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George's poetry in Fall 2002

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George is editor at www.poetrybay.com



Beyond Polemic:
On The Poetry Of Jack Hirschman



By George Wallace


Most people familiar with the alternative poetry “scene” will identify Jack Hirschman (born Dec 13, 1933 in the Bronx) as a radical political “street poet” with long standing prominence in and association with the San Francisco area.

Partially right.

These days Hirschman spends a good half of his year in Europe. And while Hirschman makes no bones about his continued adherence to leftist movements — citing radical credentials in his bio that include everything from getting kicked off the teaching staff of UCLA for helping students resist the Vietnam War to affiliation with such organizations as the Communist Labor Party, The Union of Left Writers, the Roque Dalton Cultural Brigade, and more recently the League of Revolutionaries for a New America — there's more to this radical cat than meets the eye.

Hirschman was at the Bowery Poetry Club last Saturday to promote two new books published for him — one from City Lights in San Francisco and the second from a small publishing house in Italy — and gave an impassioned reading which combined his unique ability to bridge the gap between oratorical polemic and tenderness of personal _expression. In doing so, he once again revealed the duality of a man whose exceptional publishing career has led him to groundbreaking translations of work from Europe and Latin America, an impressive range of themes and modalities in his own creative work, and a durability that transcends the particular.

Now the critics commonly go only so far in discussing Hirschman's duality — the San Francisco Chronicle, for example, calls Hirschman's poetry “tender but tough, with a steel fist in his velvet glove.”

In fact, Hirschman's range is impressive even in Front Lines: Selected Poems, from City Lights and their canon of pocket poets (this is number 55 in a series that includes everything from Ferlinghetti's early Beat pals to translations of Yevtushenko and Jacques Prevert).

Of course 200 pages isn't enough to get to the range of a man as prolific as Hirschman, who claims over 100 books published. To be sure, we are treated to the usual litany of American Capitalism's faults — and the faults of its henchmen — one might expect from most any “alternative” podium (“I'm speaking to gums that no longer have teeth/PRI has yanked them/to teeth that no longer have gold/PRI has stolen it/to bones starving under layers of rags”).

This sort of rhetoric will be inspirational to some and tiresome to those who cannot see the artistic inspiration behind their politically correct polemics.

This would be a shame because, in the collected poems, Hirschman offers hints of so many of the different points of inspirational light which have inspired him in fifty years as a writer. From the spiritual mysticism of a Kabbalist to the elegiac commentary of a man in love with the linguistic and other arts, through paeans to such as Dylan Thomas and Franz Kline, Ray Charles and JS Bach. And from playful parodies of WC Fields to romantic and filial devotions.

“I am home/you are home/inside/ the children are/asleep in/their room/” he writes in Hymn; draws for us an image of “the silver espresso trees/a couple is kissing under” in Paris; offers up tender praise with “a word/for unobstructed bliss/after loving” in “The Unnameable”.

Or this, from “Five”:

Since you have put
your finger on me
I have no desire,
no more water in

the pail, no more
moon in the water,
only this snow
falling, this

slow filling up of the
room

Evidence enough that you don't have to be an ideologue to appreciate the music and the deceptively simple magic in his writing.

The concurrent appearance, with these selected poems, of a thin volume of translations, entitled Fling Of Flame: The Poems of Martin Heidegger to Hannah Arendt , published by Edizioni Gutenberg in Italy with outstanding production values and a particularly attractive cover created by Agneta Falk, presents a different matter for contemplation in the career of this remarkable writer.

While the selected poems has plenty of polemic in its poetry, neither steel nor velvet seems to have been a factor in Hirschman's choice to translate for publication the poems of Martin Heidegger, so much as an opportunity to introduce these heretofore rather unknown works to the world.

Hirschman has a long “involvement” with the work of Heidegger, a point which has in it apparent contradictions alluded to in a 1998 interview with longtime collaborator David Meltzer in an extended piece published in San Francisco Beat (City Lights, 2001).

Hirschman professes an interest in the dialectic of Heidegger as opposed to the controversial political views he held running up to World War II, including “the dialectic interplay between revealing and concealment...(where) he's talking about the interplay between being and nothingness.”

“I respect him for many things,” says Hirschman of Heidegger. “He writes very beautifully about poetry and what poetry really is.” Heidegger, he says, “refutes the metaphysical” yet leaves us with “the texture of the poem that becomes religion...The art becomes “religion,” and that's where we began as poets.”

While epigrammatically distilled, these poems, which were found in letters from the German philosopher to his star pupil (and lover) Hannah Arendt, are frequently arcane — an emotionally stripped down and abstruse set of philosophical declarations on the part of a man who was known as one of the twentieth century's great thinkers.

Great and controversial, it seems — Heidegger's reputation was badly damaged because of his associations with the Nazis prior to and during WWII, and it might seem odd for a man of Hirschman's espousal to wish to work with the German philosopher's writings at all. Especially as, in Front Lines , we are treated to a didactic thrashing of Ezra Pound for his associations with the Fascists in Italy during the same era.

Here's Hirschman on Pound, in his poem “Ezra Dog”, in full righteous fettle: “The fascist's sell-out experimentalism/ would be evoked and re-evoked/until, lo and behold/universities and writing cliques/were glutted/with Dog's disciples.” It gets worse from there. Meanwhile in his introduction to Fling of Flame , Hirschman rather dismissively glosses what many believe to be Heidegger's warm embrace of the Nazis with a bland “after withdrawing from that allegiance a couple of years later, maintained a cowardly ambiguity toward the movement til the end of the war...”

