961)
   The title poem of allen ginsberg’s 1961 volume, kaddisH and otHer poems, “Kaddish” is the poet’s autobiographical elegy for his mother, Naomi Ginsberg, who died in 1956 after a series of mental breakdowns during the last 20 years of her life. The poem rewrites the Kaddish prayer for the dead as it recalls Naomi’s tumultuous life and reimagines her death as visionary and redemptive. “Kaddish” reenvisions the spiritual meaning and value of the Kaddish prayer. In so doing, the poem also exposes the brutality of postwar mental-health care—including Naomi’s electroshock treatments and lobotomy—and the politics of religious and sexual identity. Naomi’s worsening mental illness occurs as the young Ginsberg in the poem realizes that he is gay, and it coincides with his emerging disillusionment with traditional U.S. religious institutions. “Kaddish,” along with “howl,” stands among the vanguard poems of what would become known as the Confessional school of contemporary American poetry. As with all Confessional poems, this one accounts for more than just a gesture of personal purging or grieving. As Ginsberg later wrote, his exploration of the “eccentric detail” of his family in “Kaddish” was part of a larger process of exploring the political meaning of family in coldwar United States. For Ginsberg, the discomfort that readers might feel in reading his abject family narrative might heighten their awareness of the complex conjunction of sanity and madness in the contemporary American family. “I realized it would seem odd to others,” he said, “but family odd, that is to say, familiar—everybody has crazy cousins and aunts and brothers.”
   The poem is framed by Ginsberg’s conjunction of his Judaism and his nascent Buddhism—as he puts it in the opening section, his effort to combine “prophesy as in the Hebrew Anthem” and “the Buddhist Book of Answers.” Ginsberg had what he saw as good reason to fill gaps left behind by Judaism. The Kaddish was not recited at Naomi’s grave because the required minimum of 10 Jewish men, a minyan, was not present, as mandated by Jewish law. His father, Louis, provided him with an English-language translation of the traditional Hebrew Kaddish prayer with a note that both affirmed and authorized his son’s desire to revise the prayer: “Those chants therein,” Louis wrote, “have a rhythm and sonorousness of immemorial years marching with reverberations through the corridors of history.” Despite this affirmation of his son’s literary strategy, Louis also hesitated at the role Buddhism played in reenvisioning the racial and religious identity at the core of the poem. In a 1971 newspaper interview, Louis said, “People ask him why he, as a Jew, follows the Buddhists, and he says he wants to preach idealism of the human race, to take the best of all religions. I say that’s a good idea, but before I do that, I want to study more and explore more of my own Jewish heritage.”
   Section I recalls Naomi’s youth as a young Russian girl whose experiences with institutions such as school, work, and marriage contribute to her mental illness. As the poet himself moves through the streets of New York, he sees his mother, too, moving these same streets while her life extends “[t]oward education marriage nervous breakdown, operation, teaching school, and learning to be mad.” Section II documents her fall into madness and its effects on the Ginsberg family. The young Ginsberg tries to flee his mother’s madness at the same time that he is drawn into it as one of her family caretakers. Her illness produces great anxiety in him; yet her condition and the way she is treated by doctors invoke in him seeds of understanding the social inequities of illness and treatment. Ginsberg’s earliest research into his homosexuality and his first homosexual feelings, for a classmate whom he followed to Columbia University, coincide with what he describes as his mother’s harrowing “mad idealism.” Still, she remains as an inspiration to him. Like the Hindu goddess Kali about whom he writes in the poem “Stotras to Kali Destroyer of Illusions,” Naomi is a destructive and liberating figure in “Kaddish.” She is both a figure who frightens him and one who inspires visionary poetry—she is his “glorious muse that bore me from the womb, gave suck first mystic life & taught me talk and music, from whose pained head I first took Vision.” Indeed, in eulogizing Naomi’s madness, she begins to appear at times less mad than the culture that seeks to treat her. “Kaddish” emerges from Ginsberg’s own interest in the antipsychiatric movement of the 1960s, an effort to reveal the environmental causes of mental illness and to hold the psychiatric community accountable for the consequences of treatments, such as electroshock and lobotomy, that could worsen patients’ conditions. Madness in “Kaddish” eventually comes to be defined as actions that are bereft of human compassion—such as those performed by medical authorities whose treatments leave Naomi “tortured and beaten in the skull.” The final sections of the poem transform the language of Naomi’s illness into sacred poetry in the Western and Eastern religious traditions that frame the poem. Invoking the god of Judaism within the illusory “dream” of the world taught by Buddhism, Ginsberg closes his revisionary prayer with language that combines the metaphysics of monotheism with the material pragmatism of Eastern thought. This West–East fusion is dramatized in the crows circling Naomi’s grave in Long Island and the speaker’s cries to his god to hear his prayer for the dead: “Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw Lord.” Ginsberg’s language for sacred experience is one scarred by loss and the failure of metaphysical models to redeem. He resorts to a prayer that weighs language and nonreferentiality (Lord and caw) equally. Such a strategy forecasts his interest later in his career of the asemantic one-syllable breath exhalation, “Ah,” as a Buddhist-inspired principle for, in his words, the “purification of speech.” For Ginsberg, who represented himself in the poetic tradition of prophecy as it manifests through poets such as Blake, the purification of speech cannot be separated from the purification of thought and action.
 Bibliography
■ Breslin, James. “The Origins of ‘Howl’ and ‘Kaddish.’ ” Iowa Review 8, no. 2 (Spring 1977): 82–108.
■ Ginsberg, Allen. “How Kaddish Happened.” In Poetics of the New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen and Warren Tallman, 344–347. New York: Grove, 1973.
■ Herring, Scott. “ ‘Her Brothers Dead in Riverside or Russia’: ‘Kaddish’ and the Holocaust.” Contemporary Literature 42, no. 3 (Fall 2001): 535–556.
■ Hyde, Lewis, ed. On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984.
■ Trigilio, Tony. “Strange Prophecies Anew”: Rereading Apocalypse in Blake, H. D., and Ginsberg. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000.
   Tony Trigilio

