[This is a personal take on the impact Jim Carroll had on me, including some self-aggrandizement on my part, but an attempt to be honest about it no matter how unflattering to me, or Carroll, who is remembered in many blogs and obituaries on the web as a gentle and sweet man as well as by many fans as a great poet who had a lasting and powerful impact on their lives.]
Like a lot of us who were alive and reading The Paris Review and various alternative or avant-garde little magazines back in the '60s and early '70s, I was a fan of Jim Carroll's poetry right from the start. And when excerpts from THE BASKETBALL DIARIES were first surfacing, I was impressed with his prose as well.
I was also critical. The excerpts from the diaries contained writing that was about as clear and concise as any out there at the time, and even more powerful. Mostly because it was so directly confessional while coming from the perspective and supposed experiences of a boy supposedly writing the diaries when he was 12 through 15.
I say "supposed" because at the time, knowing something about the people and places he was writing about, it was clear to me that a lot of it was written in retrospect and not at the time. That became even clearer as more and more of them appeared.
Everyone I knew who read any of them was knocked out by this kid creating such amazing documents about a life most people I knew had no experience of. Not just the working-class, Irish-American, Catholic family and neighborhood stuff, but the drugs and basketball prodigy realities so perfectly described and so dramatically controlled by one so young. The writing that is, not the drugs or the sport.
I also felt in competition with him as a fellow Irish-American poet writing about my own youth in a series of sonnets (which many critically found more prose than poetry when they first appeared) that were getting published in similar venues. Not that they were that much alike, but I had a bad habit of thinking everyone was ripping me off in those days, and for too many years afterward.
But I had to admire Carroll's writing, no matter how much I protested that the diaries were written when he was older and contained too many mistakes—one I remember (though I haven't read it in years so may be a little off on the exact date) has a Bob Dylan song on a juke box in an Irish bar in the Bronx in 1963! Or '64 at the latest. A reality that was impossible for all kinds of reasons, unless the bar wasn't the one he cited, or the date was a few years later, or etc.
When the diaries were finally published as a book by the small Bolinas, California, press Tombouctou in 1978 (I still have my first edition copy), Carroll confirmed my doubts by writing in a small preface that: "they are as much fiction as biography." That removed any need for me to criticize them any longer and I went on to praise them in conversations, classrooms I was teaching in at the time, and in reviews and essays.
His first big collection of poems, LIVING AT THE MOVIES, came out in '73 from a bigger, New York publisher, Grossman (I still have that book too) and placed him firmly in the second generation "New York School" that included, and in many ways was led by, Ted Berrigan. Berrigan was a good friend and mentor to Carroll. Ted was also a good friend of mine, and when Carroll—under the influence of the poet Patti Smith (who had begun fronting her own rock band and was becoming much more famous and financially successful as a result)—decided to front his own band, one of his first songs to have an impact and become a hit of sorts was "People Who Died"—which anyone who knew Ted Berrigan's work knew was the title of one of Ted's more famous poems at the time.
It angered me, in my fears of being ripped off myself, that this younger poet who Ted treated so well would go out and make money off an idea Ted had first. Even though with any kind of afterthought it must have been obvious to me that Ted didn't invent the idea of writing a poem about friends—or people whose work you admired—who had died. And as always, Ted was generous and gracious about it, convincing me that he was delighted that Jim had not only done it but that it had helped make Jim famous for a while as a "rock star."
Not long after that, Carroll gave a reading at St. Mark's to a standing room only crowd who had come to see the rock star read, and he chose to read some incredibly mean-spirited, childishly tantrum-like tirades against his family and the Irish-Americans he came from in general. At least as I heard it sitting in the reading. Now I had a new bone to pick with him, and made it clear at the reading and to anyone who would listen to what I see now was my own self-righteousness and envy (though at the time it felt like what a lot of my African-American friends had expressed they felt over "black" writers airing the dirty laundry of their families or blaming them for things they were sometimes just victims of, or Jewish friends who felt the same way about similar writing from their ethnic standpoint [and even though I was known for my own sometimes violently angry poetry]).
