Ted Berrigan – “Jim Carroll” (1969)

July 23, 2011 at 6:42 am (Jim Carroll, Poetry & Literature, Reviews & Articles)

A 1969 article from Culture Hero #5 by poet Ted Berrigan about fellow poet Jim Carroll, who was just starting out, and years away from becoming a singer…

Jim Carroll has to be the biggest thing arriving in heroic culture right now. “How does it feel to be a famous poet?” “It feels . . .” No, no more. It’s beginning to feel famous? & half the population is under 25. The poems for the singing voice that pour from radios and record players, are turning kids on, and turning them on to poems for the talking voice, too. There are so many fresh and exciting and amazingly talented poets under 25 now, and what a pleasure they are! Thanks, beatniks! Thanks, Beatles!, and thanks, Bobby Dylan! Or at least I think thanks. 

Jim Carroll is beautiful. He says [in Organic Trains], “I was forewarned about the clocks falling on me, so all I felt was 8 colors as my wrist watch flew into the sky’s cheek. Watches are very symbolic of security, they remind me of Frank O’Hara. Frank O’Hara reminds me of many wonderful things, as does the vanilla light . . .” 

He’s 20 years old, stands 6’3″, and has a body like Nureyev (or would have were Nureyev Clint Eastwood). Across a party, or a poetry-reading one sees above a black swath of leather, Jim Carroll’s brilliant-red Prince Valiant cut quietly nodding.

He is saying, “My family lives in Inwood. My father owned an Irish bar, and I went to lots of Catholic schools, until this queer basketball scout Mike Tittleberger got me a combined scholastic/academic scholarship to Trinity.” (Among other famous alumni of Trinity may be listed Humphrey [Bogart], Truman Capote, Billy Berkson, and Aram Saroyan.)

“I’m also impressed by the various pets everyone is concealing under their clothing.” [Excerpt from Organic Trains]

Jim Carroll first appeared in my life as a huge white paw hung purposefully from the near end of a long brown corduroy arm. It was late one Wednesday evening, in front of Gem’s Spa, the corner at2nd Avenue& St. Mark’s Place, in the Spring of 1967. A slight grey rectangle blocked my further view. I stopped short, although none of this is the least bit unusual at Gem’s Spa. But the giant who materialized behind the hand certainly was unusual. It seemed to be saying, Pay attention, and I did so. “I’m Jim Carroll,” the giant said and became a very interesting person. “I’ve just had this book of poems published, and I’D like to give you a copy to read.” “I’d love to read it,” I said. (That’s what I always say.) So, I took the small pamphlet of Jim Carroll’s poems home to read.

The Outside cover read: ORGANIC TRAINS, below that, Poems by Jim Carroll. Inside, on the back of the outside cover, there was a brief note, handwritten. It said: “Please reply, I’d like to show you more.” And then: “Fuck the spelling in this book – it was printed inNew Jersey.”

Organic Trains is a tremendous experiences. Most of the poems were written when Jim was 14, 15 and 16. I’ve never seen anything like it. I can say Rimbaud, but that doesn’t bring in how American Jim Carroll is, and a critic might, and probably would, say, O’Hara; but Frank O’Hara never wrote anywhere near this well into well into his 20’s. The poems in the book are new, and they are now (still). If there is to be another “New American Poetry”, and there is, as the fine dust settles over the “New American Poetry 1945-60”, Jim Carroll is the first truly new American poet. His imagination is as natural to him as the evidence of his senses, and, in fact, its light transforms that always slightly belated information directly back into now; no greater pleasure!

Anne Waldman, who should know, says, “Jim is a born star. He’s so tall and beautiful, and he probably knows a lot. I love the way he talks.

“I could listen to him for days.”

[Note: the following are excerpts from Carroll’s early poems]

“You’re in a house. It’s a good house. Babies breathe in this house to the mirror. Comb my hair down straight. Put on The Velvet Underground. . . . Put on my silver ring . . . everything fine . . . Check to see how much is left . . . Giant beds with everyone I know. No sex.”

“One is not searching for blind significance, only for a shelter from thousands of inverted footprints, which are those of many erotics in deep gorges of wonderfully green humidity . . .”

“There is an ‘enjoyable fabric’ which slips beneath me every time I pass by warmth.”

“but everything has worked out fine, not like the weather, which is dark as a laundry closet in a very ‘cheap’ hotel.”

On a day like this, I feel like I’m indoors,” says Ron, walking to the subway.

“Jim’s poems really move me – it’s as if Jim were right there, taking your hand – “We’ll explore this place together.”

“What can you say,” Anne Waldman said. “To be in two places at once gives you a real buzz. ‘A little buzz’ as Jim would say.”

(“Right now I’ll settle for you, with your bra unhooked (under a tree) on the Staten Islandferry.” [from Living at the Movies])

Once, when we were walking in Julian’s Billiard Parlor Jim said to me, “When I was about nine years old man, I realized that the real thing was not only to do what you were doing totally great, but to look totally great while you were doing it!” Basketball, he meant. Jim Carroll has been an all-star athlete since he was seven years old. He pitched a no-hitter in Biddy League baseball, and was All-American in Biddy League Basketball. At Trinity (High School), Jim was three times All-City as a high scoring guard on the basketball team. “How did you get into poetry?” I asked. “Well, by the time I got to Trinity the straight Jock trip had begun to wear a little thin,” Jim said. “I still had as much charge, but I simply began getting off into new directions, like pills, sex, drugs, booze and The New American Poetry. I had been keeping my basketball diaries since I was 12, and so when I got turned on to poetry at Trinity, writing it just came naturally. I read Howl first, I guess. Then Frank [O’Hara].”

“I still love to play ball,” Jim says. And evidently Jim Carroll still can play ball. The Rhinelander Newspaper, for March 13th, 1970, reports: “The Rhinelander Seniors played their best game of the season yesterday against the bearded wierdo’s jackets-off team of poets and painters. It was strictly no competition. The only player the Rhinelander’s couldn’t handle was the guy in the bleached dungarees and a blue beret. His name is Jim Carroll, and he was High School All City a few years back. His favorite shot was a left-handed double-pump jump shot. It surprised everyone at the end of the game when he took his beret off, and long sweaty flaming red hair fell to his shoulders.”

I guess what I like about Jim Carroll’s writing, all of it, the poems, and the Diaries, is just about the same as what I get to like off of Jim. It’s that, given alternatives, Jim Carroll does what he feels like. And he isn’t necessarily packing alternatives. The rest of what I like is easily seen. It’s in the poems in The World, The Paris Review, The World Anthology, and Organic Trains. You’ll get to see it in Living at the Movies, a book of poems due out in the Fall from Cape-Goliard; and in the big selection from his remarkable work, The Basketball Diaries, to appear in the next issue of The Paris Review (no. 49).

Plus, “Class.” Jim Carroll has “class.” It seems to radiate from within, just naturally, and Bill Berkson recently wrote that Jim Carroll, with his naturally casual tough classical grace, seems to be making sweetness once again a possibility in poetry. It’s true. His presence makes something new clear: that poetry is now, here, and everywhere, not just “there.”

Ted Berrigan

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