Jones Irwin​​​​

Jim Carroll Channelling the Suicide of Kurt Cobain: Another Angle on Punk Poetics via Rothenberg

And instead you were swamp crawling / Down, deeper / Until you tasted the Earth’s own blood. From 8 Fragments for Kurt Cobain, Jim Carroll

Jerome Rothenberg in several short essays has explored specific dimensions of the relation between poetry and song lyric, as it works through a particular cadre of artists from Nick Cave to Patti Smith (Rothenberg 2017; Rothenberg 2013). The New York punk singer and poet Jim Carroll (Carroll 1993) would be a unique instance of this paradigm, expressed most especially in his poetry, although his music (the album Catholic Boy, connecting to his Irish-American religious upbringing) and his fiction (famously, his The Basketball Diaries connecting to the heroin addiction underlying his early sporting prowess) are also examples. Rothenberg’s focus is on the wider problematic of lyric/poem in these examples of the alternative culture and he makes the case that it is when Cave’s lyrics (Cave 2001) precisely leave the traditional line and rhyme behind that they open out onto the space of a ‘projective verse', which places him among the experimental and avant-garde poets of his generation (and that of an earlier one, such as Rothenberg himself alongside others such as Snyder, Eshleman etc.).

Here, Cave’s obtuse and free-floating lyrics (Irwin 2023) become part of an argument for a wider conceptualisation of ‘omni-poetics' by Rothenberg, finding poetry everywhere but also where you would least expect to find it conventionally (Rothenberg 2013; Yépes 2013). Even Cave warns against the quality of this extemporized work when it is seen on the page – ‘beware of putting it down on paper…it gets a little ropey at times' (quoted Rothenberg 2017), as the free-flow of song and performance allows for a grab-bag of stuff. But it is this grab-bag or quotidian quality which strengthens it as poetics for Rothenberg. We might also cite the song lyrics of Shane Mac Gowan here, a lyricist caught between punk and folk vision (and betwixt England and Ireland) whose writing on the page is very much a seeming grab-bag with (however) a wider and deeper resonance than at first appears. As Cian Ferriter has captured it in his recent im memoriam poem for Mac Gowan, The Sick Bed Of Shane Mac Gowan, ‘you spiked it, slammed it, swilled it, horsed it down, bare-backed the wolfhound through the throng of London’s moshing, mongrel exiles, lost soldiers searching for a soldier’s song' (Ferriter 2023). With Ferriter’s text, Mac Gowan’s song becomes a poem, but we can argue that (with Rothenberg) Mac Gowan’s musical and lyrical oeuvre is already a poetry as writing on the page.

Carroll’s poetry is another case in point. His ‘8 Fragments For Kurt Cobain' (Carroll 1994) is one of his greatest textual achievements, both in itself as a poem but also as an intersection of the related lives of the artists Cobain and Carroll, from one (minor) star to that of another (major) star, where it is perhaps the move from minor to major celebrity that crosses the brink from withstood suffering to unbearable suicide. In this, there is also an opening onto the socio-political dimension (poetry as social critique) which connects most clearly to the Beats but which is also a prescient foreteller of the ubiquity and semantic emptiness of the celebrity and social media culture of our times which can already be seen as well on its way to cultural hegemony in the 1990s.

Burrough’s texts (a significant inspirer of Cobain) most especially, employ a powerful socio-political critique of conventional American society and its mores, ‘punching a hole in the Big Lie' (Douglas 1999; Burroughs 1999). In Carroll’s poem, another lyricist of the aesthetic everyday (Frank O’Hara) is invoked to describe a ‘betrayal' (seemingly inevitable) of the artist by Beauty. ‘No matter that you felt betrayed by her/That is always the cost/As Frank said/Of a young artist’s remorseless passion/Which starts out as a kiss/And follows like a curse' (Carroll 1994). Cobain’s tortured lyricism shows the influences of several counter-cultural poets such as William Burroughs and the wider Beats aesthetic alongside his embrace of a punk ethos. For Carroll, the ‘muttered lyrics' of Cobain are poems with ‘curious phrases like ‘incognito libido' and ‘chalk skin bending'/the words getting smaller and smaller/until separated from their music' (Carroll 1994). This is a perfect encapsulation of Rothenberg’s own logic for ‘omni-poetics' (Rothenberg 2013), when he seeks to identify with the poetry embedded in the lyrics of singer-poets, with a legacy that goes back to Dylan and Cohen. It is the power of the words and the writing as ‘separated out from the music' rather than as taken as part of the latter that is the crucial principle of hermeneutic interpretation at work here.

In his Foreword to a collection of Nick Cave’s lyrics, Will Self cites an argument which he had with the music journalist Barney Hoskyns over the distinction between lyric and poetry in popular music, where Hoskyns cited Smokey Robinson’s simplicity of lyric as the quintessence of what makes a good song (Self 2001: ix). In contrast, Self argues that it is precisely the complexity and ambiguity of, for example, some of Bob Dylan’s lyrics which make him both a great lyricist and poet simultaneously. The specific lyric example he gives is of Dylan’s song ‘Visions of Johanna', where the verse goes ‘On the back of the fish truck that loads/While my conscience explodes'.

