Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) changed the face of American poetry.

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"Kaddish," (1961) one of Ginsberg's most beloved poems, was a tribute to his mother, a sort of English translation and interpolation of the ancient Jewish prayer for the dead, as filtered through things like Ray Charles blues, the Yiddish theater, and Emily Dickinson's horses. Ginsberg's mother, who had wrestled with mental illness all her life, and had brought her son to her therapy appointments when he was a child, died in 1956. Without the ten Jewish men necessary for a minyan, no Kaddish was recited for her at the funeral. "Kaddish" the poem is a replacement for that missed opportunity, and a tribute to his mother's misbegotten life.

The lines of "Kaddish" overflow their bounds, coming near to short story as the language echoes Whitman and the skittering rhythm of Dickinson. Ginsberg compares his mother Naomi to the Biblical figure of the same name, and her death leaves "Svul Avrum--Israel Abraham--myself--to sing in the wilderness/toward God--O Elohim!" Unstintingly depicting his mother's years of torment, he also sings of a peace distinctly not of this world: "There, rest. No more suffering for you. I know where you've gone, it's good."

Ginsberg was a man of contradictions--a devotee of Eastern mysticism who wrote insightfully about Jewish history, a populist poet who fell in line with the tradition of William Blake and William Carlos Williams. East and West, high and low, Ginsberg defined the unity of opposites that represented the best of modern American poetry. His Judaism was a fixed star in the rotating spheres, surrounded by Buddha, Mohammed, jazz musicians, and the "angel-headed hipsters," of "Howl."

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.