An unsung hero of modern poetry passed away last week. Before that, he became a legend to the national community that knew him for 20 years. He was South Boston's own Jack McCarthy.
I first saw Jack in the summer of 1998, in a neighborhood bar in Providence, where a friend persuaded me to check out the local poetry slam. Still a few years before the world of poetry-for-points surrendered to grandstanding cliché, those monthly Providence bouts felt more like back-alley boxing, with weird and diverse characters stepping forward to try and beat the reigning champ. This is back when Sage Francis was a regular co-host; it was the Wild West.
The poet to beat that summer, with a record string of uninterrupted wins under his belt, was a 60-year-old man.
He had the slight hunch of an old working stiff, and his hands trembled slightly when he spoke. His button-down shirt was a size too big and untucked. Otherwise, he wore a sweater.
Jack McCarthy wrote about baseball. He wrote about recovery. He wrote about how easily he found himself crying lately. He leaned against the pool table and held the mic loosely, speaking in a calm, unhurried tone while red-faced opponents 40 years younger pounded chests and rhyme patterns.
He was the opposite of a showboat or a blowhard. He spoke and wrote with profound carefulness and consideration, and an uncanny ability to get directly at the heart of things.
I left feeling awestruck and inspired. Jack singlehandedly showed me the worth of poetry that night, and nowadays I travel the world writing poems and rap songs for a living. The debt I owe him is incredible, and I'm far from alone in saying so.
From his discovery of the spoken-word scene to his final seated performances with an oxygen tank, Jack McCarthy was content to travel a circuit of coffee shops and open mics when weather permitted, retiring every winter to his family and returning to the road in spring.
The last time I saw him, he stopped by my studio in 2011 to record a poem for an upcoming project. He couldn't stay for dinner, as he was performing that night in Cambridge. I gave him a hug and thanked him for everything. My last memory of him is a smile and a wave through the windshield, as he headed off to the next open mic.
He left these words, posted by his daughter with the news of his death:
when love dies.
When love is deep,
it hurts deeply —
more deeply maybe than you thought
anything would ever hurt
But with time,
the spaces between the moments when it hurts
the moments themselves become
till eventually you come to associate them
with a sad sweetness
that has as much in common
as it does with grief.
I wish you long
spaces in between,
and may you carry into them
all of that sweetness,
and only enough sadness to attest
the risk that's being taken
by everyone who loves you.
— Jack McCarthy
A Northeast memorial service will take place on Saturday, February 9, at the Follen Church Society, Unitarian Universalist, in Lexington at 2 pm. The service will be followed by a reception at the church and a 6 pm open mic at the Chelmsford Public Library, 25 Boston Rd, Chelmsford.