Throwback Thursday: Kaddish and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg

kaddishIn Boulder, Colorado sits a small liberal arts college called Naropa University. Founded in 1974, it was the first Buddhist-inspired institution to receive United States regional accreditation. That same year, Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.  Fast Forward to 1981, where Allen Ginsberg is teaching a class at Naropa called “Expansive Poetics”: a class meant to discuss rhythm and the expansive breath through the example of the Imagists, Russian Futurists, and the Acemists, among many other talks and discussions.

Luckily, for those of us who were not in attendance of this course, many of the lectures were recorded.  In one of these lectures, Ginsberg discusses his process while working on his second book, Kaddish and Other Poems: 1958-1960, published by City Lights Books in 1961 as number fourteen in the Pocket Poets Series–including some insight into the state of his person at the time of its conception. The poem “Kaddish” was written about the death of Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi Ginsberg. Though lesser known to regular folks than “Howl”, his most famous work, “Kaddish” is considered one of Ginsberg’s major works, some calling it his greatest work.

In an excerpt from the recording of the discussion of “Kaddish”, recently posted by our friends at The Allen Ginsberg Project, Ginsberg states,


AG: “Kaddish”, (which is a long poem, celebrated, and it’s supposed to be sort of a kind of terrible masterpiece), is really just writing what I hadn’t been taking into account. Just a release of particulars that may have occurred to me at one time or another but I never particularly strung together and made any kind of coherent exhibition of (to myself, or others).


What is very interesting about the lectures from Expansive Poetics is how Ginsberg explicitly discusses specific word choices and stanzas–and in some ways it feels as though Ginsberg himself has only just arrived at some of these realizations. Some of the lines in “Kaddish” end up referencing the entirely unexpected. He continues,


(But) The other line I thought was great was “with your eyes of Czechoslovakia attacked by robots”..”(With) your eyes of false China”… Actually what I was thinking when I said “Czechoslovakia attacked by robots” (I wasn’t thinking of Hitler and I wasn’t thinking of the Communists), I was thinking of Karel Čapek’s  play “R.U.R”, which is a description of the revolt of the machine – Robots – It was a book that my brother was reading when he was in college when my mother was crazy, in 1938. I just associated that with my mother coming home from the hospital. So, “with your eyes of Czechoslovakia attacked by robots” – I meant “R.U.R” (Rossum’s Universal Robots) – I had no idea that it was political in that way. But it was such a strong line, I can’t read it in Russia – or Czechoslavakia [editorial note – this is 1981] – It was forbidden in Czechoslovakia to translate that line.


Allen and Naomi Ginsberg, c. 1935

Originally published by City Lights in 1961, Kaddish and Other Poems was recently reissued in 2010 for its 50th Anniversary, including an extremely thoughtful afterword (which includes an extensive portrait of Naomi Ginsberg) by Bill Morgan, who served as Ginsberg’s personal archivist from the early 80’s until his death and continues to be one of the leading Beat historians. He continues to publish books on the Beats.

In a jolting excerpt from the afterword which illuminates the work greatly, Morgan writes,


“Tenderness and a tomb, the world is a tomb of tenderness. Life is a short flicker of love. Went out into the grass, knelt down and cried a little- to heaven for her. Other-wise nothing,” the stunned poet wrote in his journal at the time. “My childhood is gone with my mother.” Louis Ginsberg, Allen’s father, told him it wasn’t necessary for Allen to return for the burial. It wouldn’t have been possible anyway, she was being buried the following afternoon and Allen was 3,000 miles away. Only a handful of people were at the cemetery for the interment, and there weren’t enough men to have minyan (a quorum of ten male Jewish adults required for public prayer). As a result, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, the Mourners’ Kaddish, could not be recited.”


You can find Kaddish and Other Poems, among other works by or related to Ginsberg on our shelves and on our website. Do visit the Allen Ginsberg Project, which boasts a plethora of photographs, archives, and biographical information, including a fantastic blog. It’s updated daily by Peter Hale.

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