By Oluwaseun Eleyinafe |
Allen Ginsberg’s former apartment building, 170 East Second Street, was built in 1899. It is a Beaux Arts building that joins comfort with an older East Village style. Ginsberg lived in the apartment from 1958 to 1963. And while Ginsberg fans can’t gain visit the apartment today, it is alluringly described on New York City real estate websites. According to Prime NYC, “the area around the neighborhood is quiet, [and] the apartments upstairs offer a view of the East River and Brooklyn further south.” There is also a furnished roof deck. Due to its location between Avenues A and B, this part of East Second Street is known as Alphabet City, and also goes by the name of the East Village. The neighborhood is nearby the FDR Drive and is close to the Manhattan Bridge at Canal Street.
Ginsberg’s apartment building is significant because of its location in the East Village and because of the connection between the Village and the Beat movement that took a portion of the country by storm during the 20th century. The Beat movement, including figures like William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, offered cultural support to Ginsberg’s preference for a Bohemian lifestyle that for him included public pansexuality. Ginsberg believed that people should be able to live publicly in whatever capacity they wanted. The geographic epicenter of this philosophy was the East Village and Alphabet City. Both of these neighborhoods let Ginsberg be open about the type of life that he was living; in fact, these neighborhoods were always known to be welcoming to people of different sexual orientations. Because the community celebrated art and poetry, Ginsberg was able to write many poems while living at 170 East Second Street, among them “Kaddish.”
In the Jewish prayer service, Kaddish is a hymn offering praise to God often sung at funerals. Ginsberg’s poem “Kaddish” serves as a mock epic of sorts in which he honors the memory of his mother. He deals with his thoughts and questions concerning death, but there are also moments where he is beside himself about the fact that he has left the Jewish faith. According to the Book of Leviticus, in the Hebrew Bible, you were prohibited from practicing gay or lesbian sex. Doing so was punishable by death (cf. Lev. 18:22, 20:13). When Ginsberg discovered he was gay, it was equal to him being estranged from his religion. Over time, he entered into a phase where he became a secular Jew.
In the poem, Ginsberg speaks extensively about his mother’s many involvements. She decided to become a communist before he was born during the time of Stalin in the USSR. Ginsberg describes the connection between his mother and Communism in the lines “All the accumulations of life, that wear us out—clocks, bodies, consciousness, shoes, / breasts—your Communism— ‘Paranoia’ into hospitals” (“Kaddish”). What he means here is that these are the many facets of life that actually end up making people tired of living. In the next two lines, he continues with this theme of the meaninglessness of life, writing “You once kicked Elanor in the leg, she died of heart failure later. You of stroke. Asleep? / within a year, the two of you, sisters in death. Is Elanor happy?” (“Kaddish”). At the end of this section of the poem, Ginsberg meditates on immortality and concludes with the following: “Forever. And we’re bound for that, Forever—like Emily Dickinson’s horses—headed to / the End. They know the way—These Steeds—run faster than we think—it’s our own life they cross / —and take with them.” (“Kaddish”). Ultimately, no matter what Ginsberg’s mother did in life, her life ended in death. Time moved her along the way past her commitment to communism, past her sister’s death, past all the things that happened to her all the way to death. In these lines, Ginsberg reflects the Jewish philosophy depicted in Ecclesiastes when Solomon, after searching for meaning in this world, finds none and concludes, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (Eccl. 1:2).
It was reported that Ginsberg “died of liver cancer early Saturday in his apartment at the age of 70.” (Bruni). His death, in 1997, was mainly caused by his bouts of smoking; he was still living in the East Village, though in a different apartment. The East Village has undergone much transition since Ginsberg lived there. A bakery is next to the building where he lived from 1958-1963, and west of the area is a graffiti mural for Grow NYC. At the time Allen Ginsberg lived at 170 East Second Street, the apartments were numbered. Today the apartments are numbered and are assigned a letter. So it’s anyone’s guess regarding where #16—Ginsberg’s apartment at the time he wrote “Kaddish”—is exactly. Perhaps it’s on the second floor or the third floor, but there doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer.
Maybe people don’t care so much about this history because they seem to just go inside the building without considering the fact they’re living in a place formerly inhabited by a famous poet of the Beat Generation. History passes on and Ginsberg’s story has become vague, like his mother’s, with his passing and the death of time. It seems that everything passes into death. So Ginsberg is right to conclude in section I of “Kaddish”: “Take this, this Psalm, from me, burst from my hand in a day, some of my Time, now / given to Nothing—to praise Thee—But Death.” His life, like all our lives, like all our cities and all our eras, are like psalms born in a day but ultimately given to nothing but death. “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity’” (Eccl. 1:2). But Ginsberg hoped that “Kaddish” would endure. He hoped “Kaddish” would be his last song to God to keep away the phantoms of death for both his mother and himself. He hoped to find in the poem both his end and his redemption. “This is the end, the redemption from Wilderness, way for the Wonderer, House sought / for All, black handkerchief washed clean by weeping—page beyond Psalm—Last change / of mine and Naomi—to God’s perfect Darkness—Death, stay thy phantoms!” (“Kaddish”). I suppose the question is this: will “Kaddish” be preserved, or will it fade away like the man who wrote it, the building in which he lived, and the era that gave him his words?
Ginsberg saying “Kaddish”:
Bruni, Frank. “The Grounds He Stomped: The New York of Ginsberg.” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/1997/04/07/nyregion/the-grounds-he-stamped-the-new-york-of-ginsberg.html. Accessed 19 November 2016.
Charters, Ann. “Allen Ginsberg’s Life.” Modern American Poetry, http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/ginsberg/life.htm. Accessed 19 November 2016.
“E 2nd New York Apartments: East Village 3 Bedroom Apartment for Rent.” Prime NYC, http://www.primenyc.com/East-Village/Apartment/NEW-YORK-NY/65439. Accessed 16 December 2016.
Ginsberg, Allen. “Kaddish.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/49313. Accessed 18 October 2016.
The Holy Bible, KJV.
Oluwaseun Eleyinafe is an English and History major at Lehman College. When not reading Allen Ginsberg, he enjoys volunteering and watching Power Rangers cartoons.