Thomas Rain Crowe   •  October 25, 2003

James Joyce, Dylan Thomas and Vladimir Mayakovsky Join Forces

A Review of Jack Hirschman’s Front Lines

Front Lines by Jack Hirschman, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 224 pages, ISBN: 0-87286-400-6, $15.95 paper

“Jack Hirschman is one of the most galvanizing public readers of poetry performing today.”

Contemporary Authors

“I get the sense that American poetry is part of the entertainment scene. One thing for sure, poetry will come from the most vulnerable, wounded sections of society and one’s own life. That’s where real poetry comes from. That’s where it’s always come from. It doesn’t come from anything institutionalized. That’s not the real stuff.”

— Jack Hirschman, from San Francisco Beat: Talking With The Poets

Jack HirschmanI met Jack Hirschman twenty eight years ago on the streets of North Beach, San Francisco following a reading he had just given at the then Malvina’s Coffeehouse. Never having read any of his poetry and having been nothing less than astonished by what I had heard earlier that evening, I asked after something of his work that I could lay my eyes on. We walked into the nearby City Lights Bookstore on Columbus and Broadway and he directed me to a small odd-shaped book on one of the many shelves of the downstairs poetry section, saying “This is my most painterly of books.” The book was Aur Sea, which had recently been published by Tree Books in Bolinas, California, just up the coast from San Francisco.

I have been following the work of Jack Hirschman ever since. And while Aur Sea is maybe still my favorite collection of his work — with its Joycean, Finnegan’s Wake-like lyricism, wordplay and inventive punning — I have found reason to delight or even be amazed in each of the many books he has published over the last quarter century or more.

Today, I see Hirschman not with the same youthful, star-struck eyes of that first meeting, but see him, rather, more critically, as one of the most important poets of the American twentieth century.

For a poet as prolific as Jack Hirschman, the 224 pages of his new City Lights book Front Lines — a selected poems covering a half-century of work from 1952 to 2001 — gives us only a fraction of his gargantuan output over that long, productive arc. (With over one hundred books of original work and translations at last count.) With a deft touch, he has lifted many of the best poems from these years, giving us a consolidated, if not a “best of” Hirschman reader, in which the turning of each page causes something of a small epiphany, if not outright cause for celebration. Yet, while being single-handedly America’s most prolific, public, and most politically outspoken poet, his work has been critically neglected, even ignored. Only this year did he receive an American Book Award Lifetime Achievement Award at the age of seventy — the first, if not the only, literary award bestowed upon him by the American literary establishment.

Hirschman’s fifty-year arc is as high as it is wide. In Front Lines, we are taken on that kabbalist-to-communist ride over the lyrical bridge of international influences that, appropriately, begins with a poem from 1952 entitled “For Dylan Thomas”

While cold November rain rapped fate,
I do not lament.
For in the poverty of days, I am swollen
By the fullblown cantos, from the mouth
Of the choir of the bellringing dead.

and ends with “The Twin Towers Arcane” written in 2001 as an homage to the city of his birth as well as a requiem to American democracy and highlighted in such lines as:

Children of a star-spangled nihilism…
The rule of nothingness is complete now

(Hirschman confided in me during another meeting during the San Francisco 1970s that it had been at a New York reading given by Dylan Thomas that he had been inspired to devote his life to poetry, and more specifically to lyric poetry.) Amidst this arc, a diverse multi-culturalism and many languages are also invoked transfiguratively, making him a true American cornucopia of sensibility, whereas an iconoclastic world-view is concerned.

During what has been a long period (following the more libertarian 50s and 60s) of poetic malaise — due in large measure to the increasing domination of MFA (corporate) poets and programs — Hirschman emerges larger than life as the Paul Revere of the American literary scene. From his long-time home in North Beach, San Francisco, he has been sending out the cry: “the capitalists are coming, the capitalists are coming!” In 2003 and a quarter century later, and following the almost nightly news of corporate corruption and scandal in the autumn of 2002, he now looks very much the prophet — with books like The Bottom Line (Curbstone Press, 1988) and The Xibalba Arcane (Azul Editions, 1994) being the essential proof of his clairvoyance.

In poems such as “Worker’s Poem” in Front Lines, the cultural and political sympathies of Hirschman’s oeuvre are accessibly evident.

You whose brows are knit
with electric streets, come sit beside
my fire-doomed face, you who gaze
on thin air, spaced out and longing
for nothing, broken violins
of bodies, diamonds of mind fractured
by the plague of money, come sit
in my winter flake, my room
which is part of this vast cage
where free birds break their wings
against the sunlight and warm
their suspicions at the broken
shoe-balance of the street.

Yet, while there is an explosive Mayakovsky-like power in his political voice, for my “money” his most memorable poems are love poems, or heart-felt elegies to the living and the dead as evidenced in poems in this new collection such as “Headlands,” “One Night,” “Vimba” and “The Love Poem” — the last lines of which serve as a virtual coda for Hirschman’s “all poems are love poems” credo: “there is a language called/ Soul, a tongue that is/ the kiss that’s the bliss/ of all blisses. Untranslatable.” For a top-flight translator, them’s strong words! But Jack Hirschman is a poet who has, quite literally, lived a life of words. He’s “walked the walk” as the saying goes. Since taking his domestic and literary life out of the boardroom and the classroom and into the streets in the late 60s, he’s never looked back. And along that pathless path many younger apprentices and literary on-lookers have been nourished and fed with the manna of his exemplary life and generosity, as well as from the continuously high quality of this work.

The publication of Front Lines, if nothing else, serves as an appropriate celebration of Jack Hirschman’s 70th birthday and his staying power as a poet of conscience. His poetic lines, these days, are every bit as charged with the scintilla that defined his youth — as the darling of the academic scene. If anything, Hirschman seems to be getting poetically younger as, still, after all these (50) years, he has managed to maintain an enviable, if not hard-fought for, position in American arts & letters: on the front line.