Ginsberg’s Kadish Prayer

According to Jewish tradition, in the presence of a minyon (10 adult men) the child of a dead parent recites the Kaddish every day for 11 months to reaffirm his faith in God after the loss of a parent. One month is dropped from the 12 months required for the most wicked of souls to be purified before entering The World to Come to show that the deceased is not the most wicked. The recitation of this prayer demonstrates to God what a good parent the child had to be able to praise God during a period of mourning.

Mourner’s Kaddish

(Congregation recites italicized lines)

May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified.
in the world that He created as he willed.
May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,
swiftly and soon.
Amen. Amen. May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.
May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled,
mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the holy One, Blessed is He
Blessed is He
beyond any blessing and song,
praise and consolation that are uttered in the world.
Amen. Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life
upon us and upon all Israel.
Amen. Amen.
He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace,
upon us and upon all Israel.
Amen. Amen.

“Kadish,” recounting his mother’s life and insanity, has to be accepted as one of Allen Ginsberg’s finest poems, a most personal, honest chronology of a child’s struggle to understand and help his parent, a truthful, realistic, unsentimental memory of his mother. As in all good poetry there is a lesson included for us all.

Ginsberg never is repelled by his mother’s illness, struggles to do as she wishes, helps her, attempts to understand her insanity as a spiritual condition rather than a medical one. Naomi Ginsberg was 62 years old when she died.

The poem is written in five parts: the Narrative, Hymmnn, Lament, Litany and Fugue.

In the Narrative, Ginsberg chronicles in 1959 how he began to write the poem. He and his friend Zev Putterman now living in Berkeley recall that at his mother Naomi’s funeral three years earlier, which Ginsberg did not attend, the Kaddish was not recited because not enough males were in attendance. Under the influence of hard drugs and the music of Ray Charles, Ginsberg and Putterman decide to read the Kaddish for his mother. New Jersey and Greystone Mental Hospital and Naomi’s inability to recognize him must have seemed episodes from another life for Ginsberg. He had just published “Howl,” receiving much attention for his work; he was living in Berkeley surrounded by other writers, and he had just fallen in love with poet Peter Orlovsky who would remain a lover and close friend for three decades although the relationship was not a monogamous one.

I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish
aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind
on the phonograph
the rhythm, the rhythm,–and your memory in my heart three
years after–
And read Adonais’ last triumphant stanzas aloud–wept,
realizing how we suffer–

His memories take him on a walk through the old New York neighborhood of Lower East Side Manhattan

where you walked 50 years ago, little girl–from Russia,
eating the first poisonous tomatoes of America–frightened
on the dock–then struggling in the crowds of Orchard Street
toward what? toward Newark–toward candy store, first
home-made sodas of the century, hand-churned ice cream
in backroom on musty brownfloor boards–
Toward education marriage nervous breakdown, operation,
teaching school, and learning to be mad, in a dream–
what is this life?

What came is gone forever every time–…

Death let you out,…

All the accumulations of life, that wear us out…

The second part of the Narrative reviews Naomi’s awful mental illness. She had had a “nervous breakdown” before Allen was born, been treated and improved, but in Allen’s childhood she descended into paranoia and schizophrenia, receiving treatment and hospitalization the rest of her life. Finally a lobotomy, now outlawed, was performed on Naomi:

…electrical shocks…
By long nites as a child in Paterson apartment, watching over your
nervousness–you were fat–your next move–
by that afternoon I stayed home from school to take care of you–
once and for all–when I vowed forever that once man disagreed
with my opinion of the cosmos, I was lost–

From the last line one also learns much about Allen.

The frightening details of paranoia jump from the page

spied a mystical assassin from Newark…
and you covered your nose with motheaten fur collar, gas mask
against poison sneaked into downtown atmosphere,
sprayed by Grandma–
And was the driver of the cheesebox Public Service bus
a member of the gang? You shuddered at his face, I could
hardly get you on–to New York, very Times Square, to grab
another Greyhound where we hung around 2 hours fighting
invisible bugs and jewish sickness–breeze poisoned
by Roosevelt…

The bus ride for a 12 year old and his mother is the search for a rest home which will shelter Naomi from her in-laws, especially her mother-in-law Buba, and her husband, Louis, and doctors who she believed had implanted

3 big sticks up my back…they poisoned me, they want
to see me dead–3 big sticks, 3 big sticks
“The Bitch! Old Grandma! Last week I saw her, dress in pants
like an old man, with a sack on her back, climbing up the brick side
of the apartment
On the fire escape, with poison germs, to throw on me–at night–
maybe Louis is helping her–he’s under her power

Allen returns home after leaving his mother at a rest home in Lakewood. His father is understandably upset with him for leaving Naomi.

