Desire in Allen Ginsberg’s Poems "Kaddish" and "Howl"

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Words: 1449 |

Pages: 3|

8 min read

Published: Apr 11, 2022

Words: 1449|Pages: 3|8 min read

Published: Apr 11, 2022

Desire is explored and represented through the form and style in Ginsberg’s poems, “Kaddish”, and “Howl”. Desire is ubiquitous, it is the essence of wanting or yearning for something, or someone, it has limitless objects. The longing for a person to be with us or for an inanimate object, whether it be a car, a house, a shoe, or the yarning for an achievement, a goal, or a result. Ginsberg in his poems portrays an intellectual form of desire, the desire for change, knowledge and the desire to belong. This response will look at two of Ginsberg’s poems, “Kaddish” and “Howl”. Both these poems portray the significant theme of desire and the acceptable desire during its time. This essay will aim to demonstrate how desire is shaped by societies ideology and subjectivity in relation to Ginsberg’s mentioned poems. I will, firstly, look at the kinds of desire both “Kaddish and “Howl”, explore. Secondly, I will demonstrate how Ginsberg in both poems represents desire. Both, “Kaddish”, and “Howl”, through their style, language and techniques portray the desire that Ginsberg longs for.

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“Kaddish”, is one of Ginsberg’s famous and emotional poems written for his mother from 1957 to 1959, following the death of his mother in 1956. Through the use of style and language “Kaddish” explores Ginsberg’s desire for his mother and the longing of her presences. In the poem Ginsberg, reconnoitres, his relationship with his mother as well as his family in general. Growing up Ginsberg witnessed his mother’s deteriorating mental health, as he watched her surrender to a number of psychotic occurrences that eventually took over her life. “Kaddish” explores how his mother’s mental illness affected him and his family life and in turn influenced him in his writing. “Howl” is another poem By Ginsberg that explores the themes of desire through his writing style and language. Ginsberg wrote, “Howl”, from 1954 to 1955. “Howl is a social commentary of American mid 20th century and can be served as a revolutionary manifesto. “Howl” is one of Ginsberg’s complex works that reflects the lives of people who go against the social and ideological norms. The poem is divided into three parts, the first part is a dedication “For Carlo Solomon”, a friend he met in the mental institution, a narrative of the Beat generation. The second part of the poem deals with social and political structures of 1950’s America and challenging institutional authority which he Symbolises as “Moloch”. The last part of the poem, Ginsberg directly speaks to Carl Solomon, highlighting that he is there for him.

Ginsberg in both, “Kaddish”, and “Howl”, analyses and criticises a variety of America’s mid 20th century ideologies that shaped its society. Bennett and Royle suggest, “every literary text is in some way about desire…. however, is not to suggest that it is everywhere and always the same desire” (Bennett and Royle, 251). Although “Kaddish and “Howl”, both present desires that were unacceptable to America’s 1950’s social norm, in “Howl”, homosexuality and in “Kaddish” the mental illness of his mother. Both these poems are about desire but the desire is different. The language of “Howl” is an example of an unacceptable desire, the raw and sexual images is Ginsberg’s way of breaking normal conventions. The explicit language in “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy”. As highlighted by Bennett and Royle who affirm that according to Lacan and Freud, desire is not fixed and always shifting, and mobile, furthermore, “desire is defined by ideological arguments about what society deems appropriate”. This is evident in both, “Kaddish”, Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich village” (Ginsberg, 36). Furthermore in, “Howl”, “I’m with you in Rockland in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night”. The desire presented in both, “Howl”, and “Kaddish” is shaped by ideologies that constrain the individual.

