Updated: Aug 20, 2021
Kaddish, a poem penned in chaos through the perspective of a grieving son, is Allen Ginsberg’s attempt to decipher religious and philosophical beliefs, through association, by deciphering coded fragments of irrational messages given to him in conversation and correspondence via his mentally ill mother, Naomi. Devout worshippers often view punishment or anguish in life events as warranted from their God(s) because their creator(s) saw fit to bestow the gift of life to them. In Kaddish, Ginsberg finds forgiveness and philosophical identification through recollections of the abuse inflicted upon him as child by his mother. Ginsberg searches through streams of consciousness and reflections on memories of this extreme relationship with his creator with hope that it will provide him a more decisive understanding to the universal uncertainty of purpose, life, grief, and death.
The traditional Aramaic Kaddish prayer is recited by mourners to justify the loss of life through the belief their God is infallible (Sharon Memorial Park). The prayer also reassures God that the mourner’s faith has not wavered because he saw fit to end the life of a loved one. Though Jewish, Ginsberg was raised agnostic, and as result Hebraic traditions were somewhat unfamiliar to the poet prior to the death of his mother, though Ginsberg did research Judaic traditions while he worked on Kaddish (How Kaddish Happened 134). Ginsberg’s early agnosticism did not prevent the author from examining a surfeit amount of religious philosophy and dogmatic texts as evidenced by the poems he created prior to Kaddish. In his 1954 masterpiece, Howl, Ginsberg makes mention (by way of his peers and likely himself) of artists and vagabonds “…who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kabbalah / because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas.”
In Howl, the poet references being possessed by the cult of “Moloch”, whose ancient legend of child sacrifice is mentioned in the Old Testament. One of the few scriptures that names the cult directly demands that parents do not succumb to the temptation of sacrificing their children in the name of Moloch (The Old Testament, Leviticus 18:21). Rather than a physical being or obscure religious sect, it is likely that Ginsberg was using Moloch in Howl as an analogy for child abuse, or trauma, and Ginsberg’s recollections in later life appear to support this theory. In a 1994 interview with BBC’s “Face to Face” he refers to the specific line in Howl, “Moloch / whose name is the Mind!” as the individual’s mind standing in the way of existential progression. The mind rather than the self, of course, is the product of many genetic variables and physical/emotional experiences—and of those experiences, certainly the abuse he sustained from his mother ranks high among the list of life-altering experiences. Collectively, these variables would give birth to Ginsberg’s voice, regardless of later personal evolution, the influence of his youth would carry him to notoriety. The author also cites an auditory prophetic hallucination of deceased poet William Blake that he received in 1948 as an existential awakening and spiritual jolt. The result of the visit and incident itself is recounted in a 1994 “Shambala Sun Magazine” article penned by Ginsberg titled, “The Vomit of a Mad Tyger”:
As I looked at the sky, I wondered what kind of intelligence had made that vastness, or
what was the nature of the intelligence that I was glimpsing, and felt a sense of vastness
and of coming home to space I hadn’t realized was there before but which seemed old
and infinite, like the Ancient of Days, so to speak. But I had no training in anything but
western notions and didn’t know how to find a vocabulary for the experience. So I
thought I had seen “God” or “Light” or some western notion of a theistic center, or that
was the impression at the time.
Ginsberg may have been spiritually stimulated by this visitation, but this did not limit his divine search to popular western beliefs such as Judaism or Christianity. In fact, the poet lashes out in defiance of common western religions in his 1956 poem America; “I won’t say the Lord’s Prayer. / I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.” This verse can be interpreted as a direct rebellion to popular religious practices in America, which placed a person whose faith may have differed from 1950’s societal norms at odds with the diminishing cultural gap that had once been referred to as a melting pot.
Layered within Kaddish and other work by Ginsberg are philosophical ideologies, which hold just as much worth to the author as scripture. Nihilism, for instance, makes an appearance in Kaddish as Ginsberg scrambles to untangle reality: “Myself, anyhow, maybe as old as the universe—and I guess that dies with us—enough to cancel all / that comes—What came is gone forever every time” (8). Kaddish also considers solipsism by suggesting that the universe and everything contained within it could be the sole product of a dreaming individual rather than a physical reality; a dream that will eventually end with the death of the dreamer, “No more to say, and nothing to weep for but the Beings in the Dream, trapped in its disappearance…” (7). Ginsberg’s 1955 poem, Laughing Gas, also touches on the subject of existence as a dream by announcing that, “The universe is a void / in which there is a dreamhole / The dream disappears / the hole closes” (66).
Just as the traditional Kaddish prayer suggests, Ginsberg recognizes the probability that death is permanent and cannot be undone, but unlike the original mourner’s prayer, he is not quick to forgive or praise God—he accepts what has happened, but also questions the impermanence of life and why we must grieve over existence itself. “…you’re done with your century, done with God, done with the path thru it— / Done with yourself at last…” states Ginberg in Kaddish (9), not in justification, but with the understanding that everything contained in the universe that had physically existed in his mother’s reality (mind) had finally ceased. His mother, who has suffered through decades of paranoid spells and schizophrenia, had finally found peace in death. Ginsberg is quoted in a 1995 interview with Jeremy Isaacs on the BBC program “Face to Face” as saying, “…I am a Buddhist, and Buddhists would say that there is no real permanent self.” The poet was answering a question about himself and how he had evolved over the years from shaggy young beat poet, to prim and proper intellectual.
