Kaddish, Allen Ginsberg’s most stunning and emotional poem, tells a story that is entirely true. As a young boy growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, Allen watched his mother succumb to a series of psychotic episodes that grew progressively worse despite desperate attempts at treatment. Before the episodes began Naomi Ginsberg had been a pretty and vivacious schoolteacher, perhaps eccentric in her fanatical devotion to the Communist party (not an uncommon thing among Jews of her generation), but well-loved by family, friends and neighbors. The first episodes occurred before Allen was born, and then again when he was a few years old. Naomi, complaining of a painful sensitivity to light, would sit in darkened rooms for hours. A visit to an expensive sanitarium, Bloomingdale, seemed to help, and Naomi was better for a while.
As Allen entered his early teenage years, Naomi got worse again. She had never gotten along with her mother-in-law, and began to suspect Buba of plotting against her in bizarre ways. Light hurt her eyes again, her behavior became harder and harder to explain, and she was sent to Greystone, a large mental hospital in New Jersey, where she was treated with medication, insulin shock and, later, electroshock. The treatments did not help. Naomi would remain deeply unstable and unhappy during Allen’s teenage years, returning to Greystone often, sometimes staying for years at a time. The three men of the Ginsberg house, Allen, his older brother Eugene and his father Louis, managed to keep the family together through the difficult times, and the closeness the three shared must have made the ordeal easier. Allen had a special feeling for his mother, though. He understood her insanity as a spiritual condition rather than a mental one, and always sought to find meaning or truth in her disconnected, paranoid ravings.
She returned home several times, now fat from medication and increasingly erratic in behavior. She wandered the house naked and swore that the doctors, conspiring with her in-laws, had planted electrodes in her back so as to control her. She seemed to trust Allen more than others, and one day took him on a horrific bus journey all over New Jersey in search of a rest home where she would be safe from the plottings of her husband’s family. This episode ended with her commitment, again, to a mental institution. She and Louis divorced, she moved in with her sister, and ended up living in the Pilgrim State hospital in Long Island, where doctors finally recommended a lobotomy. In 1948, after some hesitation, Allen and his brother agreed to allow this to proceed. (Lobotomy, involving the surgical severing of connections within the brain, leaves a person permanently numb to emotional experience. It is now outlawed. Tennessee Williams’ sister, the subject of The Glass Menagerie, was another literary family member who was eventually subjected to this treatment. Ken Kesey‘s excellent novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ends with the free-spirited hero succumbing to a punitive lobotomy.)
Naomi Ginsberg died on June 9, 1956. Allen was living in Berkeley and enjoying the exciting first phase of his literary celebrity, having introduced Howl to the world a year earlier. He’d just fallen in love with Peter Orlovsky and must have felt a million miles away from the hopeless, lonely rooms of the mental hospitals where his mother had lived out her last years.
He missed the funeral, and later learned that the Kaddish, or Jewish prayer for the dead, had not been read because too few men had been present (according to traditional Jewish law, at least ten men, a minyan, must be present for certain services to be performed). Two years later, in November 1958, Ginsberg was visiting his friend Zev Putterman. After an evening of Ray Charles records and hard drugs Ginsberg told his friend about his mother’s death, and about how the Kaddish had not been read. Putterman had a copy of the prayer in his apartment, and the two of them performed the ceremony themselves, two years too late. Ginsberg went back to his apartment, sat at his desk and began writing.
I’m no poetry expert (I feel much more comfortable discussing Kerouac’s novels than Ginsberg’s poems), but this raw, honest work seems to transcend the limitations of the poetic universe. It simply tells the truth. It begins with a walk in Naomi and Louis Ginsberg’s old neighborhood, the echoing streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
It leaps about me, as I go out and walk the street, look back over my shoulder, Seventh Avenue, the battlements of window office buildings shouldering each other high, under a cloud, tall as the sky in an instant — and the sky above — an old blue place.
or down the Avenue to the south, to — as I walk toward the Lower East Side — 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?
This is a prelude to the long second section, which tells the whole story in terrible but loving detail. Ginsberg dwells on the particulars, jumping from image to image, providing no chronology or order. Here he begins talking of his brother Eugene, then about his father Louis:
so broke his life in two and paid for Law — read huge blue books and rode the ancient elevator 13 miles away in Newark & studied up hard for the future
just found the Scream of Naomi on his failure doorstep, for the final time, Naomi gone, us lonely — home — him sitting there —
Then have some chicken soup, Eugene. The Man of Evangel wails in front of City Hall. And this year Lou has poetic loves of suburb middle age — in secret — music from his 1937 book — Sincere — he
longs for beauty —
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.
The tone is mostly one of forgiveness, of coming to peace with improperly buried memories. We hear of the hopeless bus quests, the horrifying tantrums and crying jags in bathrooms and hospitals. We see Allen as a simple child, frightened and unable to help. His mother begs him to take her home and he says “No, you’re crazy Mama — Trust the Drs.”
