Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” is a take-off on the Jewish prayer for the dead, not as it is printed in the prayer book but as it might occur in the mind of a contemporary mourner. As psychological fact, the yisgadal (exaltation of the Holy Name), which is the substance of the prayer, would become in a man of our time a resonance of large incoherent references. Within this metaphysical blur appears a series of scenes flashing from the memory. This is the form of Ginsberg’s “Kaddish”: it invokes “Death,” “Apocalypse,” “the Buddhist Book of Answers,” “Beings in a Dream,” and inside of these sets episodes from the life of his mother.
The poet’s recollections of Naomi Ginsberg are terrible. Neither science nor kindness could save her; to think of her is to face an existence that drowns slowly in drabness and pain. Naomi came from Russia to the Lower East Side as a little girl, grew up in the family candy store in Newark, became a left-winger, married, suffered a nervous breakdown, then went mad, deteriorated dreadfully both physically and morally, and died at close to sixty in a lunatic asylum on Long Island. It was the anguish and degradation of her later life that the poet grew up in from boyhood on, and which he recalls most vividly. What thought shall justify such a history? On his last visit to his mother, she no longer recognized him, but a few days after her death he received a letter she had written him: “The key is in the window,” the madwoman wrote, “the key is in the sunlight at the window . . . the key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window.” In the repeated phrases, with their intimation of light and joy within the prison of the hallucinated mind, Ginsberg has read a sibylline message.
Symbolic fumbling as a substitute for religion, or as its content, is not unusual in modern literature. The “key” of hallucination, however, is more evident in Ginsberg’s other poems than it is in “Kaddish,” the triumph of which is in the awful data it puts down without transcendence, neither that of metaphor nor of concept. Naomi Ginsberg stands before us as she was and as her son was forced to endure her, an enigma of misery which cannot be escaped. Of any life it is necessary to be able to say something. Mrs. Ginsberg’s not only defies philosophy, it was passed in an environment not yet assimilated into literature; so that our language, our grammar even, cannot take hold of it but acts rather to exclude it from our consciousness or to transform it automatically into something more acceptable. To evoke his mother, Ginsberg had to break the language barrier, to force his way through the inherent respectabilities of style to the deplorable, alien, senseless, often nauseating fact. To do this took moral courage, as well as a certain degree of frenzy; it also took a good deal of literary skill and cunning. To speak of Naomi truly, i.e., passionately, it was necessary to renew the written language with that which flows through the brain from the street in the unfiltered immediacy of feeling; and the way to restrain this flow from spilling into chaos was to make use of the devices and mannerisms of the 20th-century literary revolt against formality, such as dropping punctuation, introducing numerals and typewriter symbols, allowing lines to run over, turning lists into litanies. In sum, to reproduce the unique texture of lower-middle-class Jewish life in New Jersey required the collaboration of the Paris Left Bank, on the one hand, and of Walt Whitman, W. C. Williams, and other celebrators of the American noun, on the other. This feat of aesthetic diplomacy Ginsberg accomplished in “Kaddish” with a minimum of self-consciousness, and one can almost laud him for having found a way to rant again in poetry—
Back! You! Naomi! Skull on you! Gaunt immortality and revolution come—small broken woman—the ashen indoor eyes of hospitals, ward greyness on skin—
as if the Elizabethans too had been brought to the party and not in the costumes laid out for them in current English Lit.
