Legendary Poet and Activist Jack Hirschman has Passed Away
Sad news broke today that legendary poet and activist Jack Hirschman has passed away at 87 years old. This is a particularly heavy blow to the San Francisco arts community as Hirschman is the third former SF Poet Laureate to pass away in 2021. Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed away in February and Janice Mirikitani died in July.
While news of Hirschman’s death spread on Instagram and Facebook Sunday morning, it was confirmed to me via FB messenger this afternoon by his friend, poet and painter Francisco Orrego. Hirshman purportedly passed peacefully in his sleep and is survived by his wife, poet and artist Agneta Falk.
Jack Hirschman accomplished a lot in his time on Earth. Among his many accomplishments, besides previously being the Poet Laureate of San Francisco, is the fact that he wrote more than 50 volumes of poetry and essays. His biography on the City Lights Books website reads:
Jack Hirschman is a San Francisco poet, translator, and editor. His powerfully eloquent voice set the tone for political poetry in this country many years ago. Since leaving a teaching career in the ’60s, Hirschman has taken the free exchange of poetry and politics into the streets where he is, in the words of poet Luke Breit, “America’s most important living poet.” He is the author of numerous books of poetry, plus some 45 translations from a half a dozen languages, as well as the editor of anthologies and journals. Among his many volumes of poetry are Endless Threshold, The Xibalba Arcane, and Lyripol (City Lights, 1976).
While I have a number of fond memories of seeing Jack holding court around a big table full of poets, artists, and weirdos at Specs, my favorite memory is of having him on the San Francisco pilot for my travel TV show Young, Broke & Beautiful. He is the perfect embodiment of a life devoted to asking big questions and delivery wise art. Check it out below:
I have been a fan of Jack’s work for many years, but of all the stuff he wrote, my favorite piece may not actually be in any of his books. It’s a poem written for Lawrence Ferlinghetti called “The Ferlinghetti Arcane” that I heard Jack read at a Litquake event honoring Ferlinghetti in his 90th year back in 2010. The event was spectacular and had everyone from Patti Smith to Steve Earl to Tom Waits playing songs in honor of Ferlinghetti, but it was Jack Hirschman and his poem that stole the show.
Because I love the poem so much, Jack emailed it to me a few years ago and I thought I’d share it with you below. It’s a beautiful, tender piece of art that shows the love and admiration that existed between these two giants of poetry for over 50 years:
The Ferlinghetti Arcane
Caro compagno, let’s see,
how many years since we
first touched base?
Fifty-eight, I believe (unless Al
Zheimer’s already begun
playing tricks on me):
You’d come east early
in ’61, riding the crest
of the Beat wave Jack
and Allen were out there
drumming on as a New
but you’d already been
both Atlantic and
Pacific ocean theaters,
in the War, and after
North Carolina U. on
the GI Bill, getting
your PhD in Paris
at the Sorbonne.
That’s one of the
reverberant between us:
you the consummate
consonant and vowel
uttered, and I the same
vowel at the end of
the nextmsyllable but
only an unsounded
echo barely heard,
still being in the university.
You’d gotten your degree and got out of it early on, and I gotta hand it to you,
you never did go back to boujyville but stayed as independent as you could,
creating the first paperback bookstore in the land, opening a bunch of doors so that
worlds of peoples could realize San Francisco as one of the most priceless cities on the planet,
still a city small town like a kid at a window somewhere dreamed of, way back when.
And of course got into trouble with the law after you published Ginsberg’s Howl, becoming
activist poet-publisher in defense of language, your own poetic voice with its lilting
whine of a drawl, distinctive in its way, memorable and therefore imitable.
Ah, fratello, you should
have been at those many
tables in Vesuvio’s, Specs
and the Caffe Trieste when your
poet-biographer Neeli Cherkovski
had us all doubling over,
as you would have also,
at his almost perfect,
always slightly envious,
but ever affectionate
impersonation of you.
Because you already were
a legend by the ‘70s,
encircled by a transparent
but unbreakable wall
of image with a capitol “I”,
which only Jack and Allen
Populist in poem, paint and
motion, you critiqued my work
for being too arcane and esoteric,
while you stole from all the poets
you loved, giving their phrases
new contexts. A master husker
of American corn, ironic
deconstructivist of the rhythms
of patriotic cliché, you had
a dream and would not go gentle
into that war-zone. Even after
I joined the CLP in 1980
and you’d be chuckling calling me
black Jack Stalinski, till the USSR
fell under the U.S. threats
a decade later e l’Italia cominciava
ad entrare nelle nostre vite
fisicamente e poeticamente,
we kept that synharmonic
glyph of friendship intact
through the editions of Artaud,
the death of my son David,
your populist manifesto, eruptions
of Central American poetry
that the Roque Dalton Cultural Brigade
translated, which you published for
that ongoing cause of liberation. If there
were any brushes between us, they were paint.
These later years, this millennial decade when we’ve become closer
out of brotherly need in a time of great anti-semitism
against salaam alekem as well; and with Allen gone, who was a light
—and also I imagine a heavy—cargo for you, we know there’s no God
to judge or forgive us, there’s only this singing to life what
comes from the human immensity of Death. And that’s why, putting
into the computer file of the Revolutionary Poets Brigade Anthology,
“At Sea”, the finest poem you’ve ever written—and you wrote it
at the age of 90! —I have a sense of the greatness of the victory
over Time and Despair an authentically true poetry embodies.
So write-on, young timer, you who opposed the wars in Vietnam,
the Gulf, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Write on, first-baseman in your ninth decade, with legs still able to
give my vodka-leaden ones a run for the bases.
“Well, sure, because I ride my bicycle every chance I get.”
To see you a few days ago in your Francisco St. flat after a bout with
Staph Infection, who drilled you one in your heart-socket
when they were fitting a pacemaker in, though the antibiotics make you
tired your complexion’s still rosy, and I know all you wanna do is get up
and go down-stairs and drive to your China Basin studio where alone
you never are.
So, chorus-sure, we’ll give you
one more standing O, big guy.
Chorus-sure, let’s sing
the Bella Ciao, son of Carlo
Ferlinghetti di Brescia, and
Clemence Albertine Mendez
Monsanto, your Sephardic
Jewish mother. Together
they gave you your mouth
and fitted you with some
terrific genes, and prophesied:
Pacemaker, pacemaker or
no pacemaker at all; our boy
will live till the raven turns white.
Auguri! Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Auguri!
Thank you Jack for all your striking and beautiful work and for never going gently into the war-zone.