The Kaddish

Known for his avant-garde structure and bombastic approach to language, “Kaddish” brings Ginsberg’s poetic strengths into strong focus with a personal tale of his mother. The poem includes themes of guilt, death, and remembrance as Ginsberg details his mother’s life, death, and their relationship. 

The Kaddish The Kaddish

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Contents
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    Kaddish Poem by Allen Ginsberg Quick Facts

    Title"Kaddish" or "Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956)"
    AuthorAllen Ginsberg (1926-1997)
    Published1961
    ThemesGuilt, Remembrance, Death
    Main IdeaGinsberg's poetic reckoning with the death of his mother and their relationship during her life.

    Summary of Allen Ginsberg’s Poem Kaddish

    “Kaddish” is divided into five sections. Each one explores a different aspect of Naomi’s life and death.

    Part I

    “Kaddish” begins with our narrator, Allen Ginsberg himself, walking through the streets of New York thinking about the death of his mother, Naomi. He ruminates on the meaning of death as he walks through the neighborhoods where his mother lived when she was a child. He thinks about what her dreams might have been as a child, and whether or not the life she ended up leading reflected them.

    He notes that in her death, he knows that she has gone somewhere good, along with her sister Elanor who has also died. In death, she has escaped all of the good and bad experiences and relationships she had when alive. He ends the section by thinking about the meaning of death and Naomi’s experience with it.

    Part II

    In this section, Ginsberg details Naomi’s life and specific memories he has with her. He recounts a time in which the two of them traveled all over New York City by bus looking for a rest house for Naomi to stay in. While doing so, Naomi details her dislike of her mother-in-law, Ginsberg’s grandmother, who she believes wishes her harm. Ginsberg later gets a call that Naomi wouldn’t leave from under the bed at the rest home in her paranoia, and she is hospitalized at Greystone once again, for three years.

    Naomi returns home from the hospital after her years away and cannot remember the details of their home. She eventually escapes the home and lives with her sister Elanor in New York City. She and Ginsberg’s father, Louis, separated. Eugene, Ginsberg’s brother, joined the army and then returned to finish law school.

    In this section, discussing his brother Eugene’s life at law school, Ginsberg refers to a “Moloch tower.” This calls back to Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” (1956) which heralded his stardom. Moloch was a personification of the ills of industrialization and modern society.

    One night, in the midst of one of her paranoid episodes, Naomi began to attack her sister Elanor, and Ginsberg had to call the police. She was brought to a hospital once again. Later, Ginsberg is in California with his partner Orlovsky and receives word that Naomi has died. Two days after her death, he receives a letter from her with the lines: “The key is in the sunlight at the window in the bars the key is in the sunlight.”

    The line “The key is in the sunlight at the window in the bars the key is in the sunlight” (Part III, 11) comes from a letter that Naomi wrote to Ginsberg. He received the letter when he was living in Berkeley, California, after her death. This letter was her response to Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” (1956) and in it, she writes these lines that would serve as part of Ginsberg’s inspiration for “Kaddish.”

    Light entering through the window, Kaddish, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Light coming in through the window, much like Naomi Ginsberg described in her last letter to Allen.

    Hymmnn

    This is a brief section within Part II that reads like a prayer. Ginsberg recites blessings in the style of prayer for Naomi and for God. He also blesses death at the end.

    Part III

    Here, Ginsberg describes the various ways that Naomi’s mental illness manifested and affected both his and her lives. Repeating the beginning phrase “only to,” he describes the various delusions that his mother experienced. In the end, he quotes from a letter Naomi wrote before her death: “The key is in the sunlight at the window in the bars the key is in the sunlight” (Part III, 11).

    Part IV

    In Part IV, the narrator agonizes over aspects of Naomi’s story that have been left out or forgotten. Referring to her as “O mother” (Part IV, 1, 3, 5) repeatedly, the narrator says farewell and then expands upon different moments and relationships in Naomi’s life by initially referring to different parts of her body. After mentioning her chin, fingers, belly, mouth, and more, Ginsberg then repeats multiple lines beginning “with your eyes of…” (Part IV, 24-51). Each of these lines mentions a relationship, moment, or memory from Naomi. It includes Russia, her country of birth, Aunt Elanor, her sister, and a list of all her medical procedures and complications—pancreas removed, appendix operation, abortion, ovaries removed, shock, lobotomy, stroke. It ends by describing her death as “full of Flowers” (Part IV, 52).

    Pink flowers, Kaddish, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Ginsberg describes her death as 'full of flowers,' which could mean that death is another type of rebirth and reference the tradition of bringing flowers to a gravesite or at a funeral.