In its envelopment of the undiminished fact, Ginsberg’s elegy is undoubtedly his most serious creation to date. The other poems in Kaddish are a comedown, though “At Appolinaire’s Grave” is by ordinary standards, or what should be ordinary, an excellent poetic meditation, a piece of which I thought more highly than of “Kaddish” at a time when I had read only fragments of the latter. When he writes without a passionate theme, Ginsberg tries to play the word wizard, either with or without the “key” of narcotics, but his prosy rhetoric is too relaxed to initiate miracles, and he is too conscious of his public even in solitude to give himself to the ripening of visionary images. For a philosophy Ginsberg has only the semi-jocular arrogance of the poet as world-creator—
I rarely have an egg for breakfast tho my work requires infinite eggs to come to birth in Eternity—
and his religious moods are spangled with snippets of Zen, Christian brotherly love (freshened up with Eros), and post-Rimbaud “mysteries” of criminal saintliness and saintliness of crime. The emotional shocks he received in childhood, plus fear of life-sapping routines pursued from an empty sense of duty, seem to have robbed him of the feeling of being related to an existing world; his imagination either remains fastened to childhood or leaps over the present into self-induced trances conceived as a “widening of consciousness.” Though full of impulses toward overthrow, he lacks the sentiment for action, either his own or other people’s (there is vilification in his poems but no conflict and no enemy), and his political outlook is a composite of ready-made-radicalisms-good-for-a-cheer and inversions of platitudes of the mass media, done much more wittily by Cummings thirty years ago.
For all his lacks, however, Ginsberg shares the power of those writers whose imagination does not stop at the edge of the page. Having returned to that poetic tradition which seeks forms in the structure of happenings rather than in the rearrangement of inherited patterns, Ginsberg almost single-handedly rescued poetry for his generation from the dungeons of the university monks engaged in grinding it to dust. With him American poetry once more copes with Newark or frees us from it.
Jerome Rothenberg also shies away from the meter and emblem manipulations of the academies toward the Continental word magicians. Translator of French, Spanish, German, and Latin American surrealists, as well as of primitive and devotional poems from several languages (does he really know Arabic?), Rothenberg in his own verse owes the largest debt to the surrealist image and mood, with perhaps special obligation—women, horses, roses—to Lorca.
The women rock in dark chairs.
In the windy living room, naked, their
clothes thrown over the floor
They lift glasses filled with white chalk.
Rothenberg holds more closely to theme than the older surrealists, the penalty for a style too consciously acquired. He is “purer” verbally than Ginsberg and might therefore aspire to greater lyrical intensity, but he lacks the latter’s associative or affective range. He has undertaken a more manageable enterprise in that he limits use of New York City references to the toning of “non-poetic” words into the continuous echo of his surrealist predecessors. For example, “A Poem for a Small Manufacturer” begins
King of a garden of seashells and dresses
he passes the rivers of cloth
with their shining spindles.
“Rivers of cloth” is almost literal, if not cliché, but the effort of the whole is toward visionary metaphor—the literalness is even more pronounced in “When I Think We Will All Be Dead.” Though Rothenberg, like a latter-day Cabbalist, regards poetry as a means for summoning up a “deep image” (he has been using this term as a slogan in his interesting miniature magazine, The Floating World), surrealist irrationality does not seem to fit him correctly. Besides, the official surrealist formula for bringing the hidden to the surface through the disintegrated and jammed image has grown increasingly ineffective, like the fading potency of DDT; by this time, dissociation often sounds like a parody.
In the subways of water
talks with his mice.
Weary as this is, Rothenberg is able at times to draw out images which, whether “deep” or not, do have a tactile reality:
. . . the rain of wet dollars
pours through my shirt . . .
This poet is, in sum, one with whom the ability to choose between the superficially attractive and the genuine will be decisive; for when
Black horses race through my heart
in the rain
it is time to look the gift in the mouth, while when
something brushes against my arm,
there is assurance of having been touched, even if the reader doesn’t know by what.
Both Ginsberg and Rothenberg stem from the tradition of changing the world through the magic of language. For David Ignatow words lack this power; however, the world as it is contains wonders enough. The difference is between the wizard and the believer. In bare, everyday language (Ignatow joins Ginsberg in bowing to W. G. Williams), unadorned by either jargon or tropes, the poet outlines brief abstract dramas, like entries in the Diaries of Kafka. “The Manager” begins:
I want no balking, no hesitation
as to my meaning, not even
at the slightest pressure
of my thumb, and I will not feel
miserable about it.
