AP Poetry Analysis of Allen Ginsberg’s Poem “Kaddish”
Read the following poem carefully. Then, write a well-organized essay in which you analyze the techniques the poet uses to convey his attitude toward the places he describes.
In Judaism, a Kaddish is a type of prayer said in order to sanctify God and memorialize a dead loved one. Ginsburg utilizes this Jewish tradition to commemorate his late mother through the indirect narration of her life and the attitude he portrays towards his identity in correlation to the setting of the piece and his mother’s death. In Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Kaddish”, he uses anecdotes of his mother, caesura through the use of dashes, and various metaphors to convey his sentimental attitude towards the relationship he has with his mother and Manhattan – as well as the identity he has shaped due to these factors.
“Kaddish” is anecdotal, dedicated to eulogizing his mother and her mental illness, through Ginsberg’s escape into Manhattan. The most direct reflection of his attitudes to his location are his tales of walking around the borough, reflecting on his mother. Ginsberg most neatly summarizes her life in a brief understatement, “Toward education marriage nervous breakdown, operation, teaching school, and learning to be mad, in a dream—what is this life?” This feeling towards his mother is colouring his attitude of the city he now finds himself in; furthermore, this contributes to the identity Ginsburg creates based off his memories of his mother. The city to him is freedom, contrasting the constraints of his mother’s illness; “Sunny pavement” (line 1) juxtaposed against “a crumpled bed that never existed—” (line 13-14) He describes walking around New York streets, almost as if they are a heaven on earth, a heaven his mother never achieved, “under a cloud, tall as the sky an instant—and the sky above—an old blue place.” (line 19-20) His feelings for his environment are glorious when he thinks in terms of future and present, yet in the past he mourns how his mother isn’t there to see it. Through anecdote, Ginsberg presents his city as his place of memorializing and moving forward. It’s the poem’s constant, where the other devices twist in and out: working to cut ideas and create the sense of beat poetry Ginsberg helped birth.
When beat poetry rose to prominence during the 1950s , it was well known to go against the conventional formats of poetry. Beat poets created a rhythm which took on an informal tone in order to create their own genre, effectively impacting readers in any way they chose. Allen Ginsberg displays such behaviour in his poem “Kaddish” through the use of caesura. At the beginning of the poem, Ginsberg introduces his own rhythm after he writes, “listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph the rhythm the rhythm—” (line 4-5) where the first use of a dash is executed after the word ‘rhythm’. Caesura is often used by poets to create a unique meter in their work, and like a true beat poet, Ginsberg choses caesura through dashes to help create the rhythm he desires. As the poem progresses, the author continues to use dashes in a successful attempt to systematically force a dramatic read of his piece. Ginsberg places dashes after sentences which pose either simple imagery or one which evokes an emotion within readers. For example, “the great Key lays its head of light on top of Manhattan, and over the floor, and lays down on the sidewalk—” (line 31-32), “wept, realizing how we suffer—” (line 6), and “What came is gone forever every time—” (line 40). By doing so, the pause forces readers to consider the image presented. When read aloud, the moment of silence between sentences allows readers to take in more of the images and emotions described. By considering the words Ginsberg writes, readers are forced to delve further into the emotions the author is feeling as he walks the streets of Manhattan. The grief which permeates Ginsberg’s poem “Kaddish” is externalized in his use of dashes, and readers are left feeling the weight of his mother’s death on their hearts.
As a Beat poet, Ginsberg uses a vast variety of figurative language such as absolute, conceptual, and personified metaphors to describe his surroundings in regards to his mother’s death, ultimately revealing his attitude towards Manhattan’s ambivalent nature. The theme of death is presented in the beginning of the poem through the use of the absolute metaphor: “my own imagination of a withered leaf” (line 8), representing Ginsberg’s perception of death as he compares it to a withered leaf. However, since he has used an absolute metaphor(one where there is no connection between the subject and metaphor), Ginsberg models the lost connection between his mother and himself due to her death; therefore, he attempts to manifest this connection in his direct environment by mentioning the “withered leaf.” . In shift 3, the poet describes his atmosphere by means of detailing the characteristics of the city’s buildings, “The battlements of window office buildings shouldering each other high, under a cloud, tall as the sky an instant- and the sky above- a big blue place.” (line 20-22). By comparing the concept of heaven to the architecture of Manhattan, Ginsberg establishes a blissful scene, introducing a hopeful and wistful attitude- paralleling the heavy topic of his mother’s passing. Comparatively, Ginsberg’s word choice of “battlements” suggests barriers to heaven, hence relating to the hardships endured by Ginsberg’s mother during her life in Manhattan. The poet’s attitude shifts into internal reflection as he utilizes the destructive personification of death to provide an attitude of conclusion, “Though while it comes it is a lion that eats the soul—and the lamb, the soul, in us, alas, offering itself in sacrifice to change’s fierce hunger—hair and teeth—and the roar of bonepain, skull bare, break rib, rot-skin, braintricked Implacability.” (line 43-45). In this stanza death is represented as the lion that physically and spiritually impairs humanity- for it has the power to alter one’s entire being. The descriptive nature of this metaphor invokes pathos in the reader and symbolizes the pain Ginsberg feels due to the loss of his dear mother; thus, reinforcing grief and finality in the death of his mother, as well as the comforting, yet emotive aura of Manhattan.
Through the poetic devices of anecdotes, caesuras and visual metaphors, Ginsberg effectively establishes a sentimental atmosphere, in which memories take possession over the mind during a process of healing. His reflection of the life his mother lived and the one he began to share with her is prominent within the imagery of Manhattan, the interruptions in the flow of his words, and his metaphors of death and mortality. The three pair together to detail Ginsberg’s connection with his environment, specifically that of Manhattan, and the feelings which arise in correlation. In his complicated relationship with his family, and their ties to his environment, he creates the base of all of his work to come.
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Gif: author unknown. “New York City.” Rebloggy!, rebloggy.com/post/my-gif-gif-vintage-nyc-new-york-new-york-city-times-square-new-york-gif-the-twil/99644779223.