Kaddish hardly needs an introduction to fans of American poetry. Like Howl before it, it stands as one of Allen Ginsberg's monumental achievements. This recording, done in 1964 at Brandeis University, was part of a program that also included poets Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso. For those who don't know, Kaddish is a Jewish hymn of praise to God, it is recited as the daily prayer service for mourners. Ginsberg's Kaddish is his own very personal mourning of his mother, who had died in 1956. Ginsberg claims he had begun writing Kaddish in Paris in 1958; the CD reissue, with excellent liner notes by Harvey Kubernick, claims Paris 1957. Either way, the poem's first full draft was written later in 1958 in New York, during a single 40-hour-plus session fueled by amphetamines, acid, and coffee, and hard-boiled eggs provided by Orlovsky, Ginsberg's long-term lover. It is also notable that Ginsberg had been deeply moved just before this point by Ray Charles' recordings of "Georgia on My Mind," and "I Got a Woman."
Kaddish was published in 1961 as part of City Lights' Pocket Poets series -- Volume 17 -- the house that had published Howl earlier. The great achievement in this work is Ginsberg's use of plain speech stretched to its breaking point by deep emotion and the rhythm(s) of its expression. Using rhythm, Ginsberg was able to address grief and sorrow by using his poetic line as a representation of moaning, crying, wailing, and sobbing. Yet using the words of biography, memory, and referential occurrences in everyday life, Ginsberg conceives a life that connects to the life of the deceased as a broken union, a broken series of encounters. Ginsberg's mother suffered from severe mental illness, as he himself had. The poem details her descent into madness, his life, and the life of an America that had existed during her lifetime and had begun disappearing in his own lifetime. Ginsberg's reading, which was not cleaned up from its original tape, contains errors, and pregnant pauses where he tries to find himself in the text after becoming overwhelmed emotionally. It rises and falls like a cantor in the synagogue, like a gospel preacher delivering a eulogy, like a man grieving his mother. The sheer emotion does not stand at odds with the poet's line and language, it is enhanced and deepened by it, extended by it, into song, the dark side of the songs of Whitman, but more importantly, those of Blake. The reissue of Kaddish on CD is a major moment in American letters.