Here, will has been generalized to the very edge of consciousness, uncovering a complex of tensions comparable to that underlying a dream. One thinks of a poetry of spells denuded of content which would, in arising out of a super-sharpened alertness, be the opposite of those induced by drugs or letting go. Ignatow’s wonder is of the kind that comes into being through isolating a face, an item in the newspaper, the motions of someone absorbed in his job. In my opinion, his gray, wiry puzzles reflect more accurately the irrationality of New York City experience than does the glowing mass of surrealist-fused images.
Like Ginsberg’s, Ignatow’s most ambitious poem (though less than two pages in length, it is the longest in the book) is an elegy for a frustrated life, in this case that of a cousin who wanted to be an artist but was confined and battered down by the dreary environment of poor Jews in New York. Like Ginsberg’s, too, Ignatow’s lament is for himself as well as for the mourned one, for that part of him which in becoming a poet he recognized to be dead.
I too emerged
from a hardening womb.
The common ground of the three poets we have discussed so far is the poverty of life in the big city; it is that which precipitates their verse toward religion: with Ginsberg to belief in a god who cannot be invoked without shouts of derision (“Blessed by he in Paranoia!”); with Rothenberg to devotionals to the image steeped in divinity; with Ignatow to a diffident worship, whose explicitness at times diminishes his poetic insight, e.g., “The Rightful One,” but which can also inspire the strong clarity (despite its awkward line) of
I shall follow
as the shadow that has mountains
in its path
Alone among the poets in this group Harvey Shapiro is advertised as a religious poet whose poems have appeared in COMMENTARY and Midstream, though there is testimony, too, to his secular vanguardism in that he has also contributed to Chelsea Review and New Directions. To be both religious and “modern” carries a double guarantee of respect for the irrational and, to be sure, Mr. Shapiro’s book opens with an eloquent characterization of “The Destructive Will”:
This, then, is the child’s wish:
To see the earth a dancing flood
And the new home floating free,
And all irrational, outside, inside.
Mr. Shapiro’s regard for chaos is, however, a negative one. Mr. Ginsberg would not call the irrational “destructive” or if he did he would see it as the destructive-creative; in another mood he might not give a damn what it was so long as it set things “floating free.” Perhaps the difference in their estimations of unreason accounts for the opinion of a reviewer in the New York Times, a publication more or less programmatically opposed to “expressionism” in the arts, that Ginsberg is no poet at all while Harvey Shapiro is a master of religious verse. At any rate, Shapiro takes his stand on orthodoxy, which is putting “the child’s wish” in its place, and consistently with this position his poems tend to be regular in form, literal in diction, and centered on traditional symbols.
What then is “modern” about mountain, fire, thornbush (we shall not hold the author accountable for the lower case)? Perhaps that Jews are a modern subject, and Shapiro writes about nothing but Jews. Also, in “Death of a Grandmother” (another elegy!) there is a realism different from most of the book in its talk of slums and sex (this would be my pick for Chelsea Review) . Above all, Mr. Shapiro’s confession of resignation toward art, passion, revelation—
How everything gets tamed.
The pronomial outcry, as if uttered in
Is turned into syntax. We are
Only a step from discursive prose
When the voice speaks from the thorn-
is a conscious contemporary attitude, offered as rebuttal in the debate with poetic radicalism. Mr. Ginsberg, it says, your Key will open nothing but a cubicle in the literary mausoleum.