To be fair, in Meltzer's interview, Jack Hirschman confronts the matter more directly. “Heidegger believed for a year and maybe even longer in National Socialism,” he says, “but (he) never made speeches of such horrible, gutter-level anti-Semitism as Pound did. I suppose there was anti-Semitism in Heidegger. Here I do think it's a matter of language. You need only look at the language of Ezra Pound in those radio speeches...As a fascist using the language of anti-Semitism — the heart of Nazism — Pound was closer to Hitlerian fascism, linguistically, than was Heidegger.”

There are those who, enamored of Pound's accomplishments in the literary field, practice a similarly selective opprobrium in an attempt to “spin” away his objectionable politics.
Both men are easy targets for those who choose to attack them for their politics, and the politics of each prove problemmatic for the fans of either.

And Hirschman is quite assertively a fan of the poetry of the philosopher in this volume, praising its philosophical clarity and “presence in the Now” of the poems, saying Heidegger's work reveals “a sense of futural certainty — a confidence of form, a structuring that is always present in Heidegger's questioning, adventurous and exhilarating (if at times exasperating verbal configurations.)”

What Hirschman calls exasperating others might call intellectual coldness or misdirection. Yet there are moments which, while grounded in theory more than experience, contain expressive warmth. “Take The Look Again, dated Feb 6, 1950”: “When love rises in thinking/Being's already inclined to it/When thinking clears itself for love/grace has poetized the light in its direction.” In other poems Heidegger betrays his connectedness to Arendt, providing epigrams to poems “For H,” or “For H across the ocean.”

As in “No Way Out”, which begins with the lines “Let the name here/for you and me/be the one adornment.” And the poem You, from which the title to the volume is drawn has lovely moments.

YOU

Fling of flame
courted early on!
This is the gate
from whose depths
suddenly upward
toward the still vastness
— that It summons —
meeting again got lost.

But these glimmers of warmth are fleeting, outweighed in the main by Heidegger's lapses into theoretical epigram-making, verses which are either arcane or incomprehensible to any but those who are serious students of the man and his work.

A note on translation is in order here — Fling of Flame is a hint at the broad accomplishments of Jack Hirschman in the area of translation, and is worth exploring if only as a contrasting point to his other more accessible efforts in this area. The author notes he's been translating for many many years — Paul Celan and Louis Aragon from the French, Neruda, Mayakovsky. In fact Hirschman's translation work is not just firebreathing — it contains a scholarly quality and exploratory vigor that is often under appreciated. His translation of the fantastic work of the El Salvadoran Roque Dalton, which is at once witty and confrontational, is but one example; he also edited 500,000 Azaleas, the selected poems of Efrain Huerta (Curbstone Press 2001), a book that was brought out with the support of a prominent US-Mexico Fund for Culture and the NEA.

It is interesting to follow how the circuitous debate over polemics and poetry plays itself out in this volume. Ilan Stavans in his foreword to that book makes no bones about decrying stilted oratorical diatribes of political poetry: “In the late thirties...Huerta was a leading figure in the group...that remained most loyal to pro-Soviet affiliation...a low point in his artistic quest — not unique in a continent whose artists have at times been blinded by the oratory of a fascist state masked as messianic,” writes Stavan. “Huerta's oratory is at times hard to take. But his is not a poetry of propaganda that should be forgotten. Quite the contrary — through is work it is possible to revisit, sometimes better than in that of any other poet, the ups and downs of poetry in the Southern hemisphere in the twentieth century.”

Neither is Jack Hirschman's poetry, as in Stavan's assessment of Huerta, a poetry of propaganda that should be forgotten.

That having been said, one might only wonder at the private thoughts of Hirschman over a deflection like that of Stavans. Perhaps this passage from Xibalba Arcane, a 1994 publication of his from Azul Editions, for “the brave fighters of Chiapas,” may provide a clue.
We will no longer subsist on stones.
We will lean on the light and bend with it all the way out.
Hiding in silent misery will be a thing of the past.
All this wrangling over the buying and selling of the heart
and the buying and selling of the heart will cease.
You shall talk to me and I with you.
The way the world is made and given will be fresh and new.
And in the season of the opening of the flowers
when we yearn for the flowers and lie down among the flowers
we will weep because the divisions of the world are one.

Those with an affection for the artistry in his art may reasonably suspect that this passage is illustrative of the place hopefulness and love of language occupy in the complex oeuvre of a man like Jack Hirschman. In works like these, those forces quite clearly enable him to transcend his own polemics to the realm of substantial art.


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George Wallace George Wallace is author of six chapbooks of poems, including a group of poems published in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of California statehood. swimming through water, his first full length collection of poems, translated by Anny Ballardini and published bi-lingually by La Finestra, is introduced to the Italian and American markets by Paolo Ruffilli and Mary de Rachewiltz. Wallace is editor of www.poetrybay.com, and co-hosts poetrybrook usa, a poetry radio show streamed on line from Stonybrook University, at www.wusb.org. A wide sampling of his work may be found in the editorial board section of www.poetrybay.com.