The Park Avenue Armory, a hidden treasure on the Upper East Side, decided to throw a four day long birthday bash for the inimitable Philip Glass. Each night offered a different performance, whether inspired by or performed by Glass and some of his friends, including Patti Smith. The first night consisted of a performance of Allen Ginsberg’s seminal poem Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956). Hal Willner put together the program, which included a new classical/jazz piece created by guitarist Bill Frisell for this event, and with the visuals of Ralph Steadman playing on a IMAX-sized white screen. Willner and Chloe Webb alternated reading the poem, Willner representing the voice of Allen Ginsberg and Webb playing the voice of Naomi Ginsberg. Though somewhat of an awkward start to a Philip Glass celebration — considering Glass played no role in any part of the performance — the night stood on its own merits as a interesting, but ultimately disappointing, interpretation and presentation of Ginsberg’s harrowing poem.
The problems started with the venue itself. Outside of the hangar/concert hall, the armory contains numerous rooms of lush mahogany wood, artistic molding, and imposing portraits of heroes from the Civil War. This feels like a men’s club, somehow made to make you feel either woefully poor, or selected for something better in life. I lack the space to recreate the complete setting, but imagine the lair in which members of the Illuminati smoke Cuban cigars and sip scotch while waited on by numerous butlers as they plot their next coup. Alternatively, the rooms look full of secret passageways and pictures that sway open or paintings with holes in the eyes of the portraits, from which powerful magnates can spy upon us mere mortals as we traipse around their palace. The opulence of this place, the formality of it all, undermines so much of the precarious, unsettling, disturbing mood of this poem.
On top of the jarring choice of venue, the program itself buckled under its own ambition. The addition of mostly innocuous background music, along with striking visuals that looked like the paintings of a sociopathic first grader who stabs his classmates with pencils, served to remove us from the immediacy of the poem. Willner succeeds, somewhat, in his choice to stage the poem as a dialogue between Ginsberg and his mother. This interpretative move fits well with the performative nature of the night. The give and take between a longing son and dead mother evoke the singular poignancy of a desire for one final conversation. I never thought to read the poem this way (despite the fact that Ginsberg uses quotation marks) because I believe the power of the poem lay in the fact that he wrote it in the voice of his mother, not as his mother. For me, the fact that Ginsberg missed the actual Kaddish for his mother, the fact that he couldn’t connect to her in real life and therefore needed to say everything after her death, centralizes the poignancy of the poem. Ginsberg doesn’t create a dialogue between him and his mother, but writes in an empathic attempt to understand his mother, to say everything he always wanted to say but could not.
Willner’s essential mistake, one with precedence in the world of art, lies in his attempt at reconstructive surgery: he excises the Hymnless and Part Three sections of this long poem. All of the units stand alone, of course, but also cohere into a beautiful whole; in this version, the poem felt incomplete. I can only guess that Willner felt that these parts clashed with the dialogic narrative style he chose to adopt. However, he ablates the section in which Ginsberg almost mocks himself and God in using heavy irony balanced with deep genuineness in his struggle with prayer to God, or to nothing. He also removes perhaps one of the most powerful parts: in which Ginsberg strips his emotions down to his most basic desires, to remember his mother, to try to understand her, to empathize with her, if only a second, to know her madness, to keep her, forever. At the end of the concert, despite the waves of claps, I felt that Ginsberg’s poem alone stood out. The event signified a reason to re-explore the poem, but because of the power of the original, not the decorative distractions heaped upon it by Willner.
In both Howl and Kaddish, Ginsberg creates a world of language somewhere between our world and the realm of dreams in which he uses everyday language to recreate a world in the image of his own experience. Here Ginsberg writes as if he listens to alternating radio shows in his brain and grabs gnomic, artistic, theological, emotional, and ultimately beautiful snippets from the stream then loosely tapes them together. No image or moment grounds you in these poems; you always feel tenuous, at the borders of language or insanity, uncertain of the exact meaning of the line between madness and brilliance, but dead certain of the emotional power. Some of the words come off as mere incantations, words of a magical spell. It’s a barrage of painful words, stuck together to elicit a feeling of a platonic pain, something purifying or cathartic but still painful in an almost religious manner.
Ginsberg, picking up on the gap between what we desire to say in a eulogy and propriety, essentially riffs in a contrapuntal way on the Kaddish. The Kaddish prayer itself famously makes no reference to death, the deceased, mourning, the comforts of the world to come, or anything at all that could tie this specific prayer to a mourner. Consequently, Ginsberg creates in his Kaddish a neverending eulogy that attempts to understand his mother’s struggles. Words and speech seem like the only defense against the finality of death, and so Ginsberg rambles around the topic of his mother, both to convey the inability to contain any person in words, but also because you can’t do anything else but talk about the deceased: their lives, their joys and hates, their stupid pet peeves, their insanity, your hatred of them, her humor, his shyness, their anger, their love of mint-chocolate chip ice cream but only on Thursdays, her first kiss, her biggest regret, what she hated about herself, her madness, her delusions, how she truly felt about you, as a son, or daughter, or husband or wife, or lover. The truth without consequences. How she folded the newspaper, why she believed so fiercely in something so extremist, what did she dream of when her mind wandered from the boredom of her day?
Consequently, Ginsberg cracks open his mind and lets the whole spectrum flow out. It’s terrifying and compelling at the same time. Strange visions of hope abound, while the author fights back and forth with himself about the illusion of the afterlife, in any form, and the consolations of death that don’t seem to console. It attempts transcendence, desperately so, but despite pushing to the borders of his mind, Ginsberg fails admirably. The poem leaves the reader with an eerie sense of unease because of the movement of the power, its dynamic motion, never allows for rest or for resolution. It ultimately culminates in the essential question of the poem: How do we gauge the important details in a person’s life? Through milestones, career choices, psychological stages of development, creative output, the care they gave others, or perhaps an attempt to struggle for life? Can anyone actually answer that question? Ginsberg knows he cannot and shows that he would rather leave himself in uncertainty than in the easy comforts of empty gods.