Louis was worried. How could I be so–didn’t I think? I shouldn’t
have left her. Mad in Lakewood. Call the Doctor.

A passage about Ginsberg’s first homosexual love follows as he reminisces about

R–my high school mind hero, jewish boy who came a doctor later
I later laying down life for him, moved to Manhattan–
followed him to college–Prayed on ferry to help mankind
if admitted–vowed, the day I journeyed to Entrance Exam–
by being honest revolutionary labor lawyer–would train for that–
inspired by Sacco Vanzetti, Norman Thomas, Debs, Altgeld,
Sandburg, Poe–Little Blue Books. I wanted to be President,
or Senator.
ignorant woe–later dreams of kneeling by R’s shocked
knees declaring my love of 1941–What sweetness he’d have
shown me, tho, that I’d wished him & despaired–first love–
Later a mortal avalanche whole mountains of homosexuality.

Soon Naomi must be retrieved from the Lakewood rest home

she’d gone mad–Naomi hiding under the bed screaming
bugs of Mussolini–Help! Louis! Buba! Fascists! Death–
the landlady frightened

The wild Naomi, screaming for a blood transfusion, is not allowed on the bus back to New York, but eventually she is taken to the doctor who admits her to Greystone, a large mental hospital in New Jersey where she remains for three years.

Take me home–I went alone sometime looking
for the lost Naomi, taking Shock–and I’d say, “No, you’re crazy
Mama,–Trust the Drs.”–

Ginsberg recounts the life his older brother Eugene begins–his desire to be a lawyer sidelined as he becomes a teach at Montclair Teachers College

just found the Scream of Naomi on his failure doorstep…
No love since Naomi screamed–since 1923?–now
lost in Greystone ward–new shock for her–Electricity,
following the 40 Insulin.
And Metrazol had made her fat.

By Naomi’s next return home, Louis is in debt. Naomi wanders the house, not remembering her lost Mahogany dining room set sold to the junk man. She goes to the backroom to nap, Allen lays beside her

‘Don’t be afraid of me because I’m just coming back home
from the mental hospital–I’m your mother–’
Poor love, lost–a fear–I lay there–Said, ‘I love you Naomi’–
stiff, next to her arm. I would have cried, was this the comfortless
lone union?–
Nervous, and she got up soon.

But being at home is no salvation.

…Roosevelt should know her case, she told me–Afraid
to kill her, now, that the government knew their names–
traced back to Hitler–wanted to leave Louis’ house forever.
…Once locked herself in with razor or iodine–could hear
her cough in tears at sink–Lou broke through glass green
painted door, we pulled her out to the bedroom…
later she ran away to the Bronx to her sister Elanor. And there’s
another saga of late Naomi in New York.

Naomi is not without humor sometimes…

‘and when we die we become an onion, a cabbage, a carrot,
or a squash, a vegetable…
Yesterday I saw God…he has a cheap cabin in the country,
like Monroe, N.Y. the chicken farms in the wood. He was
a lonely old man with a white beard.
I cooked supper for him. I made him a nice supper–lentil
soup, vegetable, bread & butter,–miltz–he sat down
at the table and ate, he was sad.
‘I told him, Look at all those fightings and killing down there,
What’s the matter? Why don’t you put a stop to it?
‘I try, he said–that’s all he could do, he looked tired. He’s
a bachelor so long, and he likes lentil soup.’

Allen remembers experiencing a moment of his mother’s sexuality. The telling of the incident is not colored by anger or repulsion but by a wonder at the possibility of some spiritual knowledge to be gained from the act.

One time I thought she was trying to make me come lay her–
flirting to herself at sink…
later revolted a little, not much–seemed perhaps a good idea
to try–know the Monster of the Beginning Womb–Perhaps–
that way. Would she care? She needs a lover.

Naomi feels she must leave her own home to move in with her sister Elanor in the Bronx. The journey through madness continues at Elanor’s house and Naomi kicks her sister.

‘Elanor is the worst spy! She’s taking orders!’

