“I haven’t written a line,” said poet and painter Agneta Falk, at once overwhelmed and appreciative of the response since her husband Jack Hirschman, the poet, translator, editor and literary organizer, passed away on Aug. 22. “It’s just been one foot in front of the other.”
Since the 1970s, Hirschman lived and wrote in post-Beat era North Beach, a legend among street artists, poets and those we used to call hipsters, but largely unknown to the straitlaced world of literature and publishing at large.
“I know he was loved, but to be honest, I can’t believe the response to his demise,” said Falk. “I’ve heard from people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, France, Italy, Portugal, China … I’ve heard from men who are bereft, completely lost. He was like a father figure to them.”
As a word man, Hirschman was awake to the idea of crossing linguistic boundaries, though he was champion not only of poetry, but of people, locally and globally, his emphasis often on unsung voices from the working class and those whose first written languages varied, but whose native tongues afforded them the ability to say more with one word or a phrase than a compendium in English could ever convey.
“He had a broad view of what equity should look like, in the days before it was articulated that way,” noted Kim Shuck, The City’s seventh poet laureate.
A translator of nine languages including French, Hebrew, Russian, Greek and Italian, Hirschman demonstrated his belief in people power by moving marginalized voices to the front, whether poets from Iran, Afghanistan, or the Tenderloin.
“Jack was probably the most important translator in our time,” said Alejandro Murguía, San Francisco’s sixth poet laureate. “He was a great translator of Roque Dalton, the Salvadoran poet.”
Poets who were bi- and monolingual, multiracial and of various ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds were booked at their first readings and translated by Hirschman, who was named San Francisco’s fourth poet laureate.
“He saw people, big and small. He gave so many people a lift; that’s why he’s so beloved,” Falk stated.
“He knew the people of his neighborhood, he knew their challenges, what was on their minds, and wanted to know how he could help,” said Matt Gonzalez, chief attorney of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, visual artist and longtime friend of Hirschman’s. “If he were talking to someone he talked to them like they were the most important person in the room.”
Hirschman was born in 1933 in New York City. Perhaps intending to become a journalist, he worked as a copy boy for the Associated Press. After receiving his advanced degrees in literature, he taught at Dartmouth, then made his way to California and UCLA, where his anti-Vietnam stance encouraged students to resist the draft and his activism did not agree with the institution, nor the powers that drive it. Retreating to San Francisco, Hirschman was welcome among the artists and exiles, though it was not a period without hardship.
“He’d been so careful building his academic career, achieving his masters and Ph.D. from Indiana University, the teaching posts…he had the security of that kind of perch,” said Gonzalez. “When his politics, his opposition to the war, made him realize he wasn’t aligned with the establishment, the impact was a period of isolation.”
Without a steady income and little in the way of notoriety, Hirschman persisted throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. “That’s three decades of translating, publishing on his own, writing poems and going to rallies handing out Communist newspapers on the street,” said Gonzalez, who reckons it was Hirschman’s personal commitment to poetry and politics that added to his charisma.
“He didn’t lament where he was at. He had few readers, but they were committed and he celebrated that. He felt very positive about translating an obscure Kabbalah text,” said Gonzalez. “He was committed to building a network of like-minded people.”
The City provided the base for most of Hirschman’s adult life and work, as he traveled, organizing poetry festivals and readings and always writing, culminating in his 4,000-page “The Arcanes,” characterized as “the most prolific output by an American poet since Pablo Neruda.” Its first volume compelled one critic to compare it to the discoveries awaiting the reader of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” The fourth and final volume of “The Arcanes” will be published posthumously by Hirschman’s Italian publisher.
“I’ve seen the descriptions,” said Falk, of her husband’s reputation as a raconteur holding down tables at bars like Specs and the Caffe Trieste.
“He wasn’t hanging out in cafes. He was the most disciplined person I know. He would write, write, write and translate,” said Falk. In their travels together, she said she had to encourage him to “please look up” as he sat, head down on the train, with scenery passing him by as he lost himself in pages of translation. “His life really was his work,” she said.
Falk, who is originally from Sweden, first crossed paths with Hirschman in 1980.
