Jack Hirschman, poet and tireless revolutionary activist, has set down his pen for the last time. He was 87.
Hirschman was born in the Bronx on December 13, 1933 to parents Nell (née Keller) and Stephen Dannemark Hirschman. Jack credited his father with instilling in him a love for words, and perhaps inspiring the rebellious energy that powered his poetry and tireless work for social justice.
Jack attended high school at James Monroe and DeWitt Clinton in the Bronx, where he covered sports for the school newspaper. By age 15, he was a reporter for both the Bronx Times and the Bronx Press-Review. The former led to Jack and another employee being brought up on criminal charges related to a bookmaking operation being run through the paper, which came under investigation by the Estes Kefauver (D-TN) committee on organized crime, though the charges were dropped when the newspaper was shut down.
In 1951, Hirschman began attending City College of New York in Harlem. While at CUNY, Hirschman studied writing under Leonard Ehrlich, author of God’s Angry Man, a fictionalization of John Brown, whom Hirschman called “the greatest revolutionary in the United States in the 19th century.” During that time he began writing poetry, as well as short stories, which by his own admission imitated Ernest Hemingway. He published his first book of poetry, fragments, a 4-page volume containing three poems (“Natives,” “Focus,” and “Rebs”) in 1953.
He also sent several short stories to Hemingway himself, soliciting his advice as an aspiring writer. Hemingway responded, writing “I can’t help you, kid. You write better than I did when I was 19. But the hell of it is, you write like me. That is no sin. But you won’t get anywhere with it.” After Hemingway committed suicide in 1961, the Associated Press (where he had worked at the time) sent the letter out over its newswire, and it was published in newspapers around the world under the title “Letter to a Young Writer.”
Also at CUNY he met Ruth Epstein. They married in 1954, and had two children together, David and Celia, born in 1956 and 1958. His studies of James Joyce for his 1955 Bachelor’s dissertation, Self-Conscious Narration in Finnegan’s Wake, would prove influential in his exploration of language and vernacular in his poetry. Later that year, he and Ruth moved to Bloomington, Indiana, and he began working on an M.A. and Ph.D. at Indiana University, while working as a teaching assistant, and continuing to publish in various journals. He wrote his masters thesis on the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer while learning Old English.
In 1957, he assembled the manuscript that would eventually be published in 1960, titled A Correspondence of Americans. One of the poems contained therein was “Ikon,” written about Allen Ginsberg after Hirschman first read “Howl.” Jack mailed the poem to Allen, and so began their correspondence. Ginsberg, interested in Hirschman’s translations of Vladimir Mayakovsky, invited him to his apartment in the Lower East Side, New York, where he also met Gregory Corso.
After earning his Ph.D. in comparative literature from Indiana University, Jack began teaching English at Dartmouth College, where he met Stan Brakhage, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and later Charles Olson in Massachusetts; all of whom became important influences.
By 1961, Hirschman was teaching English as an assistant professor at UCLA, where among his students was Jim Morrison, a film student. “He had just made the first disc of The Doors, but my music is experimental jazz. So naturally, I said ‘Who’s Jim Morrison?’” He also began editing an anthology of Antonin Artaud’s work for publication by City Lights. Awarded a UCLA writing grant, he traveled to Europe for the first time, visiting England, France, and Greece. In London he spent time with one of his oldest friends, Asa Benveniste, publisher of YOD, initiating his interest in Kabbalah, an influence that permeates his poetry.
While he was in Europe, American involvement in Vietnam escalated into hostilities following the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Jack returned to UCLA, and leapt passionately into activism against the war, writing for the Los Angeles Free Press, attending demonstrations, and speaking on local radio. The university fired him from his teaching position in 1966, citing his “activities against the state” when they discovered he was giving ‘A’ grades to all his students eligible to be drafted, thus helping them avoid conscription.
Moving to a small house in Venice, he continued to write, translate, and publish. His correspondence with David Meltzer during his years in Venice provided needed encouragement, particularly as his relationship with Ruth was deteriorating. They divorced in 1974.
His work translating A Rainbow for the Christian West by Haitian communist Rene Depestre was the revelation that moved Hirschman to embrace Marxism, an ideology that would define his writing and political work for the rest of his life. In the documentary Red Poet (2009), Hirschman identifies himself as a Marxist-Leninist. Decades later, he would publish Joey: The Poems of Joseph Stalin, poems Stalin had written in his youth.
Jack moved to San Francisco in 1973, living in small rooms in North Beach’s residential hotels. He quickly became a fixture in the community of North Beach poets that included Jack Micheline, Bob Kaufman, Gregory Corso (now in San Francisco), Harold Norse, A.D. Winans, Neeli Cherkovski, and many others. He also began a relationship with artist Kristen Wetterhahn in 1975, with whom he edited Beatitude #23. His book Lyripol is published by City lights in 1976.
In keeping with his political ideals, Hirschman made a point of publishing his poetry with small, independent publishers and journals. Over fifty books of Jack’s poetry and translations, typically slim volumes or pamphlets, have been published in short runs by dozens of small presses. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, he created hundreds of thousands of handmade posters, typically featuring abstract paintings and written in Russian and English. Calling them “talking leaves” after Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary, the pieces were typically in support of the workers’ movement, and distributed in the tradition of agitprop activism.
Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, Jack continued to write and publish prolifically, and organize around political issues affecting poor and marginalized people in the U.S. and abroad, and traveled frequently. He founded the Jacques Roumain Cultural Brigade (named for the founder of the Haitian Communist Party) with Haitian poet Boadiba, and he was a member of the Roque Dalton Cultural Brigade, translating poetry from Central America, alongside poets Alejandro Murguía and Juan Felipe Herrera, among others. He was also a member of the Union of Left Writers and the Communist Labor Party.
In 1999, in a ceremony performed by David Meltzer, Jack married poet and calligrapher Agneta Falk, with whom he lived the rest of his life. Falk was born in Sweden, and had moved to England in her twenties. For a while the couple split their time between San Francisco and Yorkshire.
In 2002, he received a commendation from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, particularly for his work as poet and translator. By that time, Hirschman spoke many languages, including Russian, Spanish, French, Albanian, Italian, and Greek.
Since the early 80s, Hirschman had been writing longer poems he called “arcanes,” describing them as dialectic materialist transformation of alchemical or mystical materials. Early arcanes were published in the magazine Left Curve, which Hirschman edited for a time. These poems are collected in three massive volumes, each about 1,000 pages, comprising Hirschman’s magnum opus, The Arcanes, published by Multimedia Edizione in Italy. The first was published in 2006. Due to their size, the books would’ve been prohibitively expensive to ship back to the U.S., so Jack brought many of the first printing back from Italy stacked inside a suitcase. After the third volume was published in 2019, Jack said he had been going back through earlier poems and “arcanizing” them.
Hirschman was named San Francisco Poet Laureate on January 11, 2006, succeeding Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Janice Mirikitani, and devorah major.
Jack Hirschman died on August 22, 2021 at his home in San Francisco, six months to the day from the passing of his good friend, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Jack will always be remembered for his astonishingly vast poetic output, his inexhaustible lifelong struggle for social justice, but not least for his kindness. He could regularly be found holding court at the Caffe Trieste, and was especially encouraging of young, aspiring poets. An imposing figure if not for his good-natured smile and gentle demeanor, Jack was a friend to all who knew him. Hirschman gave many readings, and led discussions and talks at the Beat Museum.
We’ll miss you always, comrade.
Special thanks to Matt Gonzales for his excellent Chorosho! An Auto/Biographical Sketch of Jack Hirschman.