In “Howl”, Ginsberg talks about the desires to belong and the desire to fit into society, he also desires to challenge the social norms of mid 20th century America. celebrates the desires that were regarded in 1950’s America as taboo. Desire in “Howl”, adopts an ideological approach, as he questions what desires fit into social norms and can be voiced, this is highlight by, “ who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts”. This quote furthers Ginsberg’s observation of ideologically improved desires. Similarly, “Kaddish”, as well tries to break away from the acceptable ideologies at the time, by revealing his mother’s mental illness in way that is completely raw and unrestrained, for example, “No love since Naomi screamed – since 1923? – now lost in Greystone ward – new shock for her – Electricity, following the 40 Insulin. And Metrasol had made her fat” (Ginsberg, 47). The desire to break away from accepted ideologies in mid 20th century America is evident in Ginsberg’s both poems. In, “Howl”, the way Ginsberg’s converses his homosexuality in a way that is raw and honest, at time where society would shame such an act, as homosexuality was a crime in mid 20th century America. Similarly, in, “Kaddish”, where mental illness was taboo, never spoken about and especially not if they family member suffering mental illness, again it was hidden and shamed. Both showing that desire is shaped by ideology, and Ginsberg through these poems portrays, his desire to break away from accepted ideologies.

Ginsberg’s main desire in, “Kaddish”, is to recuperate his mother, to give her a voice, to celebrate her life, and, to come to peace with inappropriate concealment of her memories. One way he gives his mother a voice is through the conversational narrative style. Ginsberg seems as though he is in conversation with Naomi, although she is not present. His mother’s voice is seen within the poem at different times, “Allen, you don’t understand – it’s–ever since those 3 big sticks up my back – they did something to me in Hospital, they poisoned me, they want to see me dead – 3 big stick, 3 big sticks –” (Ginsberg, 42). Bennett and Royle discuss Freud, one of, “the most influential philosopher of desire in the twentieth century” (Bennett and Royle, 250). According to Freud, “desire goes back to the child’s original desire for the mother, for the mother’s breast. This desire is so strong that it produces an absolute identification”.

Freud’s theory on the originality of desire is vital in “Kaddish”, Ginsberg states, “perhaps a good idea to try – know the Monster of the Beginning Womb – Perhaps – that way” (Ginsberg, 51). The symbolic language furthers the desire of the mother and the significance of the mothers presences is demonstrated in, “O glorious muse that bore me from the womb, gave suck first mystic life & taught me talk and music, from whose pained head I first took Vision”. Highlights that although his mother was absent for most of his life due to her mental health, Ginsberg describes that she influenced his life significantly refereeing to her as “muse”, his inspiration. This language furthers, the Lacanian idea, Bennett and Royle state, “language is not something that we can use in order to try to make ourselves more comfortable with the alien nature of desire: desire speaks through language and it speaks us”. Freud’s concept is furthered in “from whose pained head I first took Vision”, highlighting that not only he is from his mother’s body, but also in mind and spirit. Lastly, Ginsberg’s use of the fermented style of the poem is another representation of his desire and yearn for his mother. The deliberate use of hyphens to break up sentences on recalling of traumatic scenes and memories of his mother’s life is evident in, “Too thin, shrunk on her bones – age comes to Naomi – now broken into white hair – loose dress on her skeleton – face sunk, old! withered – cheek of crone –'. The language and form of “Kaddish”, the sentence splits, and the fragmentations is an example of Lacan’s theory of the relation between desire and subjectivity.

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In conclusion, both poems, “Howl”, and “Kaddish”, portray the acceptable desire in 1950’s American society. The social norms are pushed in both poems through the themes of homosexuality and the longing of the insane mother. Ginsberg, through the use of language, style and techniques, highlights his desires. This paper portrays the way Ginsberg’s poetry explore that desire is shaped by ideologies and subjectivity, and the way the individuals are constrained by these social norms.   

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Desire In Allen Ginsberg’s Poems “Kaddish” And “Howl”. (2022, April 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 28, 2024, from
“Desire In Allen Ginsberg’s Poems “Kaddish” And “Howl”.” GradesFixer, 11 Apr. 2022,
Desire In Allen Ginsberg’s Poems “Kaddish” And “Howl”. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 28 Feb. 2024].
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