As if to excuse their obvious clumsiness in awkward reflexives – by claiming in poem after poem that it’s intentional, that it’s the smart aleck work of a trained persona; by casting himself as the pretender-poet and self-proclaimed emperor of ice cream, clothed in his own thinly-veiled, simulated nudity – James Franco keeps trying to profess that his poems aspire to the condition of poetry: not only that they’re the work of a deliberate and crafty wannabe, but also that this neediness, this craving for legitimation, is in and of itself enough evidence of something approaching technique to have us take him seriously, to get him. “There is a fake version of me,” he writes, “And he’s the one that writes / These poems”:
He’s become the real me
Because everyone treats me
Like I’m the fake me.
I mean, it’s not just that, throughout Directing Herbert White, the emperor has no clothes, or that he coopts the role of the mythically honest boy who’s willing to say so, even about himself, but more that he makes out of his obvious and self-evident fakery, out of the contrived self-fashioning that concocts and informs the persona of a semi-notorious Hollywood lothario named “James Franco,” a set of patently fake poems, and that this fakery might just be sufficient, if it’s repeated enough times, to be aesthetically interesting, to be artistic. “He wrote the poem,” he says of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in “Acting Tips,” “And then the poem wrote him.” Maybe it’s not the real Allen Ginsberg or even the poet Allen Ginsberg whom Franco’s describing here, but his own theatrical version of him, the alienated poetic genius he pretended to voice in a film: “In Howl I played Ginsberg, / And I was all alone. / My scenes were speeches / Given to an unseen interviewer . . . .” That line is a great one – “He wrote the poem / And then the poem wrote him” – and, ignoring the fumbled break, you can hear how the iambic cadence and the neatly turned chiasmus – both very un-Ginsberg – combine to firm up a certain sense of craft, of verbal mastery. That sense is fairly temporary, however; it’s really the only remarkable line in an otherwise flaccid and meandering text. But it does point up a potential that constitutes a genuine thematic centre for Franco’s largely ingenuous work: his want. He wants both to write and to be written by poetry, by these poems.
Robert Polito sycophantically (there’s no other word for it, sorry) quotes this same line as evidence of James Franco’s genius when he introduces him at a reading and launch for the book in Chicago on February 19, 2014, alongside Frank Bidart, who’s obviously chuffed to share the stage with a celebrity who clearly idolizes him. (The title piece from Franco’s collection describes Franco’s efforts to make a film from “Herbert White,” the famous opening poem in Frank Bidart’s first book, and is also dedicated in part to the senior poet.) Franco, Robert Polito says, has become the “gifted filmmaker who aspired to be a poet,” and whose films aspire to the condition of poetry. In the staged interview that precedes brief readings from both Franco and Bidart, as well as a screening of Herbert White, Franco describes his trajectory toward legitimating himself artistically by pursuing a set of MFAs in film and creative writing more as a crisis of self-confidence: “I want people to treat me like a writer and not look at me as an actor writing,” he says. Now, these are just offhand remarks, and it won’t do to put too much critical pressure on them, but it is worth noting how concerned with likeness and with appearance he is in just about everything he says in this interview.
His poems, it’s not hard to see, obsess about overcoming the mediations of masking, of persona, by offering us a feint of candour, glimpses of the actor behind the actor, partial transcriptions of an imaginary episode of Inside the Actors Studio:
And I talk about my feelings
In the most intimate way.
It’s like I’m talking to the people
In the theater, as if they’re all my friends,
And I’m telling them
Everything there is to know
Any glimmer even of an artificial intimacy, disappointingly, is belied by the prosaic flatness of the style here, lines so “like” plain speech as to lose almost any sense of line at all. A voice that wants to produce a poetic version of Stanislavski’s magic if seems only capable, at this point, of an “as if” more Wayne’s World than anything else. “Dear James,” he writes to himself from an imaginary fan in “Film Festival,”
I don’t understand your festival. You were so great in Freaks and Geeks, why don’t you stick with that kind of stuff?
Viewers and readers, he’s suggesting, are impeded from understanding him (and his collection, for which I take this imaginary “festival” to be a trope) and from intimacy with his personal genius by the inflated expectations of fandom and by their attachments to what he has done rather than what he is trying to do, artistically. “And I’m my biggest fan,” he also says, suggesting his own ironic codependency on the very celebrity he’s trying to undo. But the humility—the negative capability— necessary to sustain this dialogue requires an actor’s practice of listening (something akin to the ways in which he describes himself listening to recordings of Ginsberg reading Howl, to “get down Allen’s / Cadence” – and the feint of intimacy, being on an imaginary first-name basis with the poet, is also a tactic of Franco’s worth noting here), a practice of listening that the poems themselves show very little evidence of attaining.