    Part V

    In the shortest section of “Kaddish,” Part V closes the poem with a rumination at the grave of Naomi. “Caw caw caw” (Part V, 1) is repeated as is “Lord Lord Lord” (Part V, 2) throughout the section. The narrator stands above Naomi’s Long Island grave as crows circle in the sky. Ginsberg makes reference to “a boundless field in Sheol” (Part V, 6) which is the state of the dead in the Hebrew Bible. It ends with snatches of memories— “my birth a dream…New York the bus the broken shoe” (Part V, 9)—before ending with the repetitive “Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw” (Part V, 10).

    Analysis of Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish

    “Kaddish” is a poem primed for analysis thanks to Ginsberg’s creative use of language, personal themes, and literary devices. To begin, it is important to understand the poem’s context before diving into the textual analysis.

    Context & Background on “Kaddish”

    The poem “Kaddish” is also known by the name “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956).” Naomi Ginsberg is the name of Allen Ginsberg’s mother. Ginsberg published the poem five years after his mother’s death.

    In the Jewish religion, the mourner’s Kaddish is a prayer that is said during funeral services. The mourner’s Kaddish makes no mention of death but is instead a prayer that celebrates the holiness of God. Naomi Ginsberg did not have the Kaddish said for her as she was buried.

    Ginsberg’s mother led a troubled life. She was born Naomi Levy and lived in the United States after emigrating from Russia. She was a member of the Communist Party and took her children to meetings. Naomi suffered from schizophrenia and had frequent paranoid delusions in which she believed the government was trying to kill her. She spent time in and out of mental hospitals throughout Ginsberg’s childhood, which left a deep mark on Allen.

    Greystone, which appears in both of Ginsberg’s poems “Howl” and “Kaddish” is the name of one of the mental hospitals where Naomi had extended stays.

    Portrait of Allen Ginsberg, Kaddish, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Allen Ginsberg, author of "The Kaddish," and the assumed narrator.

    Repetition and refrain

    A common feature of Ginsberg’s poetry used sharply throughout “Kaddish” is repetition and refrain. Each separate part of the poem has its own refrain that anchors it. Not only does this help create the musical rhythm of the poem but it also, in the case of “Kaddish” in particular, serves to emphasize the prayer-like characteristics of the poem.

    As many prayers are based on repetition and refrain, these techniques employed here by Ginsberg lend it a more prayerful quality. In the first section, there are small instances of repetition, “Toward education marriage nervous breakdown…./Toward the Key in the window” to draw the reader’s attention to important lines. In part two, there are again small instances of repetition, but given that this section is more a retelling of Naomi’s life and Ginsberg’s memories, it reads almost like a stream-of-consciousness narrative retelling. At the end, in Hymmnn, it devolves explicitly into a prayer—”Blessed be” is repeated over and over as Ginsberg blesses his mother, and God, and the nature of God—paranoia, homosexuality, and fears included.

    His use of refrain, however, becomes even more obvious and purposeful in the next few sections. Part III sees the beginning of the majority of the lines starting with “only to have” to continuously describe the scenarios in which his mother’s mental illness manifested.

    In Part IV it begins like he is praying to his mother—”O mother”—and devolves into a chant-like rhythm: over 20 lines of the poem beginning “with her eyes of” describing the different body parts of Naomi and the different procedures she underwent. Part V, at her grave, repeats the sounds of the crows (“Caw caw caw”) and the name of the Lord (“Lord Lord Lord.”) Each use of this refrain allows “Kaddish” to read like a prayer, embedding the holy, ritual nature of the poem in its verses.

    Provide line citations for the refrains in this section as well. JC

    Anecdotes

    Much of “Kaddish” is filled with Ginsberg’s own personal anecdotes. Of course, this is a poem of a highly personal nature—Ginsberg is not only memorializing his mother, for whom the Kaddish wasn’t said when she died, but he is also working through his own memories and feelings surrounding her death.

    Part II of the poem is entirely Ginsberg recounting his experiences with his mother. From the harrowing bus journey to get her to a rest house, setting her up with her own apartment, bringing her home after years in a mental hospital, Ginsberg uses these anecdotes to recall and reflect upon his memories with his mother.

    Themes in Kaddish by Allen Ginsberg

    Ginsberg explores many themes through "Kaddish," each analyzed here.

    Guilt

    Throughout “Kaddish,” Ginsberg grapples with the guilt he feels about his relationship with his mother and his treatment of her. The times that he brought her to a rest house, or called the police to bring her to a mental institution leave him feeling guilty as to whether that was the best decision for her.

