Jim Carroll Essay - Critical Essays

Carroll, Jim


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.

Principal Works

Organic Trains (poetry) 1967

4 Ups and 1 Down (poetry) 1970

Living at the Movies (poetry) 1973

The Basketball Diaries: Age Twelve to Fifteen (diary) 1978

Catholic Boy (musical recording) 1980

Dry Dreams (musical recording) 1982

I Write Your Name (musical recording) 1983

*The Book of Nods (poetry) 1986

Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries 1971-1973 (diary) 1987

Praying Mantis (spoken-word recording) 1980

Fear of Dreaming: Selected Poems (poetry) 1993

Void of Course: Poems 1994–1997 (poetry) 1998

Pools of Mercury (music and spoken-word recording) 1998

*The Book of Nods was produced as a spoken-word recording in 1992.

Fear of Dreaming: Selected Poems was also produced as a spoken-word recording with the same title in 1993.


Seamus Cooney (review date 1 November 1973)

SOURCE: A review of Living at the Movies, in Library Journal, Vol. 11, No. 19, November 1, 1973, p. 3270.

[In the following brief review, Cooney faults Carroll's poetry in Living at the Movies.]

These imitative poems range in models from the portentous pseudo-reference of John Ashbery to the flat trivialities of Ted Berrigan—the whole gamut from A to B, in fact. Not one moves or delights, and as for teaching—well, the outlook on life conveyed is the shallowest hedonism based on dope or sex. A piece entitled “A Fragment” has more point than many in the book and shows fairly the pretensions to seriousness, the inertness of rhythm and language, and the...

(The entire section is 143 words.)

Gerard Malanga (review date November 1974)

SOURCE: A review of Living at the Movies, in Poetry, Vol. 125, No. 3, November, 1974, pp. 162-65.

[In the following review, Malanga favorably assesses Carroll's Living at the Movies, commenting on the original technique and confident voice employed in the collection. Malanga also compares Carroll to well-known poet Frank O'Hara.]

The great thing about the work of a genuine poet is the atmosphere which it creates in the mind of the reader. This is as difficult to define as it is impossible to miss. It has a great deal to do with technique and with style, but only in so far as they are an integral part of the feeling and thinking that go to make up a...

(The entire section is 673 words.)

Jamie James (review date February 1980)

SOURCE: A review of The Basketball Diaries, in American Book Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, February, 1980, p. 9.

[In the following review, James lauds The Basketball Diaries.]

The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll is a literary miracle; a description of the formation of an artistic sensibility written by the artist, not in retrospect, but in the process. It is a portrait of the artist not just as a young man but as a child, written by the child, and thus free of the mature artist’s complicated romantic love of himself in pain. It also works engrossingly well as a narrative, The Catcher in the Rye for real, for bigger stakes.


(The entire section is 1159 words.)

Chet Flippo (essay date 26 January 1981)

SOURCE: “A Star Is Borning,” in New York, Vol. 14, No. 4, January 26, 1981, pp. 32-5.

[In the following essay, Flippo addresses Carroll's move from poetry writer to rock musician and interviews the poet/songwriter about his life, his former drug addiction, and his literary influences.]

Lola from Budapest is a bit of a psychic, among other things, and one afternoon not long ago, when she settled into her customary front-row seat in NBC’s Studio 3A in Rockefeller Center for the taping of the Tomorrow show, she just naturally started divining things and reading life lines and such. Lola from Budapest—that’s the way she’s billed on her business cards and...

(The entire section is 3753 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 4 April 1986)

SOURCE: A review of The Book of Nods, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 229, No. 14, April 4, 1986, pp. 57-8.

[In the following negative review, the critic chastises Carroll and the collection of prose and poetry Living at the Movies.]

Carroll would like to be poetry’s renegade stepchild, an avant-gardist, the forerunner of a new art form. These poems and prose pieces show exposure to Borges, Kafka, particularly Rimbaud—the romantic, drug-taking exception to all rules who has stymied many scholars and led many bright children astray. The original attraction of Carroll was a sort of jejune decadence, which he has, since his Living at the Movies (1973), pretty...

(The entire section is 160 words.)

Daniel L. Guillory (review date 15 April 1986)

SOURCE: A review of The Book of Nods, in Library Journal, Vol. 111, No. 7, April 15, 1986, p. 84.

[In the following brief review, Guillory praises Carroll's ability to shock readers with incongruous images in The Book of Nods.]

Carroll’s prose poems (or “nods”) are like verbal equivalents of Dali’s paintings: a man vomits the hands of a clock (in “Silent Money”) and a cat jumps into a mirror (in “Watching the Schoolyard”). But these incongruities quickly lose their shock value, and Carroll sometimes fails to create a meaningful context for his images. More successful are his conventional lyric poems. In “A Night Outing,” for example, the poet...

(The entire section is 150 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 9 July 1987)

SOURCE: A review of The Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries, in New York Times, July 9, 1987, p. C23.

[In the following review, Lehmann-Haupt discusses The Basketball Diaries and its sequel, Forced Entries, and the evolution of Carroll's voice and storytelling abilities.]

Jim Carroll is a poet and rock musician in his mid-30’s who grew up in several poor sections of Manhattan, the son and grandson of Irish Catholic bartenders. In the fall of 1963, when he was all of 13 years old, he began keeping a diary: “Today was my first Biddy League game and my first day in any organized basketball league. I’m enthused about life due to this...

(The entire section is 1045 words.)

Peter Delacorte (review date 12 July 1987)

SOURCE: “A Follow-Through beyond the Hoop,” in San Francisco Chronicle, July 12, 1987, p. 3.

