On June 9, 1956, not long before the publication of Howl and Other Poems, Allen Ginsberg's mother, Naomi (shown at left during her courtship with Ginsberg's father, Louis), passed away. Her life had not been easy, marked by both mental illness (including numerous long stays in institutions and jarring therapies including electro-shock and insulin), further complicated in later years by a stroke. Moreover, as a Russian immigrant to this country, and one-time fervent participant in Communist youth groups, her paranoia was stoked by the McCarthy-era witch hunts.
Ginsberg was particularly close to his mother, having been there during her first major mental breakdown (as a teenager, he oversaw her commitment) and continuing to look after her while her then-ex-husband and older son Eugene could (or would) not. Particularly due to his time in an institution and the social pressures he felt during his twenties and thirties (including his disagreement with societal norms of the 1950s), he feared that her mental illness had been passed down to him. While he felt a sense of relief that her suffering was over, her death also felt unresolved to him, particularly since at her burial there were not enough men present for a proper minyan (Kerouac and Ginsberg's lover, Peter Orlovsky, weren't Jewish and therefore not counted towards the ten men needed), therefore they could not pray the Kaddish, the traditional funeral prayer.
The day after the funeral, Ginsberg received a letter from his mother in the mail, sent right before her death, which responded to the copy of "Howl" he had recently sent her. It mixed prophetic statements with motherly advice, saying, "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." His brother, Eugene, received a similar note, saying, "God's informers come to my bed, and God himself I saw in the sky. The sunshine showed too, a key on the side of the window for me to get out. The yellow of the sunshine, also showed the key on the side of the window." Taking these statements as a starting point, along with the unsaid funeral prayer, Ginsberg sought to write an epic religious poem that would both properly mourn his mother, and also tell the complete and unvarnished story of her life, and "Kaddish," two years in the making, is the realization of those goals.
In addition to "Kaddish," we'll look at several other poems from around the same time with an elegiac sense of humanity's struggles with life and death as detailed below:
- To Aunt Rose (192): MP3
- Kaddish (217-235, don't stop reading at the "Hymmnn" section, it keeps going)
1. Introduction to Kaddish (2:40): MP3
2. "Kaddish I" (10:11): MP3
3. "Kaddish II" (36:43): MP3
4. "Kaddish - Hymmnn" (1:37): MP3
5. "Kaddish - III" (1:46): MP3
6. "Kaddish - IV" (2:17): MP3
7. "Kaddish - V" (1:57): MP3
- The End (267): MP3
- This Form of Life Needs Sex (292)
- The Change: Tokyo-Kyoto Express (332)
- Nov. 23, 1963: Alone (341)
And here are a few supplementary links:
- Levi Asher writes on "Kaddish" on his site, LitKicks, a very early Beat resource online (this article was written in 1994, for example) [links]
- A review of the reissued Kaddish and Other Poems in Zeek [link]
- An illustrated version of "This Form of Life Needs Sex," by Eric Drooker (who collaborated with Ginsberg on Illuminated Poems and did the animation for Howl), Salon, 1997 [link]