“Everyone’s a Poet — No Exceptions”: Jack Hirschman’s Agitpopulist Poetic Revolution

September 3, 2021

In the headline for his obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, Jack Hirschman was referred to as a “Marxist poet.” As someone who knew him for 55 years, since taking his Introduction to Poetry class as a sophomore at UCLA and enjoying his energetic generosity for half a century in the extended community of Bay Area poets, I find that characterization to be a red herring. While it’s true that Jack identified himself, with happy vehemence, as a “Communist,” his politics, as I observed them through the decades of our friendship, were more utopian-romantic than dialectical-materialist. He was the kind of Communist from whom real Communists, if they saw him coming, would run the other way. People who dismissed or condemned him for his self-caricature as a Stalinist were missing the beauty of his creative commitment and the authenticity of his genius.

Prodigiously prolific — author or translator of more than 100 books of poetry, all from little independent presses, the translations from nine languages (the Latin and Greek he learned at CCNY and Indiana University, where he got his PhD, enabled him to read almost anything) — Jack was also tireless in his encouragement and promotion of other poets, and of poetry as an instrument of moral justice and collective liberation. He believed in a radically egalitarian social order made possible by poets and poetry, and embodied his principles in countless acts of activism, agitation, and organization, putting together benefits, hosting reading series, selling newspapers for various causes, traveling to international festivals, organizing festivals at home, editing magazines and anthologies, convening conferences, leading “brigades” of poets in solidarity with one or another revolutionary movement, scrawling one-of-a-kind colorful handbills of his own unique calligraffiti artwork by the hundreds and handing them out at events as enigmatic propaganda, living every day in unstoppable dedication to his ever-demanding and socially motivated muses.

Just this spring I received from Jack an email from his headquarters, as leader of the SF Revolutionary Poets Brigade and the World Poetry Movement, exhorting me (and some 15 other recipients) to organize readings and events in my community in the urgent cause of anticapitalist-antifascism. While I had worked with Jack and others in the 1980s, primarily as a journalist and translator, in the Central American solidarity movements of the time, since then I had not been involved in any kind of political activism, so I replied that I was no longer a member of any brigade and that my political activity was currently invested in the weekly op-ed column I’ve been writing for years in my local daily, the Santa Cruz Sentinel. His three-word reply was: “Caro Stephen, Understood.” This warm understanding, rooted in our longtime relations, was never compromised by my resistance to join him on the barricades. Unlike other ideologues I’ve known, Jack was not intolerant of those who didn’t share his zeal.

When we first met at UCLA in 1966, he was a 33-year-old Bronx-born English professor with a reputation as a charismatic teacher. I was a 19-year-old Beverly Hills-raised English major with dawning poetic aspirations. When I signed up for Introduction to Poetry, a lecture course with an enrollment of some 200 students, from comp lit nerds to fraternity jocks, I had no idea that encountering him would be a life-changing experience. His own life at the time, as I learned later, was also changing. Professional, personal, and political crises (the Vietnam War) were conspiring to drive him out of academia, out of his marriage, and eventually out of Los Angeles. It was a revelation and an inspiration to witness his chain-smoking extemporaneous eclectic discourse about whatever was on his mind that day.

His riffs on the assigned readings — The Viking Portable Blake, The Viking Portable Whitman, and Rilke’s Duino Elegies (J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender translation) — were unlike anything I had ever heard, an electrifying and disorienting mixture of erudite references (from the Tao Te Ching to Dr. Seuss, “apocalyptic consciousness” to Kabbala, the Greek Anthology to the “Sunflower Sutra”) and digressive associations that didn’t quite cohere in any rational way but at some level connected with the poetry receptors in my adolescent brain and communicated the danger and existential exhilaration of the vocation that was calling me with its siren song. By the following year, when I had transferred to Bard, Jack had succeeded in getting himself fired from UCLA for bringing the war into his classroom in a manner that cut against the university’s State-institutional grain.

By the mid-1970s, when we met again at a reading in a North Beach café where I was trying out some of my first translations, Jack was already a force in the post-Beat San Francisco scene, and like countless other young poets, I received from him nothing but encouragement for my efforts. As I was to witness repeatedly in the years since, his enthusiastic support for anyone, of any level of accomplishment, attempting to write poems, was unconditional. Numerous times I heard him say: “Everyone’s a poet — no exceptions!”

As I matured, my own poetic values and standards diverged from his, at times in public disagreements, but that never diminished the respect and affection he showed me, and the feelings were mutual — I loved the guy like a wild-ass big brother who lived more dangerously than I did, with his borderline political delusions and indiscriminately promiscuous poetics. He was truly authentic and completely committed to the art, to his polyglot-cosmopolitan jazz-infused Joycean-Mayakovskian runs of verbal improvisation scribbled in cafés and sounded in readings all over the city and, as time went by, in several countries of Europe, Italy especially, where he was far more famous than in the States.

He was scheduled to fly to Italy Sunday before last, according to a mutual friend, presumably for a reading — or perhaps for a meeting with editors at Multimedia Edizioni, the Italian publisher of his magnum opus, The Arcanes, a four-volume, 3000-plus-page epic poem about everything, Jack’s Canto General (he adored the Populist-Communist Neruda), his Cantos (though he detested the fascist-sympathizer Pound), his Finnegans Wake (his multilingual esperantasms of neo-Joycean punnery were astonishing), a monumental work that few readers will ever find or, if they do, have the strength to lift much less read, but that will stand as the bibliomaniacal material manifestation of his accomplishment.

The day before his flight, Jack felt under the weather. The next morning, his wife, Agneta Falk, discovered he had died overnight. At 87, he had the good sense and good luck to leave this world in his sleep while still in the game — no drawn-out indignity of helpless agony for a guerrillero determined to die with his boots on. His unexpected exit sent shockwaves through hundreds of poets in the Bay Area and beyond to whom he was an irreplaceable compañero. Though slightly younger than the youngest end of the Beat generation — whose lone survivor, Gary Snyder, is three years Jack’s senior, and Jack always said he was a working-class poet, a bohemian but not a beatnik — he was the last of the bards of that extended cohort. With his death, following the loss of Lawrence Ferlinghetti earlier this year, San Francisco will never be the same.

Jack Hirschman will not be forgotten by anyone who knew him. As Walt Whitman said of himself, he convinced by his presence. Because he thrived beyond the fringes of mainstream publishing (City Lights still has a few of his books in print), his poetry is not easy to find — except online, ironically, as Jack was a vocal opponent of technocracy in all its material and virtual forms — but those who read it will discover the wildly uneven excessiveness, the maximalism of a brilliant verbal imagination ranging across vast landscapes public and private, world-historical and intimate-lyrical, a celebration of inexhaustible linguistic invention, a journey through the restless consciousness of a soul of extraordinary magnitude.

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Stephen Kessler’s new book of poems, Last Call, will be out this month from Black Widow Press. His versions of Luis Cernuda have received a Lambda Literary Award, the PEN Center USA Translation Award, and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets. His website is: www.stephenkessler.com

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Photograph of Jack Hirschman at Caffe Trieste by Christopher Michel.