Poets on Film: The Basketball Diaries Creates One of the Most Successful Conflations of All Time
Sex, Drugs, Basketball, Jim Carroll, Poetry, and Me
Welcome to the first installment of Poets on Film: (Re)appraisals of biopics that have featured real-life poets as their subjects or as secondary characters.
Poets on Film is a semi-regular feature of PopPoetry, a poetry and pop culture Substack written by Caitlin Cowan. You can learn more about it here. Check out the archive to see other TV shows, movies, and films whose intersections with poetry I’ve covered. If you like what you read and want it in your inbox, subscribe so you won’t miss a post!
In 1997, I discovered Jim Carroll’s poetry. I was 12. Two years earlier, a film about Carroll’s life based on his book, The Basketball Diaries, premiered with a young and ferocious Leonardo DiCaprio playing Carroll. I wouldn’t see the film for a few more years, which made it possible for me to get to know Carroll as a poet before linking him with DiCaprio’s raw performance.
When I was interviewed by Foley Schuler at Blue Lake Public Radio during National Poetry Month this year, he asked me who the first poet I ever read was, and I noted that it was Carroll. Foley rightfully pointed out that Carroll’s work was pretty mature (read: full of drugs and sex and rock ‘n’ roll) for someone so young, and he’s absolutely right.
When I first read Carroll’s collection of selected poems, Fear of Dreaming, it was everything I thought poetry was or should be: mysterious, moody, rife with the forbidden, and absolutely uninterested in what anyone else thought about it.
So, too, is Carroll the man, or so it has always seemed to me.
A fixture of the NYC art scene in the 1970s, Carroll was an icon to many but an unknown to many more. The Basketball Diaries, an autobiographical novel about a young Catholic boy who goes from high school basketball prodigy to strung-out junkie to successful musician and poet, had been optioned several times but had never made it to the big screen. By the time the film did get made, fans of Carroll’s writing and music were more than ready.
Carroll’s linkage with pop culture is strong. As tireless Carroll scholar Dr. Cassie Carter writes on CatholicBoy.com:
Carroll has kept his finger on the pulse of American culture. In 1986, he appeared on MTV, reading from his second poetry collection, The Book of Nods, and between sets at the 1993 Lollapalooza, concert-goers watched Carroll read his poetry in a spoken-word video directed by Bob Dylan’s son Jesse, proving that poetry and spoken-word have an audience with the video-generation. Following Kurt Cobain's suicide, Carroll appeared again on MTV, this time reading his now-legendary “8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain,” which he also published in The New York Times on New Year’s Day, 1995.
Writing this post sent me down so many rabbit holes and involved so much remembrance, reading, and rewatching. The temptation to let this post spiral into something massive and unwieldy was strong—there’s so much to cover. I don’t think this will be the last time I cover Carroll and his penchant for pop culture, nor will it be the last time I talk about what Carroll has meant to me personally.
Let’s just say this is my first foray, and I hope you’ll stay tuned for more in the future.
Poets on Film: Take 1
What’s the aim of Poets on Film? To a certain extent, this feature aims to determine the extent to which films about real poets are faithful to the poets’ lives (a frequent component of discussions about biopics). But on a deeper level, or rather, a level more unique to PopPoetry, I’m interested in what such films attempt to say about poets and poetry—and their place in our culture—more broadly.
Even the most faithful biographies are acts of profound curation. Any attempt to neaten the edges of something as wild and unruly as a human life is necessarily a kind of fiction, an aesthetically shaped interpretation. Therefore, it’s safe to read any biopic as a kind of argument about the subject and the subject’s work (aka, about Carroll and poetry, for our purposes).
I’ve written about films that feature fictional poets before, and I plan to continue to do that in regular series posts. But Poets on Film will take on the tricky subject of real-life poets and the films that attempt to encapsulate them.
The Basketball Diaries: A Synopsis
The film opens with the disclaimer that it’s “Based on a true story.”
In some ways, the question isn’t whether the film is an accurate portrayal of Carroll’s life—it’s how much truth there is to the novel that the film is based on. The film contains bonafide passages from the autobiographical novel and hits the high points: high school basketball stardom, heroin addiction, burgeoning poet.
The Basketball Diaries chronicles the lives of four teenage boys: Pedro (James Madio), Neutron (Patrick McGaw), Mickey (a young and lanky Mark Wahlberg, fresh off his Marky Mark fame), and Jim (based sturdily on Carroll, played by DiCaprio). Over a period of a few years, the rough and tumble friends go from harmless mooning pranks and bus-fender hitching to huffing, stealing, robbing, mugging, and using hard drugs. It’s a coming-of-age film that’s so dark it’s hard to watch in parts.
Jim faces not only drug addiction, but also the death of a young friend from leukemia, attempted molestation by his basketball coach, and, eventually, prostitution to feed his habit.
Jim’s mother (played by a luminous and tortured Lorraine Bracco, who I would have liked to have about twice as much screen time) attempts to save him at first, but ultimately kicks him out of the house in order to avoid enabling him. The scenes between the two crackle with agony and are wonderfully horribly wonderful to watch.
His friends fall away: one cleans up his act and goes All-American, another is sent to reform school, and finally, the third is locked up. All the comforts and excesses that Jim was able to enjoy in the early days of his addiction are stripped away, and he sees his life on the streets for what it is but is unable to stop his downward spiral.
I was too young the first time I read Carroll’s poetry, and I was still too young the first time I saw The Basketball Diaries years later.
One of the earliest scenes features DiCaprio being paddled by a priest in his Catholic school. When the bell rings and the paddling stops, Jim quips, “I was just starting to enjoy myself.” Again and again, we’re invited to wonder if real poetry, real art—is born from pain.
