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Jack McCarthy proved that poetry matters

Cambridge, 4.4.2001: Jack McCarthy, local poet, at the Cantab Lounge. (David Kamerman/Globe Staff)The Boston Globe

ONE NIGHT more than a decade ago, I was sitting at an open mic in a small suburban coffeeshop, wondering what was up with the grizzled guy across the room. He was significantly older and slightly more disheveled than the rest of the hipsters with acoustic guitars. I figured he was just passing through.

But then he stepped up to the mic and introduced himself as Jack McCarthy, and once he started to recite an original poem — a rambling, funny piece that ended with an emotional zing — I realized that I knew precisely who he was. He was a star in Boston’s poetry scene, and I had spoken to him by phone for a silly feature about joke haikus. He had loved the idea that anyone, by virtue of being able to count, could automatically be a poet.


Soon afterward, I wrote a profile of Jack. It was about a recovered alcoholic who wrote poetry as a young man, then returned to it later in life; a guy who wanted his verse to be heard, not read; concrete, not abstract; democratic, not arcane. He sent me a holiday card every year since, and often thanked me for a line I had written that was not particularly poetic, but was true: “In the poetry world, he’s a rock star.”

By the time Jack died last month at 73, after a yearlong battle with cancer, he had become an even bigger star. A move to Seattle and a busy speaking schedule earned him fans from coast to coast, enough to warrant memorial services in three different states. The first took place in Lexington a week ago. It was filled with remembrances of his life: athletic childhood, family tragedy as a teenager, three daughters, divorce, true love. It was also filled with some of his favorite poetry, by Leonard Cohen and Robert Louis Stevenson.


And one of Jack’s daughters read W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” which I’m not sure I’d ever heard aloud. It was a beautiful expression of grief and anger — about how the world doesn’t stop when someone meaningful dies — and it made me remember that, in certain contexts, poetry is perfect.

But too often, we read poetry out of context. In an academic setting, where we’re parsing words for credit. At a wedding, when we only want generic good cheer. Even the vibrant slam and open-mic scene remains a closed subculture, a club you willingly enter and accept on its own terms.

Jack ruled the slam world, but he managed to transcend it. He drew adoring crowds of poetry aficionados, but he also performed for students at Newburyport High School every year. At his memorial, Debbie Szabo, the teacher who brought him to Newburyport, shared a line about Jack, written by her seventh-grade son: “He reminds me of a drunken man in a bar full of snobs, who for some inexplicable reason is always right.”

The reason, I think, was that Jack was context, from his weathered exterior to the joy he clearly took in sharing poetry out loud. His poems were unpretentious but eloquent, and they shook a lot of assumptions about poetry’s place in the world. I wish I could remember what he read at that open mic long ago, but it might have been “Neponset Circle,” one of his most famous poems, about a friend from Alcoholics Anonymous who loved to drive, but insisted on starting every trip from a traffic circle in Dorchester. Part of it goes like this:


We know that there are quicker ways.

But Charlie likes to drive.

And he can get us anywhere in the world —

as long as he starts from Neponset Circle.

Most of us see the world as spiderweb,

all sorts of intricate connections,

alternate routes. A good sense of direction

and a roadmap and we’ll always find our way.

Charlie saw the world as a bicycle tire,

spokes crossing each other here and there,

but all of them running straight

to and from one heart.

I drive through Neponset Circle nearly every day. Whenever I do, I think of Jack, who understood what poetry ought to be: part of the infrastructure of life.

Correction: Tuesday’s column cited the National Association of Realtors as an opponent to the Family Medical Leave Act. The group has no position on the law.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.