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • KADDISH — (Aram. קַדִּישׁ; holy ), a doxology, most of it in Aramaic, recited with congregational responses at the close of individual sections of the public service and at the conclusion of the service itself. There are four main types of Kaddish: (a) THE …   Encyclopedia of Judaism

  • kaddish — ● kaddish nom masculin (araméen qaddish, saint) Prière juive récitée à la fin de chaque partie de l office synagogal. (C est une exaltation de la toute puissance divine.) …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • kaddish — doxology of the Jewish ritual, 1610s, from Aramaic qaddish holy, holy one, from stem of q dhash was holy, ithqaddash was sanctified, related to Heb. qadhash was holy, qadhosh holy. According to Klein, the name probably is from the second word of… …   Etymology dictionary

  • kaddish — [käd′ish] n. [Aram kadish, lit., holy, akin to Heb kadosh, holy < root kdš, sanctify] 1. Judaism a prayer in praise of God, recited as part of the daily service 2. another form of this prayer recited by mourners …   English World dictionary

  • Kaddish — This article is about the Jewish prayer. For other uses, see Kaddish (disambiguation). Not to be confused with Kiddush or Kedusha. Part of a series of articles on …   Wikipedia

  • Kaddish — Le Kaddish (hébreu : קדיש qaddish, « sanctification ») est l une des pièces centrales de la liturgie juive et a également influencé plusieurs prières chrétiennes, dont le Notre Père[1]. Il a pour thème la glorification et… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Kaddish — Ashk. Heb. /kah dish/; Seph. Heb. /kah deesh /, n., pl. Kaddishim Ashk. Heb. /kah dish im/; Seph. Heb. /kah dee sheem /. Judaism. 1. (italics) a liturgical prayer, consisting of three or six verses, recited at specified points during each of the… …   Universalium

  • kaddish — Doxología (himno de alabanza a Dios) judía que en general se recita en arameo al concluir las secciones principales de todos los servicios en la sinagoga. Recitado originalmente en las academias rabínicas, pasó a convertirse en un elemento… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • Kaddish —    (KAH dish) [Aramaic: holy] In Judaism, a liturgical prayer in praise of God, part of the regular daily service in a synagogue; a form of this prayer recited during the period of mourning for a deceased family member, or on the anniversary of a …   Dictionary of foreign words and phrases

  • Kaddish — [ kadɪʃ] noun an ancient Jewish prayer sequence recited in the synagogue service. ↘a form of the Kaddish recited for the dead. Origin from Aramaic qaddīš holy …   English new terms dictionary

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