Ginsberg may have later found, through Buddhism, an ideology that allowed the genius to step outside of his own identity, but it is evident in Kaddish that the poet was consumed with the fact that his mother had once been mentally sound even after becoming ill, had moments of clarity: “I didn’t foresee what you felt—what more hideous gape of / bad mouth came first—to you—and were you prepared?” (10) Perhaps the poet is questioning his own fate with mental illness in these lines. Would he become, just as Naomi had, paranoid and cyclically institutionalized?
In 1949 Ginsberg did spend seven months in a psychiatric ward, though the events of the time he spent there have remained mostly private. In a 2007 “Los Angeles Times” article, “Before ‘Howl,’ the hospital”, staff writer Scott Timberg suggests through an interview with UCLA professor of Jewish and Yiddish literature Janet Hadda (one of the few people to have access to the poet’s medical files) that, “Ginsberg was both troubled and excited by mental illness: He worried he’d end up like his mother, who’d been lobotomized, but was also energized by the madness of others.” The article also proposes that Ginsberg was able to confront his own fears of mental illness while interned, but as evident by Kaddish, written several years after his institutionalization, it is more likely that he remained uncomfortable with his future mental stability:
No flower like that flower, which knew itself in the garden, and / fought the knife—lost
All accumulations of life, that wear us out—clocks, bodies, consciousness, shoes, breasts
— begotten sons—your / Communism—Paranoia into hospitals (10, 11).
On July 10th 1955, nearly a month after her passing, Ginsberg received a posthumous letter from his mother—this message would lead him on a lifelong existential journey for reason and purpose (Morgan 166). In the final lines of Kaddish we find the poet attempting to decode the mystery of his existence and the illness that caused his mother to eventually become lobotomized:
Strange Prophecies anew! She 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. (31)
It could be argued that the poet understood that these words were irrational, but within this code were also hints of mental clarity and motherly advise. Naomi’s rational instructions on abstaining from intoxicants and finding permanent love may have been his mother’s final wishes for her youngest son, but it was the mysterious “key in the window” that likely caught the attention of the young poet. Just as those who are not fundamental in their religious beliefs allow themselves the privilege of cherry-picking God’s own words, so too does the poet reject the rational and embrace the bizarre, possibly because he was more familiar with nonsensical ramblings from his mother than tender and thoughtful recommendations.
Ginsberg would eventually find his semi-permanent spirituality in Buddhism in 1962 and would later add elements of Krishna to his belief system (“The Vomit of a Mad Tyger”, Ginsberg). The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism would aid the poet in his lifelong search to understand suffering, as the first Noble Truth (Dukkha) requires the follower to realize that to live is to suffer and to walk through the path of life is to progress through different forms of suffering, all of which cannot be avoided (Hanh 9). Eastern philosophies may have provided the author with an easier grip on suffering and abuse, but never provided him with a definitive answer to the question of purpose, life, grief, and death (Morgan 125).
In Kaddish, Ginsberg (age 29 at the time) does conclude that his mother is finally at peace because she is no longer in suffering, whether in rebirth or because of nonexistence, though it is hard to say if he ever became comfortable with the amount of agony that she endured, or that he endured. Just as all true zealots must have moments that test their faith, so too was the fate of Ginsberg, ever questioning the meaning of the key in the window, the isolation of his mother, the overwhelming significance of her mental illness on his family, the cosmic goal of the misery and seclusion that accompanied Naomi’s mental illness. For what purpose? For what existence? For what came after? What is the key?
Burnett, Hugh, et al. Face to Face - Interview with Allen Ginsberg. Face to Face with Allen
Ginsberg (Part 1), BBC TV, 1994, www.youtube.com/watch?v=NoevVtG-Gh8.
Ginsberg, About Allen, and Lion's Roar Staff. “The Vomit of a Mad Tyger -- Allen Ginsberg.”
Lion's Roar, 27 June 2018, www.lionsroar.com/the-vomit-of-a-mad-tyger/.
Ginsberg, Allen. “America by Allen Ginsberg.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 4
June 2020, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49305/america-56d22b41f119f.
Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl by Allen Ginsberg.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, n.d., www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49303/howl.
Ginsberg, Allen. Kaddish and Other Poems: 1958-1960. City Lights Books, 2010.
Hạnh Nhất. The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy
& Liberation: the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and Other Basic
Buddhist Teachings. Harmony Books, 2015.
“How Kaddish Happened.” Kaddish and Other Poems: 1958-1960, by Allen Ginsberg, City
Lights Books, 2010.
Morgan, Bill. “Some Words on Allen Ginsberg's Kaddish.” Kaddish and Other Poems: 1958
1960, by Allen Ginsberg, City Lights Books, 2010.
“The Mourner's Kaddish.” Sharon Memorial Park, n.d., www.sharonmemorial.com/customs
The Old Testament . Hodder & Stoughton, 1996.
Timberg, Scott. “Before ‘Howl,’ the Hospital.” Los Angeles Times, 7 Jan. 2007,