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Jack McCarthy, legendary writer in Boston’s slam poetry scene, 73

Mr. McCarthy became well known after he in the 1998 documentary “SlamNation.”

Peter Vicinanza/file 2007

Mr. McCarthy became well known after he in the 1998 documentary “SlamNation.”

At some 200 lines, Jack ­McCarthy’s first published ­poem appeared in the Boston Sunday Globe in October 1976. Filling a page, “South Boston Sunday” describes a family stroll through the neighborhood of his youth, where even though the school busing crisis is an uneasy presence:

We will agree

This was the happiest day.

He thought the poem would launch his writing career, but that didn’t happen until another October, in 1993, when Mr. McCarthy took his youngest daughter to a poetry slam at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge. He got up to read and the positive response brought an epiphany: The poet’s voice and the audience’s ears were inseparable.

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“For me, the live audience is really the only audience I ever think about,” he said by phone when he knew his death was near. “When I put something down on paper and publish it, my highest hope is that someone somewhere will pick it up and read it to a third party. My sense of audience does not stop with the person who reads the poem. I hope the poem goes on to another life.”

Legendary in Boston’s slam poetry scene, he became nationally known when he was among those filmed for the 1998 documentary “SlamNation.” A decade ago, Mr. McCarthy moved to Seattle, where he died at home Jan. 17 of complications from colon and lung cancer. He was 73.

A consummate storyteller whose métier was verse, he wrote and performed poems that inspired laughter with one line, tears the next.

In “Neponset Circle,” one of his favorites, a driver “can get us anywhere in the world –/as long as he starts from Neponset Circle.” Mr. McCarthy concluded with a couplet celebrating his wife: “Carol, my love,/you’re my Neponset Circle.”

“Drunks” draws chilling images from his alcoholism, his 40 years of sobriety, and the lives of others that ended badly: “we tried and we died and nobody cried.”

With just as sure a hand, he used the austere constraints of haiku to poke fun at aging:

Geezers dress funny;

we can’t dress like all our friends:

all our friends are dead

He collected his poems in books, and more await posthumous publication. Those who never saw Mr. McCarthy’s dramatic performances can still hear him on CDs or watch him on YouTube.

In the video for “Substances,” a recounting and recanting of past abuses, gestures augment every line. And videos for poems such as “I Wouldn’t Want to be Jesus,” linked on Mr. McCarthy’s website, www.standupoet.net, show how swiftly he engaged a crowd, even last May when he needed oxygen tubes to breathe.

“The only ambition he seems to have is to tell the truth as best he can in poems,” the poet Thomas Lux once wrote of Mr. McCarthy. “His work is direct, plainspoken, colloquial, authentic, lucid.”

Another poet, Stephen Dobyns, called him “one of the wonders of contemporary poetry. He writes — and often performs — dazzling narratives full of wit and humor, sadness and hard thinking. He should be cloned.”

The Internet extended Mr. McCarthy’s reach beyond his Boston fame long before he launched his own site. In 2000, several years after writing “Drunks,” he used a search engine for the first time “and the poem was there ahead of me,” he recalled in December. “I found it all over the world on websites.”

The oldest of four children, John Xavier McCarthy was born in South Boston. His family moved to Hingham and a scholarship sent Mr. McCarthy to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

In autumn of his senior year, his mother died in a car accident. The following spring, his father died of a heart attack. The day of his father’s funeral, Mr. McCarthy received a scholarship to Dartmouth College.

While studying there, Mr. McCarthy watched a short film of Dylan Thomas reading a poem.

“I was so moved that I sat there by myself in the theater and tears were rolling down my cheeks, just at the way he used the English language,” he recalled. “And I said: ‘I want to do that.’ ”

Alcohol intervened, however, and he dropped out of school and into the depths of existence. He started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in 1962 and returned to graduate from Dartmouth five years later.

He taught for a few years before working in information technology at banks and insurance companies. Mr. McCarthy married Joan Reynolds of Westwood in 1968 and they had three daughters. After their marriage ended in 1986, he stayed close to his children.

“He was always so full of good advice and reassurance,” said one of his daughters, Kathleen Chardavoyne of Charlestown. “He really struck the right balance between explaining to you why you did or didn’t want to do certain things, and letting you know he’d be there for you if you did screw up. I still remember a lot of the advice he gave me. I just worshipped him.”

Having decided he would not remarry, Mr. McCarthy nevertheless placed a personals ad on a whim in 1989, mentioning that he liked to bodysurf.

Carol Sinder, a former Californian, was intrigued by that detail and answered. They married in 1991 in St. Ann Church in Dorchester, where Mr. McCarthy sang in the folk group.

“Not only did I fall in love with Jack, but also with his poetry,” she wrote in an e-mail. “When I met him he only wrote poetry occasionally. I arranged for him to go to a poetry class with a famous poet, Galway Kinnell.”

Along with becoming a mainstay of the slam poetry scene, Mr. McCarthy took his writing to audiences near and far. His poem “Drunks” earned him an invitation to speak in Spain at an Alcoholics Anonymous convention, and he was a regular guest of students in the Poetry Soup Group at Newburyport High School.

“I think he gave them license to look at what’s behind the feelings they would often laugh off,” said Debbie Szabo, an English and creative writing teacher. “You know, teenagers are sarcastic, cynical, and snide, and Jack was the opposite of those things. He made them want to go out and write.”

The flame of fame bathes poets in a fainter light than other celebrities, but Mr. McCarthy was well-known enough around Boston that once while he was receiving Communion, the priest paused before handing him a wafer.

“When he normally would say, ‘Body of Christ,’ he said, ‘I love your poetry,’ and I said, ‘Thank you,’ ” Mr. McCarthy recalled. “I think very few poets get to have that experience.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. McCarthy leaves two other daughters, Megan McDermott of Madison, Wis., and Ann of South Boston; a stepson, Seth Roback of Seattle; two sisters, Hannah of Amherst, N.H., and Judith Winship of Boxford; and six grandchildren, the youngest born two weeks before he died.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Feb. 9 in Follen Church, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Lexington.

Untroubled by the approach of death, and comparatively pain-free, Mr. McCarthy opened his poem “Victory” by writing:

What luxury

to know I’m dying

so comfortably

And with a nod to Dylan Thomas, who inspired his poetic aspirations a half-century ago, he added:

So forgive me, Dylan.

I will go gentle into that good night —

or afternoon, as the case may be.

There’s no rage in me, not any more

The years have been too kind;

allow the light the right to die.

“We’ve had 23 years, and this time was the most amazing journey,” Mr. McCarthy’s wife said a few weeks before he died. “Jack said, ‘If I believed in reincarnation I wouldn’t want to come back, because I’ve had such a good life.’ Now how many people say that?”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.
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