Allen Ginsberg’s "Kaddish"

Resource Kit by
Joshua Logan Wall

Module Content

Introduction

Introduction

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was among the best-known and most widely-acclaimed American poets of the twentieth century. His charismatic performances, distinctive appearance, and rule-breaking poems like Howl (1956) and Kaddish (1961) made him a true literary celebrity in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Born in New Jersey, Ginsberg is closely associated with San Francisco, its City Lights Bookstore, and the Beat movement that emerged there in the 1950s. His father, Louis Ginsberg, was also a poet; his mother, Naomi (the subject of Kaddish) was an outspoken Communist who suffered for decades from an undiagnosed mental illness.
 
Kaddish, which Ginsberg wrote between 1957 and 1959 and published in 1961, is, at its core, a poem about a son learning to grieve for his mother. But Ginsberg’s emotional and intellectual rawness make this poem an investigation about what it means to grieve, or even to be a son or mother. A deeply intimate portrait of his family’s life, Kaddish nonetheless embeds itself in specific historical contexts: of Jewish life in the United States and after the Holocaust, of left-wing political activism before and during the Cold War, of a fiercely independent woman who died as second-wave feminism was only just beginning to be formulated.
 
The resources in this kit offer students a variety of ways to approach Ginsberg’s poem: in the contexts of Jewish history and religion, literary history, genre, family dynamics, performance, and popular culture.
 
Cover image: Photograph, Allen and Naomi Ginsberg, circa 1935. Courtesy Allen Ginsberg Collection / Stanford University Libraries.