What’s Poetry Got to Do with It?
There’s plenty of suffering in this film (Leo got to practice the screaming while crying technique that would make him famous several times in this film), but there’s also plenty of poetry.
Scenes of Jim writing in a classic marble composition notebook pepper the immense suffering and heartbreak that take up the bulk of the film. Characters in the film ask Jim if he’s still “scribbling” in his notebook. Bobby asks Jim if he has any poems to show him. “You mean like to read?” Jim asks. “No, like to eat,” Bobby snaps back sarcastically. The film also contains an excellent cameo from Jim Carroll himself as a junkie hooked on the “ritual” of shooting up, which invites us to think about the ways in which poetry itself is wedded to ritual.
The film not only conflates poetry with pain, but it also conflated Carroll with DiCaprio in our cultural imagination.
In one memorable scene, DiCaprio recites my favorite Carroll poem, “A Little Ode on St. Anne’s Day,” in a voiceover while the boys prepare for a grief-induced game of basketball in the rain after their teammate Bobby’s funeral.
Throughout the film, one of the messages we receive overall is that the act of writing poetry and the identity of “poet” sets us apart and that this is both good and bad—good in that we can inspire others, ground ourselves, and make meaning, but bad in that it marks us as outsiders or cuts us off from others who don’t understand us.
Even a single viewing of the film yields some less useful tropes:
Poetry is the product of extra sensitive, tortured souls attuned to suffering
Poetry is a private act akin to religious confession
Transmuting suffering into art is the surest sign of healing
In one scene, Mickey steals Jim’s notebook and reads it aloud in order to ridicule Jim (sound familiar?), shattering the privacy of his inner thoughts.
It’s said that part of the trouble optioning the film in the 1980s had to do with the difficulty of finding an ending. In the final cut, a now-clean Jim speaks to a group of people about his experiences as an addict and draws on his talent with words to captivate them. He confesses his sins, as it were, not to the uncaring priests of the early scenes, but to seats filled with his fellow human beings.
This is real transformation, the film tells us: elevating the struggle into sonnets. But now, older, I’m less satisfied with this narrative, even as much Who is allowed to transform themselves in this way? Would a Black heroin addict be allowed to fall and rise this way? (Though we are offered Reggie’s story in the film, played by none other than Benton Harbor’s own Ernie Hudson of Ghostbusters fame.)
No matter how scary and uncool the film makes drug addiction seem, it fails to acknowledge the immense privilege white kids have, even if they’re raised on the street.
The film still moves me, shocks me, disgusts me, makes me laugh, and makes me love the pose of the observant, thoughtful poet. It still makes me love Carroll. It just makes me wish that we could all fuck up so bad and still be allowed to shine, even if only for a time.
The film not only conflates poetry with pain, but it also conflates Carroll with DiCaprio in our cultural imagination. Long known as “the Basketball Diaries guy,” much to Carroll’s chagrin, the film boosted this already stable association.
DiCaprio’s rising star cemented this connection even further—so much so that The Guardian ran a still from the film as the lead image for Carroll’s obituary in 2009.
“Will I have time,” Jim wonders in the film—time to finish all the poems swimming in his head. The real Jim Carroll would indeed have time, but not as much as he might have wanted: he died of a heart attack at 60 in NYC. I was there that day—Manhattan, September 11, 2009—an MFA student at The New School. Though I wouldn’t know he’d died until later, I remember a terrible heaviness dragging me down and down all day. Back then I attributed it to the 9/11 anniversary and the somber mood of the city, but part of me wonders if I felt it: his passing.
Addiction is not glamorous. Poetry can come from joy, not just pain. Leonardo DiCaprio is not Jim Carroll. And, crucially, even the Jim Carroll in the pages of The Basketball Diaries novel is not Jim Caroll.
The real Jim understands that you can love something, but you have to bring the intellect to bear on it in order to keep it real. In an interview with Cindy McGlynn in 1996, he said:
“To me, writing, if it’s good, has to come both from the heart—the inner-register, as Henry Miller called it—and the intellect, and one has to constantly be checking the other… You can’t write completely from the heart place without the intellect or else it would just be sentimental mush.”
I’ve tried not to give you all a bunch of mush, and I can only hope JC would dig it.
Pop Palate Cleanser
Patti Smith. Patti Smith Patti Smith Patti Smith. Look no further than the iconic Smith if you’re in search of punk-y poet-musicians par excellence.
Smith’s 1975 album, Horses, is a brilliant fusion of poetry and rock that changed the cultural landscape forever. Blurring the line between punk and spoken word, Smith was a fixture of the NYC scene Carroll was a part of, and the two even dated.
It was Smith who first urged Carroll to bring together his poetry with music, which eventually led to his formation of The Jim Carroll Band. It’s no surprise that Smith has so much creative lifeforce that she was able to birth not only her own masterpieces but also shepherd others into their own highest aesthetic selves.
In her introduction to Carroll’s final novel, The Petting Zoo, Smith writes:
His diamond mind never ceased writing, even as he read, scribbling copious notes in the margins of his books, the references of his life, Frank O’Hara, Saint Francis, Bruno Schulz. He was without guile, disdainful of his beauty, red-gold hair, lanky body, abstract, bareheaded, empty headed. Yet he was athletic with singular focus, netting his prey, able to pluck from the air with exquisite dexterity a rainbow-winged insect that quivered in his freckled hand, begetting memory.
The catastrophe of loss, the loss of a true poet, is so pure that it might for many pass unnoticed. But the universe knows, and no doubt Jim Carroll was drawn from his labors and the prison of his own infirmities to the distances of the greater freedom.
I plan to write at greater length about Smith and her own poetry for an All That Glitters feature, but for now, have a taste of her power in this 1996 video.