Last Thursday, 72-year-old San Franciscan Jack Hirschman was inaugurated as the fourth Poet Laureate of San Francisco, and several stories have already been written about Jack, but all have presented only a two-dimensional image of the real person. That Jack supported Matt Gonzalez for mayor, that he’s lived an alternative lifestyle (the Chronicle story used “bohemian,” a word that went out of style in the 1960s), that he’s published numerous books — all have been mentioned in the various accounts.
When our newest Poet Laureate speaks, his thick East Coast accent gives him away to reveal his New York roots, where he was born in 1933. Jack moved to San Francisco in 1973 after a brief university teaching career he left in the 1960s.
But who is Jack Hirschman?
Jack Hirschman is a passionate social justice activist who shares with his friends his warmth and affection. He opens his heart in discussions to share his feelings about the injustices of the world, and offers a hug when you greet him and a hug when he leaves.
As an active member of the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, he travels extensively for speaking engagements and to promote his plethora of published poetry, including several months a year which he spends in Europe. And wherever he goes, Jack is greeted as what one person describes “America’s most important living poet.”
Whenever I talk with Jack and the subject matter steers to poetry, Jack expresses his admiration for the three San Francisco Poet Laureates who preceded him, but he is most fond of 86-year-old Lawrence Ferlinghetti who he speaks of with reverence.
During last Thursday’s press conference and inauguration, Jack described himself as follows in his acceptance speech:
“Philosophically, I am an internationalist who knows that neither homelessness and poverty globally and specifically here in San Francisco, which the Mayor is much concerned with, as well as war and street violence, will ever end until and unless the wealth of this world is re-distributed and/or appropriated for the benefit of all, according to our needs as human beings. All of my poetry and intellectual expression is in one way or another directed to that end. And since I believe that all human beings are poets in fact, and that the writing of a poem is the most powerful action given to humankind (because unbuyable and unsellable in essence, and because a child of 5 years and a man or woman of seventy years, in the act of writing a poem, evoke the equality that is love at the heart of the world), I write to unfold the future of that equality with all my brother and sister human beings.”
Other accounts made note of Jack’s insistence of and persistence in speaking out about the plight of the homeless, yet none of the accounts recalled Jack’s reading of his 1987 poem simply called “Home,” which he read at the inauguration. In case you missed the broadcast on SFGTV and you haven’t read the piece, here it is in its entirety:
“Winter has come.
In doorways, in alleys, at the top
under cardboard, under rag-blankets
or, if lucky, in plastic sacks,
after another day of humiliation,
isolated, divided, penniless,
jobless, wheezing, dirty
skin wrapped around cold bones,
that’s us, that’s us in the USA,
hard concrete, cold pillow,
where fire? where drink?
damned stiffs in a drawer
soon if, and who cares?
shudders so intimate,
our hands finally closed in clench
after another day panhandling,
tongues hanging out;
dogs ate more today, are curled
at the feet of beds, can belch, fart,
have hospitals they can be taken to,
they’ll come out of houses and sniff
us dead one day,
pieces of shit lying scattered here
in an American city
reknowned for its food and culture.
The concrete is our sweat hardened,
the bridge our vampirized blood;
the downtown, Tenderloin and Broadway lights —
our corpuscles transformed into ads;
our pulse-beat the sound tengtengendeng
of coins piling up on counters,
in phonebooths, Bart machines, tengtengendeng
in parking meters, pinball contraptions,
public lavatories, toll booths;
our skin converted into dollar bills,
plastic cards, banknotes, lampshades
for executive offices, newspapers,
our heart — the bloody organ the State
gobbles like a geek in a sideshow
that’s become a national circus of the damned.
O murderous system of munitions and inhuman rights
that has plundered our pockets and dignity,
O enterprise of crime that calls us criminals,
terrorism that cries we are fearful,
greed that evicts us from the places we ourselves have built,
miserable war-mongery that sentences us to misery
and public exposure as public nuisances
to keep a filthy republic clean —
this time we shall not be disappeared
in innercity ghetto barrio or morgue,
this time our numbers are growing into battalions
of united cries:
We want the empty offices collecting dust!
We want the movie houses from midnite til dawn!
We want the churches opened 24 gods a day!
We built them. They’re ours. We want them!
No more doorways, garbage-pail alleys,
no more automobile graveyards,
underground sewer slums.
We want public housing!
No more rat-pit tubing, burnt-out rubble-caves,
no more rain-soaked dirt in the mouth,
empty dumpster nightmares of avalanches of trash
and broken bricks,
screams of women hallucinating at Muni entrance gates,
no more kids with death-rattling teeth
under discarded tarp.
We want public housing!
we the veterans of your insane wars,
workers battered into jobless oblivion,
the factory young: fingers crushed into handout
on Chumpchange St.,
the factory old: spat-out phlegm from the sick
corporate chest of Profits.
Instead of raped respect, jobs
with enough to live on!
Instead of exile and eviction in this,
our home, our land,
Homeland once and for all
for one and all
and not just this one-legged cry
on a crutch on a rainy sidewalk.
(Copyright 2006 by Jack Hirschman)
When I talked with Jack on Thursday night, he noted that while the mayor may have stated he commends those who disagree with him, Jack and I disagreed on our perceptions of how the mayor deals with criticism. Jack feels the mayor easily deals with critiques, but it has been my experience that Mayor Newsom has great difficulty dealing with criticism, indeed, is incapable of understanding contentiousness and is taken aback when so confronted. But one thing Jack and I agreed on is that Newsom probably knows very little about poetry and hence his reliance on the senior William Newsom for advice on picking Jack for the position of Poet Laureate of San Francisco.
While the position is symbolic, Jack feels it is a tremendous honor and was and still is excited about representing San Francisco and feels the honor is a victory for working-class people of The City. Additionally, Jack leaked inside information to me that there might just be a possibility of him receiving a small honorarium for his position. And as Poet Laureate of San Francisco, Jack Hirschman wants to organize an International Poetry Festival of San Francisco and invite other social justice activists worldwide to participate. Jack’s first thought for a location was the Palace of Fine Arts.
To learn more about Jack Hirschman, visit LRNA.org, where you will also find an email link to request Jack’s presence at an event you are planning. I know Jack would be thrilled to speak so don’t feel hesitant about inviting him.
In April, the League of Revolutionaries for a New America will be presenting Speakers for a New America, and Jack will be among the scheduled speakers.
Finally, my thanks to Tony Robles of Manilatown Heritage Foundation for introducing me to Jack, and congratulations to Jack Hirschman, Poet Laureate of San Francisco — his poetry and his deep, booming voice sound the call for social justice for all.Filed under: Archive