    In particular, he often feels guilt surrounding not visiting her. When she is in Greystone, it has been two years since he has seen her. Living his life in California, experiencing love with Peter Orlovsky, his fame growing thanks to “Howl”—just as everything in his life is going right, his mother is in a hospital and then she dies. Even the nature of saying the Kaddish—there weren’t enough men at her funeral for it to be said, so, two years later, Ginsberg attempts to rectify this partially out of a sense of guilt.

    Remembrance

    “Kaddish,” in addition to guilt, is primarily about remembrance. His memories of her are often dictated by her illness and his reactions to it, particularly as a child. The way he remembers and thinks about his mother changes, she goes from ‘Russian faced’ with ‘long black hair…crowned with flowers’ to ‘sweating, bulge-eyed, fat’ (112). The effect of the medicines that she is prescribed takes a toll on her body and changes the ways she will be perceived both by Ginsberg and herself. Naomi also struggles with these changes, and Ginsberg describes, how, when the police come to take her away after she attacked her sister, she went to the bathroom to put on lipstick. These small anecdotes, employed and stylized by Ginsberg, all serve to highlight the complex nature of remembrance.

    Death

    Death is a major theme of “Kaddish.” The Kaddish, of course, is a prayer said at a funeral in Jewish tradition. And the subject of the poem is his mother Naomi and her death. The theme presents as both Ginsberg reckoning with his mother’s death and contemplating his own. In many ways, he sees his mother’s death as a release—”Blessed be Death on us All!” (263)—he exalts in Part II. He makes reference to an Emily Dickinson elegy, saying we are bound forever, “headed to the End.”

    Ginsberg was heavily inspired by Emily Dickinson's poetry. In this section, he references her poem "Because I could not stop for Death" (1890). Both poems have the similarity of the narrator encountering the ghosts of the dead. In Dickinson's poem this is more literal while in Ginsberg's he is grappling with the ghost of his mother's memory.

    Quotes from Ginsberg’s Kaddish

    “Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of

    Greenwich Village.

    downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I've been up all night, talking, talking, reading the

    Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph” (1-4)

    These first four lines set the stage for the rest of the poem. The ‘you’ in this sense is Naomi, as Ginsberg directs these first few lines at his mother. They also establish the location, as the majority of the action of the poem takes place in New York where Ginsberg lived and where Naomi grew up and lived later in her life. It also makes reference to popular culture—common in Ginsberg’s poems.

    “Dreaming back thru life, Your time—and mine accelerating toward Apocalypse,” (10)

    As seen throughout much of the poem, Naomi’s death makes Ginsberg contemplate his own. He thinks back to her life and her death and sees his own approaching.

    The Kaddish - Key takeaways

    • “Kaddish” is a 1961 poem by American poet Allen Ginsberg.
    • Ginsberg was a leading member of the Beat Generation, and this poem exemplifies many of the traits of his poetry—lack of formal structure, use of repetition and refrain, personal subject matter.
    • The poem is Ginsberg’s reflection on his mother, Naomi’s death, and his relationship with her.
    • “Kaddish”’s major themes are of guilt, death, and remembrance.
    • Ginsberg employs repetition, refrain, and anecdotes throughout the poem to tell the story of his mother.
    The Kaddish The Kaddish
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    Frequently Asked Questions about The Kaddish

    Why did Ginsberg write “Kaddish?”

    Ginsberg wrote “Kaddish” as a tribute to his mother and to work through his emotions surrounding her death. When Naomi Ginsberg died, there weren’t enough men at her funeral to say the Kaddish. Years later, this is Ginsberg’s reckoning with her death and attempting to rectify the fact that the Kaddish was never said for her.

    What is the theme of “Kaddish” by Allen Ginsberg?

    The major themes in “Kaddish” are guilt, remembrance, and death. Each is intertwined as the poem describes Naomi’s life and death and how Ginsberg deals with her absence. He feels guilt over how she was treated when alive and the complex nature of remembrance.

    When did Allen Ginsberg write “Kaddish?”

    Ginsberg began to write “Kaddish” in 1957 and completed it two years later in 1959. It was published as part of Kaddish and Other Poems, his collection from 1961.

    What is the tone of “Kaddish?”

    Ginsberg writes with a tone of forgiveness and remembrance. While he still includes a rich vocabulary and doesn’t shy away from exploring the darker aspects of his mother’s life, the overall tone is him coming to peace with his mother’s death. He evokes religion with his use of repetition and refrain and lends the poem an overall feel of prayer.

    How long is “Kaddish” by Allen Ginsberg?

    “Kaddish” has five separate parts and spans 19 pages in its original publication in Kaddish and Other Poems. The first and second sections are the longest with the three subsequent sections much shorter.

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