In Jim Carroll‘s first collection of poems, published when he was in his early twenties, there’s a couplet about a beach “where on the puzzled reef dwarves either / fish or drown in the abandoned ships.” It’s a typical Carroll image: hallucinatory at first blush but grounded, upon closer inspection, in commonplace America. Carroll is talking, I think, about the tankers moored out in Lower New York Harbor. From where he stands on the shore, distance makes the people moving around on them seem like dwarves.
Obituary has a similar distorting effect: it tends to make its subjects giant in certain regards, dwarfish in most others. Carroll died of a heart attack this weekend, at age 60, and it may be that, in the popular mind, his name will forever be attached to the image of a young Leonardo DiCaprio shooting up a high-school classroom in the film version of The Basketball Diaries. But in the subculture of which Jim Carroll was a sort of poet laureate – one of them, anyway – the movie of The Basketball Diaries registers only as a minor souvenir. Before he was a screenwriter, Carroll was a diarist, a frontman, an addict, and a poet, and he left behind at least a couple of very good books.
The Basketball Diaries still feels like being jumped in an alley – in a good way – but Fear of Dreaming: Selected Poems may be a more enduring portrait of the artist. Reading the poems chronologically, you can see Carroll working off his debts to the Romantics, the Symbolists, and especially to first- and second-generation New York Schoolers Frank O’Hara and Ted Berrigan. In the process, he perfects a certain kind of American vernacular, at once iconoclastic and direct. In my favorite of his poems, “The Narrows,” he writes,
I’d like to watch myself holding you
above the cool shore of something really vast
like a vast sea, or ocean.
and when I was through watching, I’d become someone else.
Jim Carroll’s reckless self-discovery cleared space for a generation of Downtown artists who followed, from Kathy Acker to Patti Smith, from David Wojnarowicz to Sonic Youth. That Downtown is largely gone now, it seems, its scuzzy bohemia auctioned off to real estate developers. And nobody writes like that anymore: like it’s possible to invent new forms out of one’s own burning, rather than out of gamesmanship of the mind or the marketplace. But with Jim Carroll, legacy never seemed to be the point. His poems are ecstatic encounters with the here and now. In an early poem, he wrote, “it’s just a feeling I have at times / I want to live until I want to die.” One hopes he got his wish.