Not long after I got involved in the movie business (something I got a lot of flack for on the alternative press scene, as "selling out") Leo DiCaprio portrayed the main character (i.e. Jim) in the movie adaptation of THE BASKETBALL DIARIES. And once again I was upset, not with Jim this time, but with Hollywood for not making clear that this was not reality but art (though some saw the movie as a successful art film) and for not emphasizing the role of poetry and literature in elevating the main character's life to more than just another urban drugs & violence exploitation flick. [I felt so strongly about this because as I always said, and still say, "poetry saved my life"—and Carroll wrote something similar about himself, only more poetically articulated].
Eventually I got over all my problems with Carroll and his work—while never denying how much I dug much of it—and over the following years went out of my way to attend some readings he gave where the crowds were much smaller and he seemed much less angry and confrontational (as did I). And I ran into him at parties, though we rarely did much more than nod to each other.
One time, when I was still living in L.A., a poet friend was hosting a big "spoken word" event back in New York that Sony was sponsoring at a time when CDs were new and some record companies thought they could exploit the then recent explosion of live poetry readings (another thing I thought at the time I deserved some credit for, having started a weekly reading series in L.A. that attracted some movie stars and therefore got worldwide publicity, initially flattering but eventually dismissive—"brat pack wannabe Whitmans" was one of the phrases thrown out by either Time or Newsweek—but before which there was almost no attention being paid to poetry (The L.A. Times had made the decision to even stop reviewing poetry books!) and almost no venues anymore outside academia (with a few exceptions like St. Mark's or The Nuyorican cafe in NYC) where it was being read, and within months of the enormous wave of publicity for this series I started with the poet Eve Brandstein, there were coffee houses opening all over L.A. and other cities and towns with homegrown poets reading and/or performing their work, as well as movies with poetry as the subject matter or part of it, or poets as characters in them (several named Michael).
Anyway, my friend introduces himself backstage to Jim Carroll and says he's amazed they hadn't met after all these years, especially since they shared a mutual friend, me, and, according to my friend, Carroll said he wasn't really a friend of mine and didn't really know me but he had "stolen" a few things from my poetry. My friend said he was smiling when he said it. That made me smile when I heard it, my envy and need for credit having thankfully left me by then.
The last time I saw Jim Carroll was at a party in the city several years ago where once again we caught each other's eye and nodded, but this time I saw something in his eyes that gave me the sense of a trapped animal, and I thought later that maybe he felt trapped by his past, his reputation, his earlier fame and notoriety and achievements. Maybe that's a stretch to second guess the mind of another, and maybe I was thinking of some of my own experiences, but I can see the look in his eyes right now.
Jim was a memorable guy, his physical presence (his eyes were pretty stunning when they caught you in their glare and he was always so thin it made him seem taller than he already was), his style (he was a dandy of sorts, especially early in his life and career when he was taken up by the older New York poets and artists, and from my perspective exploited by some, from what I heard some used him almost like a doll or toy to dress up for their own entertainment) and his intensity, especially in the writing in THE BASKETBALL DIARIES.
That book has become a classic, an alternative one maybe, like another poetic prodigy, Rimbaud's THE DRUNKEN BOAT, but one that will be read for generations to come. At least I hope so. I wouldn't want the only impact of Carroll's to be the movie made from it, with all it's Hollywood glamorization of addiction and violent fantasies.
I realize this remembrance has been partially presumptuous and doesn't necessarily throw a great light on the workings of my mind over the years, but I'd hate to remember Jim Carroll with fake sentiments and dishonest praise. The guy could write and was a genuine prodigy no matter how fictionalized the diaries were. Even if he did them in retrospect to some extent, or revised them later, he was still a teenager when they first began appearing, still in his twenties when the book came out, and their impact was immediate, sensational as it was. And the only feeling I have for him now is compassion. I hope his life was peaceful and fulfilling these recent years, and that he was at peace with himself and his past.
[For a maybe more objective and loving remembrance of Jim, click here to see Tom Clark's poetry blog today.]