As National Poetry Month comes to a close we recall one of the most acclaimed Jewish, American poets, Allen Ginsberg (1927 – 1997). Ginsberg, a Jewish boy from Newark, was one of the most respected poets of the post WWII generation and is widely considered one of the fathers of the Beat Generation.
Ginsberg first became known in the 1950s with the publication of ‘Howl and Other Poems’. The poem’s raw–and often vulgar–language, which Ginsberg referred to as ‘Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath’, stunned traditional critics. It later became one of the most widely read book of poems of the century, and was translated into more than twenty-two languages.
Ginsberg was highly vocal in his opposition of traditional politics, a theme that runs through much of his works. Many of his poems also contain strong social criticism. He was closely associated with the counterculture and anti-war movements, advocating “flower power” and organizing the first counterculture festival, ‘Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In’.
One of Ginsberg’s masterpiece works was the ‘Kaddish’. Based on the traditional Hebrew prayer, it recounts–in long lined, harrowing form–the life story of his mother, Naomi, who struggled for most of her life with mental illness. The poem is divided into five parts: the Narrative, Hymmnn, Lament, Litany and Fugue. It’s raw, sometimes confronting, imagery gives a nuanced peek into his relationship with his mother and the strain her illness took on her family. But, it is not without it’s share of humor. In the first section he recalls Naomi telling over an unusual conversation about meeting God.
“and when we die we become an onion, a cabbage, a carrot,
or a squash, a vegetable…
Yesterday I saw God…he has a cheap cabin in the country,
like Monroe, N.Y. the chicken farms in the wood. He was
a lonely old man with a white beard.
I cooked supper for him. I made him a nice supper-lentil
soup, vegetable, bread & butter,-miltz-he sat down
at the table and ate, he was sad.
‘I told him, Look at all those fightings and killing down there,
What's the matter? Why don't you put a stop to it?
‘I try, he said-that's all he could do, he looked tired. He's
a bachelor so long, and he likes lentil soup.”
Below, you can listen to Allen Ginsberg read 'Kaddish'.