Maxine W. Kumin is another poet who appeals across the board of taste in a range even wider than Shapiro’s, from Ladies Home Journal and the New Yorker to Partisan Review and Contact (do they still talk of the alienation of intellectuals?). Mrs. Kumin’s verses demonstrate that a style has been evolved in which the gap between vanguard and traditional has been effectively closed, so that attributing intrinsic virtue or deficiencies (vide Karl Shapiro) to either one or the other has become factitious. In poetry as in politics, the days are over when one could be a radical; now, specific acts and ideas have to be evaluated. Mrs. Kumin’s poetic behavior is analogous to that of the perfect liberal: having developed an up-to-date instrument for descriptive verse out of an amalgam of progressive styles, she is calm, intelligent, well-read, imaginative without losing touch with the subject, humorous without cruelty, capable of fantasy without turning grotesque. Enjoying a ballad with the delightful mimicry of her “fraulein reads instructive rhymes,” one almost forgets that poetry is no longer a form of entertainment. With equal facility she works in free verse, in rhyme patterns complex as acrostics, even in lines and letters arranged for visual effect. “Casablanca,” which recalls the movie with Humphrey Bogart, is a first-rate display of post-Imagism. Of the poets we have been considering, Mrs. Kumin has unquestionably the most talent, in the precise meaning of a natural aptitude for performing excellently within already-defined forms. Whether in our epoch talent furthers creation or has become an obstacle to it is a grand problem, which we cannot go into here. Suffice it to say that Mrs. Kumin shows none of that “organized bad taste,” to use an old term of Kenneth Burke’s, so prevalent in the major art of our time.
Mrs. Kumin has no bohemian vices or minority scars. Her “Jewish heritage” mentioned in the blurb is not that of the slums nor even of the big city but is a biographical detail coupled with her “love of the turbulent New England coast.” Her themes are picturesque and out-of-doors: swimming, picnicking, ice-skating. One might wonder why the Jewish fact was brought up at all; it does not affect her rhetoric and enters her subject matter only through such New Yorker-ish exotica as “our lop-eared Men-orah . . . the membrane scrolls of Torah” in a poem of friendship to a Chinese who had comparable objects in his background and loved chopped liver and lox. Her poem to Passover, major statement in the collection, is equally a poem to Easter and to a rite of the Bakonga, the blended style perfectly mirroring a blended humanity.
I say myths knit the world up when men
die for love.
Hyam Plutzik’s Horatio is on the extreme right of the poetic spectrum, “right” meaning a belief that poetry is a realm of its own in which eternal masterpieces loom as models for all the ages. Interpreting Hamlet, Mr. Plutzik tries to sound as much as possible like Shakespeare:
Such grief is contra naturam, against
Who marks all men for death . . . etc.
Technique is synonymous with metering fine phrases like “bouncing doxies,” “dead men’s bones,” “nameless deeds.” Neither the streets of Brooklyn, where he was born, nor the efforts of the past one hundred years in literature have any place in Mr. Plutzik’s literary time-capsule; it never occurred to him, for instance, that in fulfilling Hamlet’s dying plea to tell his story Horatio might more legitimately have wound up in the library scene in Joyce’s Ulysses than in listening to talking animals around a camp-fire.
Artificial episodes in artificial situations are enacted in artificial dialogue. Such writing constitutes a kind of daydreaming and in that sense is contemporary in spite of itself. The trouble is that, hedged in on all sides by masterworks, it has no outlet either to the open air or to the depths of the author’s self. Plutzik’s poem is so crowded with arbitrarily chosen symbols that Hamlet itself is far less opaque by contrast.
Though all these poets are Jewish, they are about as representative aesthetically of what is going on in American poetry today as any group that might have published volumes during the same period. Those among them who believe that the poet ought to bring to his work his own odor and noise do so as unself-consciously as would persons of any different background. What is new in this respect is the increasing number of American Jewish writers who show no special eagerness to Americanize themselves, that is, to academicize themselves into literary gentlemen without marks of origin. This taking oneself for granted is the best indication that Jewish cultural naturalization has been accomplished. Most important is the fact that it has been achieved on not-too-uneven terms as part of the process of America’s own cultural self-naturalization.
1 A review of Kaddish and Other Poems, by Allen Ginsberg (City Lights Books, 100 pp., $1.50); White Sun Black Sun, by Jerome Rothenberg (Hawk's Well Press, 39 pp., 75¢); Say Pardon, by David Ignatow (Wesleyan University Press, 76 pp., cloth $3.50, paper $1.25); mountain, fire, thornbush, by Harvey Shapiro (Alan Swallow, 29 pp., 75¢); Halfway, by Maxine W. Kumin (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 106 pp., $3.95); Horatio, by Hyam Plutzik (Atheneum, 89 pp., $4.00).