As I mentioned in my last Poetry Friday post, a poet I knew and admired—and who several good friends of mine knew very well, and loved—died last week, and I want to take a little time to share a little about his poetry and to reflect on it a little. Jack McCarthy was an astonishingly talented poet, and some of his best gifts involved public performance: follow this link to see him performing an equally amusing and devastating poem called “Careful What You Ask For”, since I won’t really say much about those performing talents (given that I feel more or less inadequate to try and put to words how Jack put a spell on an audience and made them his family). I think I can at least say something useful about his words on the page, though, and so I’ll do that below as is my custom on Fridays here. I also think I should steer you to a much more thoughtful and personal reflection on Jack by someone who knew him well—Jessica Lohafer, another Bellingham poet who started reading there just as I was leaving the city, learned a lot from Jack, who served as her mentor, and shares much of it in this astonishingly beautiful poem, “The Rules of the Open Mic“. I’ll say as much as I can about what I see as Jack McCarthy’s gifts as a poet, but only Jessica can get at what it really meant to know Jack’s gifts as a human and a friend, and she ties into it some insightful glimpses at what poetry and performance means to a young writer whose life and art necessarily overlap so fully. That said, it’s time for me to turn to what I have to contribute to Jack’s memory—my thoughts on one of his poems entitled “Saltpetre and Robert Frost“:
“At the boys’ school I attended
we all believed the legend
of saltpetre in the mashed potatoes.
The salt was said–as when grease fires
flare in kitchens–to deaden the unruly
flames of forbidden sexuality.
But if saltpetre was there truly,
it was notable for ineffectuality.
This was the same school where
they brought in some big names–
Oppenheimer, Robert Frost,
legends in their own lifetime–
to spend a week on campus in
the “Visiting Fireman” program.
They’d sit with us in class
and meet with small groups
of hand-picked students—
with all roads open, asked
only the most general questions,
the vaguest of directions.
Frost was old, gentle,
white-haired, ever respectful
of us, but had an air as though
always holding back a laugh
at some constant running joke
as if his intercourse with us
was just a playful fragment
of an ongoing dialogue
between two lovers, the way
you’d sit a three-year-old
on your knee and tell her
in her mother’s hearing she
would be even more beautiful
than her mother, if only such
perfection were possible, and the words
are heartfelt appreciation,
the hyperbole is slight;
the lovers’ joke is in
Some people ask me today,
“Why do you write poetry?”
Sometimes I say to them
that it’s my Irish blood;
other times I tell them how I shook
the feathery, parchment hand of
Robert Frost when I was seventeen,
maybe something took.
But if I say that, they ask
why I lost so many years
before I started writing.
Sometimes I answer that I counted cost;
other times I tell the legend
of saltpetre past, highlighting
the fact that it and Frost
kicked in at last
about the same time.”
Jack begins, as so much of his poetry does, with the particular, the personal, and the mundane—the story pulled out of his past, in this case the schoolyard rumors about mashed potatoes and sex, just the kind of earthy reality he liked to tangle with. His sleight-of-hand, of course, will be in how he weaves it back into the poem later, but at first it merely sets the scene, pulling us into the whispered energies of a boys’ school where they’re convinced the authorities are out to thwart whatever is most boyish in them (and they may well be right). As Jack notes in passing, if any such efforts were in fact being made, they were notably useless. And so with that wry smile he wheels us into what then seems to be our topic: the nostalgic memories of these visits from the good and great. I don’t remember what prominent Boston school Jack attended—maybe Boston Latin for all I know, maybe another slightly less ancient and prestigious place—but the image of these horny schoolboys rubbing elbows with men of the stature of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Robert Frost is initially as comical as the doctored mashed potatoes. Jack’s modus operandi was always thus (as Jessica notes in her poem)—to make the audience smile or laugh first, so as to get them close enough to make them feel. So we smile as Jack points out how inadequate the kids are to the situation: hand-picked though they be, even the best of them can only manage, as Jack admits, “the most general questions / the vaguest of directions“.
