Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jim Carroll 1950-

American poet, autobiographer, songwriter, and musician.

The following entry presents an overview of Carroll's career through 2000. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 35.

Carroll is both an underground icon and highly esteemed author. He gained critical attention as a poet with Living at the Movies (1973), as a diarist with The Basketball Diaries (1978), and as a rock musician/lyricist with the album Catholic Boy (1980). He is equally well known for bringing spoken-word poetry to center stage in popular culture. The dual protagonists evident in almost all of his works are New York City and Carroll himself.

Biographical Information

Carroll was born August 1, 1950, to Thomas J. and Agnes Carroll, and was raised on the Lower East Side and upper tip of Manhattan. Carroll earned an academic/athletic scholarship to the elite Trinity School, where he spent his high school years cultivating his skill on the basketball court, his growing passion for poetry, and an epic heroin addiction. Between the ages of twelve and fifteen, he recorded his experiences in Catholic schools, his ordeals as an addict, and his triumphs as a star athlete in a journal he called his “basketball diaries.” Carroll published his first slim volume of verse, Organic Trains (1967), at age sixteen. He began attending workshops at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery, where he quickly earned a reputation as a protégé among the New York arts crowd. After graduating from Trinity in 1968, he briefly attended Columbia University and Wagner College, dropping out to pursue writing full-time. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, his reputation as a poet continued to grow as he moved within New York's frantic cultural scene. He worked for artists Andy Warhol and Larry Rivers, frequented the legendary club Max's Kansas City where the band The Velvet Underground was playing, and was taken in by Ted Berrigan and other writers of the New York School, who championed his budding talent. Bits of Carroll's poetry and prose began dotting the New York literary landscape, appearing occasionally in journals and poetry magazines, including Poetry and Paris Review. In 1973, Carroll released his acclaimed first major work, Living at the Movies, after which he moved to California to conquer his heroin addiction. At the close of the 1970s, an old girlfriend, punk legend Patti Smith, persuaded Carroll to try his hand at music. After just two shows, The Jim Carroll Band was signed to the Rolling Stones label by guitarist Keith Richards, and in 1980 the band released its first album, Catholic Boy. Meanwhile, Carroll published The Basketball Diaries, first in limited edition in 1978, then with widespread distribution in 1981 coinciding with the mainstream success of Catholic Boy. After releasing three albums with the band during the 1980s, Carroll, back in New York, returned his focus to literary matters with The Book of Nods (1986), a collection of poems, and Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries, 1971-1973 (1987) a collection of memoirs. From the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, Carroll continued to write, publishing two more collections of poetry, Fear of Dreaming: Selected Poems (1993) and Void of Course (1998). He also led the cutting edge of the spoken-word movement, reading his work on MTV and in major rock music venues, and released two spoken-word albums, Praying Mantis (1991) and Pools of Mercury (1998). Carroll continues to tour the spoken-word circuit and is at work on two novels.

Major Works

Although Carroll began his writing career as a diarist, he was first recognized as a poet. He released two small poetry collections, Organic Trains and 4 Ups and 1 Down (1970), and contributed numerous poems to magazines before publishing his first major volume of poetry, Living at the Movies. This collection showcased Carroll's original voice while also revealing the influence of Frank O'Hara and Ted Berrigan. It was not until five years later that he published The Basketball Diaries, his actual journals from ages twelve to sixteen. The Basketball Diaries record Carroll's experiences as a star basketball player and street punk growing up in Manhattan in the 1960s. The Diaries, already considered a classic in underground circles, received a tremendous critical reception as Carroll ventured into rock music in the 1980s. The Jim Carroll Band fused the street sensibility of the Diaries with Carroll's poetic sensibility, creating a post-punk rock music sound. The band's first album, Catholic Boy, was noted for such songs as “People Who Died” and catchy lyrics like “It's too late to fall in love with Sharon Tate / But it's too soon to ask me for the words I want carved on my tomb.” After releasing three rock albums, Carroll re-emerged on the poetry scene with The Book of Nods, which contained surreal prose poems called “Nods,” the “New York City Variations” and “California Variations,” and “Poems 1973-1985.” A year later, he published a collection of memoirs, Forced Entries, as a sort of sequel to The Basketball Diaries. Forced Entries details his participation in the New York art scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well as his move to California and eventual victory over heroin addiction. Surprising some music industry critics, Carroll then released a spoken-word album, Praying Mantis. He had been performing and recording spoken-word since the late 1960s, and his appearances on MTV were considered to be groundbreaking. Praying Mantis includes poems from Living at the Movies and The Book of Nods as well as pieces unpublished at the time; much of the album was recorded live at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery in New York City, where Carroll's literary career began. Another collection of poetry, Fear of Dreaming, followed, bringing together poems from Living at the Movies, The Book of Nods, and Praying Mantis, along with new poems and a short story titled “Curtis's Charm.” (Both “Curtis's Charm” and The Basketball Diaries were adapted to film in 1995.) In 1998 Carroll released yet another collection of poetry, Void of Course, along with Pools of Mercury, an album of spoken-word and music. Void of Course expresses many of Carroll's familiar motifs, notably New York City. Unique to this collection are long, intricately crafted poems centering on desire and betrayal, such as “While She's Gone” and “Message Left on a Phone Machine.” Carroll's Pools of Mercury features poems from Void of Course, Fear of Dreaming, and The Book of Nods with musical accompaniment, plus five new rock songs, blending spoken-word with rock music.

Critical Reception

From the beginning of his career, Carroll's gritty urban poetry and earnest prose was lauded by such literary notables as William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac (in an oft-reprinted quotation, Kerouac once claimed: “At thirteen years of age, Jim Carroll writes better prose than eighty-nine percent of the novelists working today”). In the twenty-first century, younger artists—from novelists Sherman Alexie and Irvine Welsh, to filmmaker Harmony Korine, to rock bands like Pearl Jam—cite Carroll as a vital influence and mentor. Carroll received his greatest level of recognition in the 1980s. With Carroll's punk anthem “People Who Died” a surprisingly popular hit and The Basketball Diaries in its first major printing, the media was intrigued by the prodigy-poet-turned-rocker. Carroll remains best known for The Basketball Diaries, which has consistently been praised for its precociousness, honesty, poetic language, and, as Bart Platenga states, its “Genuine unabashed contempt for real world recruitment. …” The film adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Carroll landed The Basketball Diaries on the New York Times Bestsellers list in 1995, generating both popular and critical interest. The success of The Basketball Diaries and Carroll's foray into rock music have led to a popularly-held view of him as a cultural icon, but these factors have also generated a degree of skepticism in some critics, resulting in occasional charges of posturing in reviews of Carroll's work. Forced Entries was well received by critics who were familiar with Carroll's past. His collections of poetry, The Book of Nods, Fear of Dreaming, and Void of Course; and his albums Praying Mantis and Pools of Mercury, received moderate reviews but provoked national television appearances and feature articles on Carroll in popular magazines. Academic criticism, initiated in 1990, evaluates Carroll in light of cultural context, viewing him as a postmodern figure whose work defies traditional notions of genre and identity.