Poet who played political card
Jack Hirschman toed no lines as artist-activist and even shaped the writing of the 'Dean of Rock Critics'
SAN FRANCISCO-based poet Jack Hirschman, a figure of high political commitment and principle and one who was a Beat Generation member only by association, has died at the age of 87.
Born in New York City and a highly respected by his fellow writers, he became his adopted city’s Poet Laureate in 2006 and also founded an International Poetry Festival in the Bay Area.
I only met Hirschman a couple of times but, in the later-1990s, when he came to Britain for a short series of reading dates, we spoke and I made an acquaintance with his fellow touring poet David Meltzer, whom I’d been commissioned to profile for the magazine Beat Scene, which became a friendship.
My partner Jayne Sheridan and I not only saw the two poets read twice over a few days in that English bohemian capital of Hebden Bridge – the pair of West Coast visitors were staying there – but also a thrillingly enjoyable afternoon with Meltzer in a White Rose public house perched halfway up a Calder Valley hill.
Meltzer was light, bright and amusing, Hirschman much more serious, yet each man saw life through highly political eyes. They were committed to the Left and energetically rejected those apolitical tags sometimes pinned to their fellow Beat travellers.
Pictured above: Hirschman with Agneta Falk, the Swedish poet, writer and artist, he married in 1999. She hosted his visit to Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, in 1997.
A little later, in 2004, I ran into Hirschman again outside City Lights Bookstore and we chatted about our earlier meeting in the UK. By then, he was part of that celebrated Ferlinghetti publishing family and the title of his recently-issued verse collection Front Lines, put out by that famed imprint, adopted a typically polemic expression. But that volume was only one of around 100 editions he released during his lifetime.
In the 1960s, he taught at UCLA and had intended filmmaker and future rock star Jim Morrison among his cohort. But his academic career was cut short when he encouraged those on campus to resist the Vietnam draft.
Like his close friend Meltzer, who died in 2016, he took a keen interest in jazz and, intriguingly, became an influence on a man who would become one of America’s greatest rock journalists. Robert Christgau, the so-called ‘Dean of Rock Critics’ claimed in his autobiography Going Into the City that, while one of his students, Hirschman changed his writing and his life. ‘He taught me to ponder every word,’ says the eminent music commentator.
The SF Gate reported the poet’s passing: ‘Speaking on behalf of the World Poetry Movement, Ataol Behramoglu said the organisation learned of Hirschman’s death just minutes before he was scheduled to speak in the last of their regular online interviews as the WPM coordinator board.
‘[It] is a big shock to us close friends and fellow activists,’ said Behramoglu. ‘It has been a great loss to American and world poetry.’