“I was living with his oldest friend in the world, Asa Benveniste,” said Falk. “He had published Jack in England and he was visiting us. When Asa passed in 1990, Jack wrote the most beautiful poem.”
Hirschman sent the poem to Falk and the basis of their friendship was formed. “All my friends said, ‘She’ll never go with another man ever,’” said Falk, though in 1995 she invited a cohort of American poets, including Hirschman, to attend an international poetry festival.
“We kept in touch via letters for two years. In 1996, I made a book of love poems for him, and he hadn’t forgotten it. Recently he said, ‘You should have these for your next book,’” which is what Falk intends to do.
“Some of them I could’ve written yesterday,” she said, then read aloud her “Autumn Song.” Here’s an extract:
Time has passed,
is the silhouette
of your laughter,
the deep joy
slowly gathering in the vestibule
for the final kiss.
“And then I moved here, we got married and have been together ever since,” said Falk, of the couple’s partnership since the late ’90s, often artistically collaborative.
“We gave each other feedback,” she said. “He was always wanting to read me his latest work. We traveled all over the world, to Colombia, China, Italy and France as a team. A week before he passed, he gave me some plays he had filed in his study. ‘See what you think,’” said Falk. “He wrote so much — political poems, lyrical poems, funny, humorous and the plays. He was extraordinarily dedicated. Abroad, he’s mega.”
Among his piles of poems, there are dedications to his childhood friend Benveniste, poems for Gonzalez, for homeless activist Sarah Menefee, and to poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, and of course, Falk.
“Jack was not always the central figure he became,” explained Shuck, who remembered Hirschman in the days he was in mid-career, though his appreciation of new voices, marginalized voices was always present.
“Reading across linguistic boundaries, he put certain people forward,” said Shuck. “San Francisco is racially hegemonic, but it isn’t a cultural hegemony and Jack knew that. You have to engage with your neighbor, on the street, on the bus, and he supported that kind of thing.” His Poets 11 project with Friends of the San Francisco Public Library collected verses from all of The City’s districts into several volumes.
“I read with him five times in the week before he passed, including at Janice Mirikitani’s memorial,” said Shuck. “He wasn’t from here, but he became of here. San Francisco is on the map poetically and he’s been an important part of San Francisco poetics, and of ensuring the Northern Californian voice is still heard,” she said. “That is an area that is going to need tending.”
Five days before he passed, both Falk and Hirschman read at Foreign Cinema, where they had paintings on view in the adjacent gallery.
“We didn’t feel so good, but he said, I’m going, and he was good that night, he read strongly,” said Falk. “But the day after, both of us were extremely tired.”
Hirschman had survived a serious bout with pneumonia in recent years and his cause of death was noted as oxygen arrest, though the day after his death the results from the couple’s previous week’s COVID test arrived in the mail: Hirschman had tested positive.
“Poetry is really a weapon. It’s a spiritual weapon for the transformation of the world,” Hirschman wrote, by way of introduction to one of his collections. “And, of course, all my poems are love poems. The nicest thing in the world is to propagandize for love.”
In December, the San Francisco Public Library will host a memorial reading for Hirschman, though more immediately, poets, musicians, friends and the public are invited to celebrate Hirschman’s life on Oct. 2 starting at noon at Specs Adler Place. A second line will procession through North Beach toward Washington Square Park for a memorial program beginning at 2 p.m. emceed by Murguía.
“The world slowly appropriated many of his values and decided rightfully, this is an important poet we need to pay attention to,” said Gonzalez.
“They don’t make them like Jack anymore,” said Falk, sifting through letters and photos, books and writings by Hirschman, memories and offerings of their life together.
“He’s left a big hole in the world,” said Falk. “He was an extraordinarily kind human being. I feel lucky to have had that kind of love. When you’ve loved and you’ve been thoroughly loved, it’s a privilege. It’s unbeatable.”
Denise Sullivan, an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions,” can be reached at denisesullivan.com and @4DeniseSullivan. SF Lives/Live Talks are live streamed at 10 a.m. on the second Sunday of the month from birdbeckett.com.