Eventually Louis wants a divorce so he can remarry, Naomi “goes to the hospital forever” and suffers a stroke.

One hand stiff–heaviness of forties & menopause reduced
by one heart stroke, lame now–wrinkles—a scar on her head,
the lobotomy–ruin, the hand dipping downwards to death–

Allen’s last visit:

I came back she yelled more–they led her away–’You’re
not Allen–’ I watched her face–but she passed by me, not looking–
Opened the door to the ward,–she went thru without a glance
back, quiet suddenly–I stared out–she looked old–the verge
of the grave–’All the Horror!’

By the next year, Ginsberg is in Berkeley. Surrounded by Orlovsky and other friends he receives a telegram from Gene that Naomi is dead. He also receives a letter Naomi wrote:

‘The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window–
I have the key–Get married Allen don’t take drugs–the key
is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window.
your mother

Pressed between the layers of her insanity is the part of her which will always be a mother: “Get married Allen don’t take drugs.”

Part II, Hymmnn is a short piece reminiscent of the Beatitudes and similar to the Footnote to “Howl” in which the word “holy” is chanted, ending with “Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!”

Hymmnn ends

Blessed be He who builds Heaven in Darkness! Blessed Blessed Blessed
be He! Blessed be He! Blessed be Death on us All!

Howl” and “Kaddish” both after cataloging the sufferings and defeats human beings face–in “Howl” it’s the destruction of youthful seekers of vision, in “Kaddish” it’s the destruction of his mother by insanity–end with an optimistic view of the holiness and blessedness of mankind. Critics often ignore this aspect of Ginsberg’s writing, focusing and commenting on what appeared obscene or seditious in his work.

The Lament holds the motivation for Ginsberg’s desire to memorialize Naomi as he recounts what he longs now not to have forgotten

Only to have not forgotten the beginning in which she drank
cheap sodas in the morgues of Newark,
only to have seen her weeping on gray tables in long wards
of her universe
only to have known the weird ideas of Hitler at the door, the wires
in her head, the three big sticks…
only to have come to that dark night on iron bed by stroke
when the sun gone down on Long Island
and the vast Atlantic roars outside the great call of Being
to its own
to come back out of the Nightmare–divided creation–with her head
lain on a pillow of the hospital to die
–in one last glimpse–all Earth one everlasting Light in the familiar
blackout–no tears for this vision…

Then Naomi’s letter becomes clear

But that the key should be left behind–at the window–the key
in the sunlight–to the living–that can take that slice of light in hand–
and turn the door–and look back see Creation glistening
backwards to the same grave, size of universe, size of the tick
of the hospital’s clock on the archway over the white door–

The reminder of God’s good universe, the remembrance, the Creation, the death, the grave the size of the universe symbolized in the size of the tick of the hospital clock on the archway over the white door–a mother’s profound lesson left like a key for her son.

The Litany is a remembrance of his mother in carefully spaced lines, lengthening, shortening

O mother
what have I left out
O mother
what have I forgotten
O mother
with a long black shoe
with Communist Party and a broken stocking
with your sagging belly
will your fear of Hitler
with your mouth of bad short stories
with you fingers of rotten mandolins
with your arms of fat Paterson porches
with your belly of strikes and smokestacks
with your chin of Trotsky and the Spanish War
with your voice singing for the decaying overbroken workers
with your nose of bad lay with your nose of the smell of the pickles of Newark
with your eyes…

Finally the Fugue, a juxtaposition of Ginsberg’s thoughts at Naomi’s grave and the sound of the caw, caw, caw of the crows

caw caw all year my birth a dream caw caw New York the bus
the broken shoe the vast highschool caw caw all Visions of the Lord
Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw Lord Lord Lord caw caw caw Lord

Allen Ginsberg went on to live at times appearing insane, an insanity promoted in a haze of drugs. Too, Ginsberg had to be influenced by his mother’s insanity, coming to see it as travel into the spiritual, away from the insanity of the culture in which he found himself. By not really being insane, which must be agony for the victim, but by attempting to induce temporary insanity through heavy drug use, Ginsberg and the other Beats hoped to find spiritual purity.

But Ginsberg and the Beats deserve attention for more than just their use of drugs. For the most part they need to be seen as human beings in search of a pure existence above the “getting and spending” trivialities of life. They were the writers who expressed their yearnings, giving their readers some insight into the need to search for the path to enlightenment.

Diane McCormick