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Punk Poet Jim Carroll Passes Away

PUBLISHED: September 14, 2009

Yesterday evening, I read the heartbreaking news that poet Jim Carroll passed away this weekend from a heart attack at just sixty years old. I surprised myself by crying for a man I did not even know.

What was it about Jim Carroll’s passing that made me feel so lost, and so upset? Carroll first made his way into my life when I was a thirteen year girl old going to the movies. There he was, in the form of a scowling, skinny Leonardo DiCaprio staring at me in scenes from The Basketball Diaries. In the film, DiCaprio—playing Carroll—shot hoops and shot heroin (two things I couldn’t be less interested in), but it wasn’t the actor I was drawn to, but the character himself. There was something about the words he spoke, and the fluidity of his prose within each “diary” entry.

We’ve just mastered the life of doing nothing, which when you think about it, may be the hardest thing of all to do.

Who was this guy? I couldn’t put the book down. It was dirty—so dirty, I read it under the covers—and filled with visions of a city I dreamed of moving to one day. There was a frenetic energy leaping off of the page: words that strung themselves together and blurred by in a tornado. I was in my Beat phase at the time, carrying around Kerouac and Ginsberg, feeling (as so many do) misunderstood by everyone at my high school. Carroll was from an entirely different world that I was familiar with but that didn’t stop me from believing, from knowing, that in my heart, he understood me.

I saw him read in person once. I was fifteen then, and going through a difficult patch with mother. My boyfriend had just cheated on me, I was still the weird kid at high school but most important, I did not have a license. I had moved on to Carroll’s poetry at this time, believing poems like “To A Poetess” and “The Secret Poets of Kansas” were written about me, even though I was not a published poet, nor did I live in Kansas.

Carroll was reading one fall evening all the way over in Venice Beach, at a tiny guitar center-slash-coffee shop. My mother kindly offered her services to drive me to the reading (nearly an hour away with traffic). I—brattily—sat in the back seat, clutching Carroll’s Fear Of Dreaming to my chest and rehearsing in my head what I would say to him when we met. At that time, I felt so angry at the world; his poems were one of my few refuges. I would find comfort in simple, yet elegant lines like

breathe deep enough and we are possessed
breathe again and we will be gone.

That evening, he wore a black shirt on stage, magnifying his electric red hair. I distinctly remember that red hair. The poems I don’t remember as clearly. It’s been over a decade since that reading, but I remember how ravenous the audience was for his words. Carroll, unfortunatley, was less than enthusiastic that night. After he read, he did not return back downstairs to sign books for the waiting crowd. I sat, stubbornly at my table, wanting to ask about “To A Poetess,” or just have him touch my hand. My mother gently escorted me back to the car.

I think of the man who constantly inspired the awkward fifteen-year-old, and it is for those times—those confusing, sad times—that I remember him. Even though we never met, as I was once convinced we were “destined” to, my love for his work never diminished.  In all my moves across and around the country, the Carroll books have come with me. They’re a part of my childhood and now that he’s gone, I feel as if a part of that is officially gone as well.


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Rebecca Louise's picture
Well put. Poetry is a subjective experience, and this is a lovely piece of perspective.
John's picture
John · 11 years ago
Nice. Well said. I hope you and your mother are getting along better.

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