[In the following review, Delacorte lauds Carroll's ability to create witty one-liners and clever vignettes in Forced Entries, but asserts that the book lacks substance and has an unfulfilling conclusion.]

Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries was an extraordinary piece of work—an account of four years, more or less, in the life of a kid growing up in New York City.

The kid happened to be a basketball star, a thief, a male prostitute and an incipient junkie, so there was plenty of action and things got pretty lurid. But still the most...

(The entire section is 1271 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 May 1987)

SOURCE: A review of Forced Entries, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 55, No. 9, May 15, 1987, p. 767.

[In the following review, the critic pans Forced Entries for its lack of substance. While acknowledging the occasional flashes of intense humor and wit, the critic derides Carroll for providing too much debauchery and not enough intellectual or literary content.]

A slice of the debauched life of poet Carroll at the tail end of the 60’s, before he embarked on a second, dual career as a rock singer.

Carroll achieved recognition early in his 20s with the publication of Living at the Movies, his first collection of poetry, and The...

(The entire section is 323 words.)

William Hochswender (review date 18 October 1987)

SOURCE: “The Way They Were in Greenwich Village,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 18, 1987, p. 10.

[In the following review, Hochswender praises the “ornate and harrowingly stark” writing collected in Forced Entries. Despite his contention that the stories in the collection are often self-indulgent and filled with slang, Hochswender asserts that Carroll's energetic language and creative descriptions give his memoirs an authenticity that mainstream documentaries lack.]

In this country we now have a permanent counterculture. The symbols of rebellion may change with the generations, but the dialectical swing has become constant. To the gray...

(The entire section is 1630 words.)

Jim Carroll with Thomas Gladysz (interview date 1987)

SOURCE: “Verbal Entries: An Interview with Jim Carroll,” in The Booksmith Reader, www.booksmith.com.

[In the following interview, portions of which also appeared in The Street, Gladysz and Carroll discuss Carroll's writing career, his methods of writing Forced Entries and The Basketball Diaries, his literary influences, and his rehabilitation from heroin use.]

Perhaps best known as a rock musician, Jim Carroll is also an accomplished poet and writer. His best lyrics, such as “People Who Died,” are themselves a kind of poetry. Recently, a film based on his best-selling book, The Basketball Diaries, was released to general acclaim. His...

(The entire section is 3233 words.)

Cassie Carter (essay date Winter 1996)

SOURCE: “‘A Sickness That Takes Years to Perfect’: Jim Carroll's Alchemical Vision” in Dionysos: Literature and Addiction Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter 1996, pp. 6-19.

[In the following essay, Carter offers an assessment of Carroll's diaries, poems, and rock lyrics. Carter discusses the role of Carroll's drug use and addiction in the “ongoing struggle to transform the raw materials of his life into a pure reality” that defines him as an artist.]

pollution is a result of the inability of man to transform waste. the transformation of waste is perhaps the oldest preoccupation of man. gold, being the chosen alloy, must be resurrected—via...

(The entire section is 5610 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 28 September 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Void of Course, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, September 28, 1998, p. 96.

[In the following brief review, the critic discusses the poems in Void of Course.]

An alternately self-exposing and swaggering Bukowskian diarist, Carroll reinforces his rock-star-like pop culture niche with his latest volume of poetry, which somewhat resembles a compilation of power ballads. Given that Carroll’s fame was established by the beloved 1970's memoir of drug addiction The Basketball Diaries, it makes sense that his poetry [in Void of Course] works to further the author’s forever young and ostensibly hip public image, as in this ode to the...

(The entire section is 292 words.)

Booklist (review date 15 October 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Void of Course, in Booklist, Vol. 95, No. 4, October 15, 1998, p. 389.

[In the following brief review, the critic lauds Carroll's poetic ability in Void of Course.]

Carroll, experienced with heroin himself, offers belated advice to the corpse of Kurt Cobain in the volume-opening “8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain”: the price of genius mixed with that of fame makes a fatal cocktail, “which starts out as a kiss / And follows like a curse.” Desperation and desire emanate from Carroll’s verse [in Void of Course], but with a certain poignancy, as if these words just have to be said. Carroll exhumes his life and loves, and his candor at...

(The entire section is 202 words.)

Jim Carroll with Suzan Alteri (interview date 13–19 January 2000)

SOURCE: “Unspoken Genius,” in Real Detroit Weekly, January 13–19, 2000.

[In the following interview, Alteri questions Carroll about his spoken-word recordings, his feelings about poetry, his drug addiction, and the conflict between his musical career and his literary aspirations.]

[Alteri:] Why did you start doing spoken word performances?

[Carroll:] Well readings is just another name for spoken word performance I guess. When the whole spoken word thing happened, you know new things came along like slams and people doing more amalgamating performance art with spoken word pieces. Usually in the old days, performance art happenings,...

(The entire section is 7284 words.)

Further Reading


Kuennen, Cassie Carter. “Jim Carroll: A Selective, Annotated, Primary and Secondary Bibliography, 1967-1988.” Bulletin of Bibliography 47, No. 2 (1990): 81-112.

Kuennen's annotated bibliography provides details on Carroll's books, albums, and films, plus generously annotated listings of feature articles, interviews, and reviews.


Fissinger, Laura. “The Transformation of Jim Carroll.” Musician, Player and Listener (February 1981): 16.

In addition to biographical details, this feature article addresses the issue of rock martyrdom—specifically, how Carroll was...

(The entire section is 719 words.)