Vision & Voice: We Miss You Jack McCarthy (1939-2013)

His work is direct, plainspoken, colloquial, authentic, lucid.  Lucid, lucid again.  Meaning: accessible (although I like Billy Collins’ term for this kind of poetry – “hospitable” – just as much) enough, meaning complexity, textures, richness, reverberations, etc.  Not meaning: too obvious, cliche’d, easily paraphrased.  Meaning: not being more afraid of being understood than afraid of being misunderstood.  That kind of lucidity takes some guts.” – Thomas Lux, introduction to Say Goodnight, Grace Notes: New and Corrected Poems by Jack McCarthy

Back in the summer of 2008, the basement of the East Bridgewater Public Library was packed for Poetribe’s open mic.  Jack McCarthy was in town, and he was the feature poet.  It wasn’t just an event, it was a happening; one of those open mic’s with a big turnout and a great vibe that ran all night long, the kind where it’s almost impossible to not hit a bar or a diner with your friends afterwards.  I hadn’t seen McCarthy since one night at the Cantab years prior where he did a brilliant and moving poem about forgiving Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner for the loss of the ’86 World Series.  His soothing voice and sharp wit were perfect for a piece that dissected the unhealthy habit of scapegoating, not only in professional sports, but life in general.  Having grown up being called all sorts of vulgar epithets for my lack of athletic ability and sports knowledge, it really struck a chord in me.

McCarthy was not affiliated with any college or university.  He attended poetry workshops and worked at his craft until it became the lucid instrument Thomas Lux had described.  In my own work, I try to tight rope walk that fine line between being artful and accessible.  McCarthy seemed to dance his way across that line with stunning grace.  Where stuffy academic poets were dry and obscure, he was rich and clear.  Where fledgling slam poets went for gratuitous, rapid fire rhyme, often at the expense of their message, McCarthy changed tempo, texture, and volume like a well seasoned jazz musician.  Not only could the man write, he could read, meaning: perform.  In the basement of a suburban library on a Saturday night, he held a whole room full of teenagers and adults in the palm of his hands.

That night he closed his set with the poem, “Epithalamion”, written for his daughter Kathleen on her wedding day.  The ending of that poem left me in tears.  It was quintessential Jack McCarthy: lucid, rich, and resonant storytelling.  I was lucky enough to catch him once more a few years later when Poetribe changed hands and invited him back, and this time I brought friends.  It didn’t matter that it was the dead of winter, or the turnout wasn’t as great.  At the end of the night, the place was still buzzing, and McCarthy once again found himself almost completely out of his stock of books and CD’s to sell.

I am not among those lucky enough to call him a personal friend or colleague but with a book and two CD’s, it still feels great just to be a fan.  Thank you, Jack, for your vision and your voice.


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