Kaddish and other Poems

by Allen Ginsberg
   Allen Ginsberg’s second book of poems, Kaddish and Other Poems follows so closely the pitch and tone of Howl and otHer poems that it is easy to forget the differences between the two books. Both are written from the perspective of Western prophecy; both fuse religious and political concerns to redeem protagonists who are alienated by cold-war social containment. Moreover, both privilege an autobiographical poetics in which social agony and spiritual crisis can be redeemed through a poetry of visionary experience. Nevertheless, it is important to note major differences between the two books. Kaddish and Other Poems was composed in the wake of the enormous international success of Howl and Other Poems. Ginsberg himself had become something of a media figure, given the attention that he received from the 1957 “howl” obscenity trial and from the attention bestowed on the Beats as a result of the combined success of both Howl and Other Poems and jack kerouac’s on tHe road. Thus, Kaddish and Other Poems should be seen within the social and cultural framework of Ginsberg’s increased public visibility as a writer and a public figure. Ginsberg’s international travel in the period after Howl and Other Poems confirms how the shift from private to public life affected the composition of Kaddish and Other Poems. Biographer Michael Schumacher notes that during Ginsberg’s 1957 trip to Tangier, the period when Howl and Other Poems was seized in San Francisco, the poet started to feel that “Howl” was too private and singular for the public persona necessitated by his self-representation as a poet–prophet. As Schumacher describes it, Ginsberg was “shaken” by his direct experiences with colonialism and statesponsored police brutality during his trip and that he “vowed” to produce poetry in response to global struggle. Especially in its title poem, this book reshapes his career as a writer from a poetry of private statement to one of public statement. Yet this movement from private to public in Kaddish and Other Poems is enacted through a poetry that pays close attention to the integrity of each individual’s imagination—and emphasizes, moreover, what Ginsberg saw as the necessity of shaping a public voice from nevertheless inward pilgrimages. As often is the case with Ginsberg, the autobiographical is rarely removed from the prophetic.
   Ginsberg’s epigraph to the book can serve as a symbol for this combined private–public voice. Preceding the table of contents, he writes, “Magic Psalm, The Reply, & The End record visions experienced after drinking Ayahuasca, an Amazon spiritual potion. The message is: Widen the area of consciousness” [emphasis Ginsberg’s]. The importance of selfhood in these poems, the final three in the book, would seem to suggest that Kaddish and Other Poems does not extend further than the boundaries of the poet’s mind and body. Yet in the book as a whole and in its final three poems, the impulse to “[w]iden the area of consciousness” is by necessity for Ginsberg a public one. Widening the boundaries of mental experience is a crucial step in all the poems of this book toward transforming the cultural conditions of the poet’s historical moment. As an exercise in the expansion of these boundaries, Kaddish and Other Poems attempts, in the language of Ginsberg’s back-cover afterword, to “reconstitute” the “broken consciousness of mid twentieth century suffering.”
   The title poem of the book, for Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi, is as much a private elegy as it is a public epic. In his afterword, Ginsberg describes “kaddish” as a response to seeing “my self my own mother and my very nation trapped desolate our worlds of consciousness homeless and at war except for the original trembling of bliss in breast and belly of every body.” To redeem body and mind, “Kaddish” must first acknowledge how the individual integrity of both are beaten down, for Ginsberg, by contemporary U.S. capitalism. Naomi’s life is outlined in the opening section of the poem, a veritable overture, as Naomi, the young Russian immigrant from a Communist family, grows into womanhood in what she perceives as a hostile country. Borrowing one of the dominant symbols of vision in “Sunflower Sutra” and “Transcription of Organ Music” (both from Howl and Other Poems), Naomi’s life is a “flower burning in the Day”; she is a flower “which knew itself in the garden, and fought the knife—lost.” This first section, written in a long-strophe form resembling “Howl,” ends with a revision of the Hebrew Kaddish prayer for the dead. Section II chronicles the pain suffered by Naomi and the extended Ginsberg family as her illness worsened. It closes with appropriated material from a letter that Naomi sent right before her death, which Ginsberg, living on the opposite coast, did not receive until he already knew that she had died. Her final message, then, motherly advice to “[g]et married” and “don’t take drugs,” resembles a voice from beyond the grave. Immediately thereafter, a new section, “Hymmnn,” continues Ginsberg’s revision of the Kaddish prayer. Section III reviews Naomi’s life, borrowing at times from the language and imagery of Naomi’s final letter. Section IV is a litany of bodily description of the depredations Naomi suffered at the hands of doctors-a section framed by discussion of the cultural conditions in which Naomi lived “with Communist Party and a broken stocking” and “with your eyes of Czechoslovakia attacked by robots” (a nod to the political satire of playwright Karl Capek). Section V continues to merge public and private life, with Ginsberg reimagining Naomi’s otherwise private burial as a public visionary experience.
