Jack Hirschman, Marxist poet and North Beach personality, dies at 87


Jack Hirschman, an academic and nine-language translator who gave up a career as a college professor for the life of a proletarian North Beach poet, died Sunday at his home on Union Street in San Francisco.

With his broom mustache, aged face, disheveled hair and odd hat, Hirschman was what one wanted in a bohemian, and he lived the role in a single room in the old hotel above Caffe Trieste. . Even after the wedding upgraded him to a cottage behind a building, Hirschman still came to his room to write every day.

Hirschman was 87 and gave a reading at a foreign cinema on Wednesday before catching a cold, his wife, poet and calligrapher Agneta Falk said on Sunday. The cause of death is undetermined.

“It’s devastating for the local community because Jack was a friend to everyone,” Beat Museum founder Jerry Cimino said on Sunday. “Jack was too young to be considered a Beat, but he knew them all, and his reach and influence extended far beyond San Francisco and California. He was always accessible, and a word of recommendation from Jack could launch a poet’s career.

A former San Francisco poet laureate, Hirschman has enjoyed a publishing career that spanned over 50 years and over 100 volumes, although half of them are translations.

“The most important thing as a poet is that I have worked for the communist movement for 45 years and the new class of impoverished and homeless people,” he said in an interview in 2018 to inform this obituary, while he was lying on his double bed on the fourth floor of a building with no elevator, overlooking Columbus Avenue.

Much of his work was published by small publishers, often as small as Hirschman’s bedroom, equipped with a copier and stapler, and a print run of 150 copies. “One of my presses,” he said, “is that room you’re sitting in.”

If he wasn’t in that room, Hirschman was usually around the corner in Caffe Trieste, his face hidden under a floppy hat and behind a double espresso. It was here that he wrote his first poem in San Francisco in the early 1970s, shortly after being dismissed from UCLA faculty for anti-war activism.

He wrote a poem in Russian, then translated it into English, as follows. “You are not a slave / And I am not a machine / And this is not an opium den, comrade.”

Building on success, he wrote one poem a day in Russian for 12 years, in addition to two poems in English as his daily output. The poems were piling up. His best-known work, “Les Arcades”, was published in two volumes of 1000 pages each. At the time of his death, he had 450 pages in volume 3.

“Jack is a very American voice,” said the late Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and co-owner of City Lights, once. “He certainly aims to be the voice of the people – of course he would define ‘the people’ in Marxist terms.”

Although Hirschman was often referred to as a Beat poet or a street poet, he preferred to think of himself as a working class poet of the working class who never stopped working.

“He wasn’t ambitious at all,” Falk said. “but I don’t know anyone who wrote as much as he did.”

Well into his 80s, Hirschman was the curator of Tuesday poetry readings at the North Beach branch of the San Francisco Public Library.

He always started it off by offering a fresh poem, delivered with the nasal twang of his native New York. He read fiercely, as if he was still trying to rouse the people against the state. After the free reading, he would lead the procession to Specs’ 12 Adler Museum Cafe, where he sat at a round table with the ever-shrinking supply of North Beach poets, for pizza and beer.

“Jack would hate to have his poetry classified as agitprop,” Ferlinghetti said. “He elevates it above the agitprop by the emotion he puts in it.”

Even lying in bed on a weekday afternoon, Hirschman could muster deep emotion for a reading of “Path,” the poem he said he would most like to be remembered.

“Go to your broken heart,” he began. “If you think you don’t have one, buy one. To get one, be sincere. Learn the sincerity of intention in letting in life because you are truly powerless to do otherwise.

Hirschman was born on December 13, 1933 and raised in the Bronx, New York. His mother read to him “The Shadow” by Robert Louis Stevenson and it taught him to love the sound of words. At 12, he wrote and sang his first poem, “The Bells of Liberty”. He fell in love with Hemingway and sent him a writing sample. Hemingway’s response was subsequently published under the title “Letter to a Young Writer”.

“I can’t help you have fun,” Hemingway wrote. “You write better than I did when I was 19. But damn it, you write like me. It’s not a sin, but you won’t get anywhere with it.

Considering these words, Hirschman took the path of academia, attending City College in New York where he learned to speak Latin and Greek while radicalizing on the streets of Manhattan.

He claimed to have attended Dylan Thomas’ last public reading before his death in New York in 1953.

Hirschman wrote his thesis on “Finnegan’s Wake” by James Joyce and received his BA in 1955. He received his doctorate. from Indiana University, where he published his first volume of poetry, “A Correspondence of Americans”, in 1960.

In 1954 he married City College classmate Ruth Epstein and they had two children, David and Celia.

He moved the family from Indiana to New Hampshire, where he taught at Dartmouth College, and then across the country at UCLA, where he was hired as an assistant professor of comparative literature. He was fired for encouraging students to resist conscription during the Vietnam War.

“I became a Communist when I was fired from UCLA,” he said. What it is is the translation he wrote for “A Rainbow for the Christian West” by Haitian René Depestre. A reading of this translation can be found in the Pacifica Radio Archives.

Hirschman had a family to support, but he left academia and never returned, retreating instead to Venice where he did nothing but write poems, translate poems and paint for four years.

Hirschman and Esptein divorced before he moved to San Francisco in 1972, coming to the end of the years of prolific poetry known as the San Francisco Renaissance. Hirschman first lived in the former New Riviera hotel, where he began his long association with Caffe Trieste.

Like jazz musicians, Hirschman was better appreciated abroad. “They love it in Europe,” said Falk, a Swedish poet and illustrator. “Fame took hold of him.”

Falk met Hirschman when he gave a reading in London. Hirschman liked to say that she had moved into her single room where they had lived for 10 years, but said it was just conversation. They lived in his largest house on Broadway, before moving to the Union Street Cottage.

In 2007, Hirschman was named the San Francisco Poet Laureate.

During his inaugural address, Hirschman pledged to help organize a three-day poetry festival in San Francisco.

“There is a poet, as we know, behind every espresso cup here in San Francisco,” he said in closing his remarks. “Many write anonymously, even clandestinely. Yet everywhere the human poetic soul knows how to deconstruct power.

Hirschman was a founding member of the Union of Left Writers of San Francisco and a member in good standing of the Union of Street Poets. He called himself a working class poet of the working class and did not like being called a Beat. To be called bohemian, he would reluctantly allow it.

“Of course I’m a bohemian,” he said in his last interview. “Look at this room.”

He was predeceased by his son David, who died of leukemia in 1982. Survivors include his wife Agneta Falk of San Francisco and daughter Celia Hirschman of Oroville.

Sam Whiting is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Instagram: @sfchronicle_art

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