Such complexity and ambiguity (the words and meaning ‘getting smaller and smaller') is also characteristic of different examples of what might be termed a ‘punk poetry', with John Cooper Clarke as one paradigmatic example (Cooper Clarke 2012; Irwin 2022). As Rothenberg sees it, these kinds of related poetics share a developing space of a ‘projective verse' and it is this place which situates this lyric writing among the experimental and avant-garde poets. Although the lyrics tend in a popular mode to be associated with the song as such, for Rothenberg it is rather precisely as writing and as on the page (as the ropey reading grab-bag Cave describes) that these texts show their kinship to the old/new world of poems and poetics, ‘both form & content, as another and necessary step towards a living omnipoetics' (Rothenberg 2017).

The poet-critic Aram Saroyan (Saroyan 2010) cites a significant example of attending a poetry reading by Carroll when his work was moving away from the more well-known punk albums to spoken/written word. During this performance, Carroll adopts a minimalist style in his aesthetic which brings his work closer to that of Cobain than that of his more widely known poetry (which Saroyan describes as being more ‘full voiced and romantic vein' (Saroyan 2010). Saroyan describes the reading thus – ‘In his inimitable New York accent, he proceeded with –

His father was
A loafer.

His mother was
A sneaker.

– minimalism with street cred, as it were. (Saroyan 2010).

Saroyan goes on to describe encounters with Carroll in later years as he battled the remnants of his earlier heroin addiction (now on methadone treatment) but with a courage and an integrity; ‘with his Prince Valiant haircut and frame, there was something courtly and old-fashioned about him that conjured up a word like “honour” or “noble'''(Saroyan 2010). This aspect of Carroll’s character and work (reminiscent of Cobain’s damaged/doomed but gentle character) is also encapsulated succinctly in the Ted Berrigan poem ‘Blue Galahad' which he dedicates to Carroll:

Beauty, I wasn’t born
High enough for you: Truth
I served; her knight: Love
In a Cold Climate.

(Berrigan, quoted Saroyan 2010).


Burroughs, William, Word Virus: the William Burroughs Reader, ed. James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg. London: Flamingo, 1999.

Carroll, Jim ‘8 Fragments For Kurt Cobain’. Louisville, KY: White Fields Press/ The Literary Renaissance, 1994.

Carroll, Jim Fear of Dreaming. The Selected Poems of Jim Carroll. Penguin, New York, 1993.

Cave, Nick (2001) The Complete Lyrics 1978-2013. Penguin Books, London.

Cooper Clarke, J. Ten Years In An Open Necked Shirt. Vintage, London. 2012.

Douglas, Ann, ‘Punching a Hole in the Big Lie: The Achievement of William S. Burroughs’, in Word Virus: the William Burroughs Reader, eds. James Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg London: Flamingo, 1999.

Ferriter, Cian ‘The Sick Bed of Shane Mac Gowan’. Irish Times, 23rd December 2023. Dublin, Ireland.

Irwin, Jones ‘Evidently A Punk Poetry: On John Cooper Clarke’ in Red Ogre Review, December 2022. Lancaster, England.

Irwin, Jones ‘From Song To Poem In The Work Of Nick Cave’. The Ulu Review. November 2023.

Rothenberg, Jerome ‘Nick Cave: Three Poems From Skeleton Tree’. Jacket 2. (accessed 08.01.24 March 2017.

Rothenberg, Jerome ‘PRE-FACE’ in Rothenberg, Jerome Eye Of Witness. A Jerome Rothenberg Reader. Edited with Heriberto Yépes. Black Widow Press, Boston, MA, USA. 2013.

Rothenberg, Jerome Eye Of Witness. A Jerome Rothenberg Reader. Edited with Heriberto Yépes. Black Widow Press, Boston, MA, USA. 2013. Saroyan, Aram ‘Blue Galahad: Jim Carroll in Bolinas’. Jacket 2. Jacket 40, late 2010.

Self, Will ‘Foreword’ in Cave, Nick (2001) The Complete Lyrics 1978-2013. Penguin Books, London. 2001.

Yépes, Heriberto ‘Introduction: A Re-Vision of Jerome Rothenberg’s Poetry and Poetics’ in Rothenberg, Jerome Eye Of Witness. A Jerome Rothenberg Reader. Edited with Heriberto Yépes. Black Widow Press, Boston, MA, USA. 2013.

About the Author

Jones Irwin teaches Philosophy and Education in Dublin, Republic of Ireland. He has published poetry most recently in Espacio Fronterizo (Borderland / Espace Frontière), Moonstone Press, and Tofu Ink Press. The Female Rimbaud was nominated by Tofu Ink Press for a Pushcart Award in Autumn 2021. His vision is of a postmodern existentialist.

He is currently working on a book of haiku based on the concept of “American Haikus” developed originally by the Beat poet Jack Keroauc. His first chapbook, GHOST TOWN, was published by Moonstone Press in late Summer 2022.