Over the past six months, GVSHP has participated in the CUNY Corp service-learning program that places students in paid internships throughout the City. GVSHP’s intern, Oluwaseun Eleyinafe, a Lehman College Senior, wrote the post below on Allen Ginsberg and his poem ‘Kaddish.’
As one of the writers at the heart of the Beat Generation, Allen Ginsberg pushed the boundaries of what writers could print, and pioneered a series of works that would change the way people thought. His poem Kaddish details his emotions as he mourns the death of his mother, Naomi, who raised him to be Jewish, as well as his estrangement from his religion as a gay man. He had begun writing Kaddish in 1957 while in Paris, before he came to the East Village where he would spend the rest of his life. It was there he finished the poem in 1959.
Allen Ginsberg lived in at least five different East Village locations over the years. From 1958-61, during the period when he finished Kaddish, he lived at 174 East Second Street with his long-time partner, Peter Orlovsky. This building and many others in the area are tenements built around the turn of the 20th Century. 174 East Second Street was built in 1909. This brick, terra cotta, and stone New Law tenement was designed in the Renaissance Revival style by architect Charles B. Meyers. Jared Kushner’s real estate venture Kushner Companies has owned more than five hundred apartment buildings across the East Village and Lower East Side for several years, including this one.
The apartment where Ginsberg used to live was initially just numbered as apartment #16. Following renovations, the floors are now numbered and lettered, so no one really knows where exactly that apartment number is. The renovation also removed some portions of the original parts of the building, including an original window that was bricked over. There may well be people living in Ginsberg’s old apartment right now that have no idea they are sharing the same apartment as this Village and Beat Generation luminary.
A Historic Landmarks Preservation Center Cultural Medallion installed at 174 East Second Street states: “Internationally acclaimed poet and Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters lived here from August 1958 to March 1961. His signal poem Howl (1956) helped launch The Beat Generation. Kaddish (1961), a mournful elegy for his mother Naomi, was written in apartment #16.”
One of the many ways Ginsberg is remembered for pushing boundaries revolves around a court case that involved him, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shigeyoshi Murao over the publication and distribution of Ginsberg’s work Howl. Murao, the manager at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, sold a copy of the poem collection which included Howl to an undercover San Francisco police officer. Ferlinghetti had published the book, and they were both placed on trial for their respective roles in circulating the book. With support from the American Civil Liberties Union and nine literary experts, Ginsberg’s book of poems was deemed protected under the First Amendment, and both Ferlinghetti and Murao were exonerated. The presiding judge in the California State Superior Court for the case, Clayton Horn, ruled that the poem was, in fact, of redeeming social value.