Where the poem starts to turn, to catch fire a little, for me, is when he slows down to give Robert Frost his full attention—the language he uses to describe Frost is hushed, loving, like a man remembering his grandfather many years after his death. And with the simplest and most patient of phrases, Jack builds the image of something almost impossible to put into words, the restraint of the wise old man among these fumbling young men, the meaning that is quietly present in what he does not say and in what his tone only implies. He illustrates this in an almost Homeric simile—these two unexpected images of intimacy, the father speaking sideways to his wife through his daughter, the poet speaking somehow more to these boys than they yet realize. I love how peaceful the imagery is, as whatever adolescent jostling I imagined initially quiets down to the picture of Robert Frost sitting mildly in a classroom and answering questions in that reedy New England voice of his.
The last turn of the poem is its most striking, the way that Jack reveals suddenly to us that what this is all about really is where he comes from, how he got here writing words on a page and offering them to the world as poetry. The best of the lines is almost certainly Robert Frost’s “feathery, parchment hand“, whose brief clasp is an invitation, a blessing that’s given out for a purpose. I will never be closer to Frost than I am in that stanza, feeling the gentle warmth of his hand in Jack’s and remembering that no matter how high we climb, we remain these creatures of flesh and bone, frailer as we age but no less substantial. And then how sly Jack is, because we’re ready for that to be the answer—the poet who was forever changed by that one numinous encounter with America’s most-loved poet, the boy who seized writing like the mantle of Elijah—and then he pushes through to the reality of life, that his life as a poet did not come for many years. And why?
At first he alludes so subtly to the Gospel of Luke—Jack’s often wrangling relationship with the Catholicism he was raised in is a recurring element in much of his work—the man in Chapter 14 who had to “count the cost” before he built the tower, because of the shame that would come to to him if he failed and the public ridicule he would then endure. Is that what kept him silent all those years before turning more fully to writing and performing his poetry late in life? Or is it Jack’s other story, the wink and nod about saltpetre and Robert Frost, and the idea that in some ways the verse came to him when his other passions had ebbed? What really sparked him to write, and to write so powerfully that he became one of the nation’s most renowned “slam poets”? Is it perhaps a mystery to him as much as to us, or is this simply another conversation between us restless youngsters and the wise old poet, whose feathery hand touches ours and plants a seed that may not grow for a long time? Is my attempt to make sense of these closing thoughts just missing those intimacies that linger in the spaces between words? I think I both get enough from Jack here to feel I understand why he wrote, and miss enough to know I will never know the whole story.
In closing, I have to say that, as much as I admire this poem, it’s nowhere near Jack’s best. Most of his work is much longer and more complicated in the way it weaves together memories and hopes, jokes and riddles—pretty much all of it wonderful and much too difficult for me to handle in the format of a Poetry Friday post. So go read some of his work—one of the most moving poetic experiences I’ve ever had was watching Jack perform “The Walk of Life“, a poem about (I kid you not) Bill Buckner that still floors me every time I hear it or read it. Baseball fans take note (Paul, you need to read this one). I don’t think I’ve ever read or heard a better speech by the father of the bride than “Epithalamion: A Few Words for Kathleen“, another poem where Jack’s live performance is indelibly inked on my memory. I’ve already linked above to Jack’s performance of “Careful What You Ask For”, another poem that leads with the joke and then lays you out with the terrible (and beautiful) reality of living. That was Jack’s gift as a writer—to wring from his own life the pain he’d known and the struggles he’d seen, and to bring it to an audience with such a storyteller’s heart that by the time you realized what he was asking you to confront, you realized he’d already shown you how to get through the experience stronger than you came to it. A lot of poetry is therapeutic for the writer, but it takes a lot of skill for poetry to have that effect on the reader and the listener, and maybe more than anything else it takes a love for the world and for human beings that surpasses what most of us can summon up. Jack had that ability. I’ll never forget watching Jack perform, and I hope that I’ve been able to get across to you in the words and links assembled here what a great writer we lost last week. I hope you’ll follow one of the links to his website and read some poems, maybe buy a collection or two to dip into down the line. Personally I know I’m grateful to the friends who introduced me to Jack and his work, and whose tributes to him this last week have moved me. I wish each of them, and all of you, a good Friday.