During the two decades I worked at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, Allen Ginsberg came to campus a number of times to give readings and participate in workshops and other events. On one occasion his friend Gary Snyder joined him and together, through their conversation, poetry, prayer, political critique, chanting, story telling, singing and music, they created a cloud of pensive energy that seemed to linger pleasantly for days and weeks after they had gone.
After one of the readings, I worked up the courage to ask Allen to sign a copy of the “Kaddish,” his sweeping elegy to his mother, Naomi, who had struggled with mental illness and had lived her last years in difficult circumstances and places. More than his remarkable and perhaps more famous poem “Howl,” this was a piece that overthrew me with its brave, sustained look into a darkness and pain that was deeply personal, sensual, ugly, real and, finally, sweetly human.
When I handed over my copy for his signature, he looked at the book, back and front, resting it a second in his palm as if to weigh it, and then opened to a place where the pages naturally seemed to separate. After glancing at the page, he looked up and held my gaze for a few seconds before taking a pen from my hand to sign and return the book in silence.
Allen Ginsberg told the story of being mugged in New York on the way to his publisher. He was carrying a brief case when he was pushed down into a stairwell, roughed up, robbed of watch and wallet, and left sprawled on his back, spectacles askew, brief case spread open and ransacked for valuables, hundreds of manuscript pages emptied over his body like giant bank notes, fluttering in an eddy of summer air.
A work-study student sat at a welcome table writing nametags for people attending a reception in honor of Allen Ginsberg. The student greeted each guest, asked their name and then wrote it on one of the readymade blank labels printed with “Hello, My Name is.” Guests would then stick the nametag on their jacket, dress or shirt.
During the reception I saw Allen Ginsberg with a plate of grapes, speaking with a group of students. He also had a nametag and it read, “Hello, My Name is Allen Ginzberg.” He wore it all night and the next day, too. An artist friend of mine, Michael Woodcock, somehow coaxed it from him and eventually made a painting of just the nametag.
Here are two excerpts from the poem “Kaddish”; the beginning lines and the last lines.
For Naomi Ginsberg, 1894 – 1956
Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny
pavement of Greenwich Village.
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking, talking,
reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on
the rhythm the rhythm—and your memory in my head three years after—And read
Adonais’ last triumphant stanzas aloud—wept, realizing how we suffer—
And how Death is that remedy all singers dream of, sing, remember, prophesy as in the
Hebrew Anthem, or the Buddhist Book of Answers—and in my own imagination of a
withered leaf—at dawn—
Dreaming back thru life, Your time—and mine accelerating toward Apocalypse,
the final moment—the flower burning in the Day—and what comes after,
looking back on the mind itself that saw an American city
a flash away, and the great dream of Me or China, or you and a phantom Russia, or a
crumpled bed that never existed—
like a poem in the dark—escaped back to Oblivion—
No more to say, and nothing to weep for but the Beings in the Dream, trapped in its
sighing, screaming with it buying and selling pieces of phantom, worshipping each other,
worshipping the God included in it all—longing or inevitability?–while it lasts, a Vision—
It leaps about me, as I go out and walk the street, look back over my shoulder, Seventh
Avenue, the battlements of window office buildings shouldering each other high,
under a cloud, tall as the sky an instant—and the sky above—an old blue place.
or down the avenue to the south, to—as I walk toward the Lower East Side—where you
walked 50 years ago, little girl—from Russia, eating the first poisonous tomatoes
of America—frightened on the dock—
then struggling in the crowds of Orchard Street toward what?—toward Newark—
toward candy store, first home-made sodas of the century, hand-churned ice cream in
backroom on musty brownfloor boards—
Toward education marriage nervous breakdown, operation, teaching school, and
learning to be mad, in a dream—what is this life?
Strange Prophecies anew! She wrote—‘The key is in the window, the key is in the
sunlight at the window—I have the key—Get married Allen don’t take drugs—the key is
in the bars, in the sunlight in the window.
which is Naomi—
About Lines of Thinking
Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.