   This fusion of individual and communal spheres continues in “At Apollinaire’s Grave,” one of six poems in the book that Ginsberg composed from 1957–58 while residing at the Beat Hotel in Paris (the others were “Poem Rocket,” “Europe! Europe!,” “To Aunt Rose,” “The Lion for Real,” and “Death to Van Gogh’s Ear!”). “At Apollinaire’s Grave” is especially important because of Ginsberg’s incorporation of the surrealist tradition in his efforts to “widen” private and public consciousness. Surrealism and Dada already were part of the literary heritage that led to Howl and Other Poems, but Ginsberg’s life as an expatriate in 1957–58 also included meetings with noted surrealists and dadaists. The poems of this period continue the theme of “divine madness” central to “Kaddish,” where mental illness is both a danger and a welcome evasion of the rational mind. “At Apollinaire’s Grave” eulogizes the early 20th-century European avantgarde at the same time that it hails their legacy in contemporary experimental art. Ginsberg evokes Guillaume Apollinaire as his surrealist muse. Walking hand-in-hand at Pére Lachaise cemetery with Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg implores Apollinaire to “come out of the grave and talk thru the door of my mind.” His imagined muse is, urgently, both a personal and a historical force, for Apollinaire’s “madness is only around the corner and [Jean] Genet is with us stealing books / the West is at war again and whose lucid suicide will set it all right.” As if to suggest the potential for failed individual selfobsession-the potential for narcissism in all autobiographical verse—the speaker of this poem never leaves the cemetery. “At Apollinaire’s Grave” ends with a disjunctive collage: A burning cigarette sends the poet’s book in flames, an ant crawls on him, and he feels a tree growing. The poet seems trapped in the graveyard despite the potential of the voice of prophecy to redeem. “I am buried here,” the poem closes, “and sit by my grave beneath a tree.” The Western world may be “at war again,” but in the face of his desire to “set it all right,” the poet never leaves the place of the dead and is buried alongside those whom he wishes to eulogize.
   The next two poems, “The Lion for Real” and “Ignu” revisit Ginsberg’s 1948 William Blake vision to reconstitute a speaking self for Kaddish and Other Poems that can perform in the same collage–voice as “At Apollinaire’s Grave” but without the selfobsession that burdens the social urgency of poetic prophecy. Both poems serve an important function by constructing a self who speaks with believability the opening line of “Death to Van Gogh’s Ear!,” where the poet, echoing Whitman’s preface to Leaves of Grass, declares, “Poet is Priest.” The conflict in “Death to Van Gogh’s Ear!” is more consistent with Whitman’s Democratic Vistas, where a culture that is unable to integrate its materialist present with its idealistic origins will doom its own “best minds.” Ginsberg borrows Whitman’s famous warning in Democratic Vistas that the United States is “on the road to a destiny, a status, equivalent, in its real world, to that of the fabled damned.” With poets and presumably with all artists, being seen as priests among the “fabled damned,” then it follows, for Ginsberg, that an image of Van Gogh’s ear should be placed on paper currency at the same time that Vachel Lindsay should be named Secretary of the Interior, Edgar Allan Poe placed in a new cabinet position as Secretary of the Imagination, and Ezra Pound named Secretary of Economics.
   The exhortation is satirical, as in a poem from the same year, “American Change,” where Ginsberg ruminates on the images of Washington and Eisenhower on the loose change that he has taken from his pocket; “O Fathers,” he exclaims in that poem, “No movie star dark beauty—O thou bignoses.” The satire of “Death to Van Gogh’s Ear!” reaches resolution when Ginsberg borrows from Blake. The final line recasts the familiar battle between the artist and utilitarian culture, echoing the “dark Satanic mills” that destroy the imagination in Blake’s prophecies: “Money against Eternity! and eternity’s strong mills grind out vast paper of Illusion!” “Magic Psalm,” “The Reply,” and “The End” are the result of Ginsberg’s private trip to Peru in 1960 searching for the drug ayahuasca, part of his effort through the early 1960s to replicate his Blake vision. Ginsberg’s 1966 testimony in the U.S. Senate on the effects of hallucinogenic drugs suggests that the influence of Ginsberg’s mother echoes in these final poems that were written with the aid of ayahuasca. Of his experiments with the drug, Ginsberg told the Senate: “In a trance state I experienced . . . a very poignant memory of my mother’s self, and how much I had lost in my distance from her[. . . . ] The human universe became more complete for me—my own feelings more complete.”
   Of these three poems, “Magic Psalm” explicitly extends the effects of ayahuasca into the tradition of Western literary prayer. Echoing John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV (“Batter my heart, three-person’d God”), Ginsberg writes, “Drive me crazy, God I’m ready for disintegration of my mind, disgrace me in the eye of the earth, / attack my hairy heart with terror eat my cock.” Where the traditional Western psalm would separate body from soul, with the body a fallen shadow of the soul, Ginsberg’s spiritual poetics, like Blake’s and Whitman’s, demands the unification of the two. His speaker prays so that God “at once in one huge Mouth of Universe” might “make meat reply.” “Magic Psalm” vocalizes the overarching lament in Kaddish and Other Poems to fuse the world—mother and son, community and individual, soul and body, God and pilgrim-into a unified whole.
■ 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.
■ Hyde, Lewis, ed. On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Ann Arbor: Univerity of Michigan Press, 1984.
■ Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin’s, 1992.
■ Trigilio, Tony. “Strange Prophecies Anew”: Rereading Apocalypse in Blake, H. D., and Ginsberg. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000.
■ United States Senate. Special Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary. The Narcotic Rehabilitation Act of 1966. 89th Cong., 2nd sess. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1966.
   Tony Trigilio

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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