“Kaddish,” Allen Ginsberg’s 50-page poem published in 1961, holds a special place in my heart. I first heard about the poem when I was 12 or just barely 13, and it was described to me as being about Ginsberg’s mother going insane. Yes, this is the subject, but the poem is really about so much more than that; it is Ginsberg’s examination of his entire life, which morphs into a meditation on life in general. The poem is long, and in it the poet explores so many aspects of experience and existence. I relate to many of these discussions on a personal level–my love for Ginsberg and particularly this poem rests partially in our external similarities as queer Russian-Jewish misfits–but for now I will focus my comments on “Kaddish” on its contrastingly universal discussion of death.
I like to listen to recordings of Ginsberg reading “Kaddish.” My favorite version comes from fabulously-titled album Holy Soul Jelly Roll, and in this version there is something about the way Ginsberg reads the line, an inconsequential line, really, “And when we die we become an onion…” In his thick New York accent, he puts emphasis on the word “die,” in such a way that makes me feel not sad, but also not happy, and not even really alive, but rather, clear. It’s as though I am suddenly at peace with the ways of nature, by which I am hearing a man who is now dead recall things his mother, dead even then, said when she was alive. And, for me at least, that is what the poem is really about: It is an attempt to accept your own mortality by examining someone else’s death and understanding that they were once alive as you are now. Ginsberg addresses this from the opening line, in which he remarks that it is “strange now to think of [his mother]…gone without [mundanities like] corsets & [fundamentals like] eyes, while” he is still alive walking “on the sunny pavement of Greenwich village.” As the poem goes on Ginsberg comes to more fundamental realizations. He recognizes that cause of death does not change its inevitability, writing that his mother died of stroke and her sister of some more mysterious illness “But Death’s killed…both—No matter.” He recounts the progression of his mother and aunt from teenagers “in…virginal solitude of 1920” to “girls grown old, or dead, now, and that long hair in the grave,” and from here he acknowledges that his own brother will eventually “[go] thru his cancer—or kill—later perhaps.”
On the title page of the collection in which “Kaddish” appears there is a quote from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s elegy for John Keats, “–Die, If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!” Was Keats ready to die when his time came? Had Shelley accepted that he would die when he eulogized his friend? Was Ginsberg ready to follow these two, “to go where? In that Dark—that—in that God?”
(Painting: Baldung, Hans. Death And Wife. 1518-1520. Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel, Switzerland; all quotations from Ginsberg, Allen. Kaddish and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Books , 1961)