Perhaps the most shocking parts of the poem detail young Allen’s perceptions of his mother as a sexual predator. Consider, while reading these lines, that during Ginsberg’s ‘heterosexual’ phase as a young man he was psychoanalyzed and came to believe that his homosexuality was an aberration caused by his experiences with his mother (this phase ended quickly, and Ginsberg accepted and became very comfortable with his gay identity).
One time I thought she was trying to make me come lay her — flirting to herself at sink — lay back on huge bed that filled most of the room, dress up round her hips, big slash of hair, scars of operations, pancreas, belly wounds, abortions, appendix, stitching of incisions pulling down in the fat like hideous thick zippers — ragged long lips between her legs — What, even, smell of asshole? I was cold — later revolted a little, not much — seemed perhaps a good idea to try — know the Monster of the Beginning Womb — Perhaps — that w
ay. Would she care? She needs a lover.
After telling the story, the poem begins to turn into an incantation, a form that had provided the framework for Howl and also fit into the concept of this poem as a Jewish prayer. In the third section he yearns to remember everything, to capture the memory completely:
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
The fourth section begins the same way (‘O Mother what have I left out’) and conjures her image, once again jumping freely from thought to thought. What is the connection between starving India and the painting class in the Bronx? The connection is simply Naomi, that this was her life:
with your eyes of Russia
with your eyes of no money
with your eyes of false China
with your eyes of Aunt Elanor
with your eyes of starving India
with your eyes pissing in the park
with your eyes of America taking a fall
with your eyes of your failure at the piano
with your eyes of your relatives in California
with your eyes of Ma Rainey dying in an ambulance
with your eyes of Czechoslovakia attacked by robots
with your eyes going to painting class at night in the Bronx
The fifth, final section imagines the gravesite, the cawing crows and the muttered prayers to God. These are the last words:
Lord Lord an echo in the sky the wind through ragged leaves the roar of memory
caw caw all years 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
More About Kaddish
Ginsberg reads from this poem to an unsuspecting group of elderly mah-jongg players (who seem to like it!) in Bob Dylan’s film Renaldo And Clara. A spoken-word performance of the entire poem is also included on Ginsberg’s new CD boxed set, Holy Soul Jelly Roll.
Two later Ginsberg’s poems about his mother appear in his 1986 collection White Shroud. The title poem presents a dream vision of his mother in which Allen finds the kind of peace that had not been possible in reality. This could not have been the last word, though: later in the book a poem called Black Shroud tells the painful truth, and we hear for the first time about the lobotomy that finally calmed his mother after all else had failed.
She had come into the bathroom her face hidden
in her breast, hair overhanging her figure bent in front
of me, stiff in hypertension, rigor mortis
convulsed her living body while she screamed
at the doctor and apartment house we inhabited.
Some electric current flowing up her spine tortured her,
foot to scalp unbearable, some professional advice
required quick action, I took her wrists, and held her
bound to the sink, beheading her silently with swift
dispatch, one gesture, a stroke of the knife-like ax
that cut thru her neck like soft thick gum, dead quick
Insanity And Art
Naomi’s insanity seemed to have somehow set Allen Ginsberg free as a child. The shy, bookish, emotionally intense boy from Paterson needed a lot of courage and conviction to follow the mad path he chose for himself, and his familiarity with true madness seems to have benefited him here. He knew the limits, and he could speak the language. Of course, there is no comparison between Naomi’s incurable schizophrenia and Allen’s ‘madness,’ which was at most a metaphor for true insanity. Still, there had been a moment of recognition when Allen looked at Naomi and saw himself, and this fact energized his poetic career. He had a ‘psychotic episode’ of his own as a young man, involving a vision of Blake, a famously mad visionary poet himself. Accounts of this episode (which frightened Allen’s father) seem to make it clear that Allen was looking for the truths his mother had gotten lost within.
All the Beats were aware of the metaphor of insanity; they tempted it through drugs, through poverty and suffering, and finally through writing. Despite the fact that real insanity is invariably tragic and debilitating, the notion of the disaffected mind has a romantic sense. There is an honesty and Zen simplicity to the demented mind; we see this charming simplicity in Kaddish when Naomi tells of serving God a bowl of lentil soup. If you believe the normal world is corrupt, insanity is a path to purity.
It is difficult to imagine anyone actually wishing to be insane (unless this person has never met anyone truly insane). But the Beats yearned to uncover the truths that sanity masks. Ginsberg writes of the monster of the beginning womb, Burroughs of the naked lunch at the end of our fork, Kerouac of the wheel of the quivering meat conception. Birth and death, all the strange stuff in between … we are all vulnerable together, the sane and the mad, and in the end we will all experience madness in at least some secret or small way. This poem begins as a prayer for Ginsberg’s mother, but it is a prayer for all of us — all of us together.