Ultimately, as an interested reader and as a fan who genuinely loved and loves James Franco’s Daniel Desario, I feel a little cheated by a smugness pervasively offered to me in the guise of TV friendship, and by the lack of any perceptible, viable latches for my fandom. Flashes of an unregenerate and puerile misogyny, in a monody appropriating Lindsay Lohan’s voice or when he describes his encounters with underage girls or when he refers to the actress Michelle Williams as Heath Ledger’s “woman,” are symptomatic of what, all his self-excused fakery aside, must be a basic lack of self-awareness, an understanding that seems to me to be crucial both to the making of poetry and to concocting workable, if artificial links between him and his readers, his purported fans. Calling Hart Crane a “guy that [sic] could fuck sailors” and then noting how when he wrote “ ‘A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets, / Tilting there momentarily, shrill shirt ballooning,’ / He meant himself” is to counterpoint a sublime, even overdone lyric complexity (Crane’s, I mean) with a banality made ridiculous by comparison, sure, but it’s also to acknowledge a kind of intertextual straining, however short it might inevitably fall, to intersect with the contingently momentous, with the passing greatness of The Bridge, and to hear what Hart Crane is trying to articulate in these lines, to hear their poetic effort. I want to glean a sense, from his own poems, that James Franco does in fact strain to listen, if only a little.
That said, I also think it’s very important not to, well, throw out the Franco with the critical bathwater. There are some worthwhile moments in these poems that, sometimes despite themselves, still merit thinking through. On April 19, Lemon Houndpublished “As James Franco Knows,” an ironic paean by Vanessa Place to the poetic naïveté Franco seems to epitomize:
As James Franco knows, /
Poetry makes me feel
/ like I can create whatever I want, because /
all you really have to do is express
/ what you feel /
emotionally and physically /
and how this affects
/ the world around you
The knowing humour of this piece – and poems like this do get a laugh, I’m sure, at readings – troubles me, not least because it simply recasts the unrequited prosaic smugness of Franco’s many poems as Place’s snide pretentiousness, and doesn’t really offer up anything, well, poetic in place of her replicant dismantling of poems that don’t really stand up all that well as poems to begin with. What seems self-evident, too, is that Vanessa Place’s Anne Carson-looking ribbon of lines isn’t any better poetry than Franco’s—which is maybe the point, and maybe why no better-crafted language emerges by her poem’s close. (Anne Carson is for me a writer who manages to transfigure banality by colliding textual and cinematic form, something Franco would clearly like to be capable of. However, Place’s piece doesn’t do any such transforming, either; it just rides blithely roughshod over Franco, doing nothing more than exploit his celebrity, his name-recognition.) It’s not that I’m trying to defend James Franco’s work against Place’s snark; it’s that I think defending him would be pointless. Franco’s poems don’t need to be satirized; in many ways, they do that well enough on their own. Rather than attack or parody James Franco, I think it’s much better to ask and to pursue what kinds of cultural and poetic work his poems actually do, or maybe want to do.
I want to finish up by focusing on two moments in James Franco’s poems, both of which gain resonances from the February 19 reading in Chicago. The first moment involves the opening line – lines – of “Ledger,” his elegy for the actor he says he never knew, a metonymy of our own unknowing relationship to him, as readers: “I’ve tried to write about you. / I didn’t know you.” Evacuated of adjective or image, these flatly discursive hemistiches assemble into a slightly off-balance Alexandrine, which lends them a lightly magisterial finitude. Almost accidently, the poem launches with a firmness of purpose that belies the hesitancy it appears to worry over. At the end of the February reading in Chicago, Frank Bidart chooses to read this poem aloud, offering Franco’s text a performative imprimatur. More than that, Bidart’s measured reading lends the poem, at least at its outset, a density and, well, a grace after which the remainder of the text can only blunder: “I wrote a poem about you before, / Back when you died, / But it was coded and unclear . . . .” In fact, it’s not clarity that’s absent, but a sense of craft – not code, not abstruse virtuosity, but mere deliberateness – that Franco keeps hinting at and then missing. But, glancingly, as Bidart’s obliging elocution makes clear, craft occasionally still happens. And it happens, moreover, around his declarations of having tried, of what I am suggesting are his moments of straining. The most interesting poem by far in the book, is the title poem, a set of journal entries (more like prose fragments) around the making of the film version of Bidart’s dramatic monologue. There are, of course, many more moments of awkward literary naïveté: Franco seems to discover Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” for the first time, and notes its famous allusion to Paradise Lost (“Myself am Hell . . .”), an out-of-character “reference” that “Herbert White” appears to make at the end of Bidart’s piece—all of which has the poem totter a bit close to becoming a first-year undergraduate essay. Still, Franco’s “Directing Herbert White” becomes an extended meditation on audience and persona, on interpretation and misprision, that’s worth at least a second look. “Sometimes,” Franco concludes, “I would like to live in a tight space and be a spy on the world,” distilling the slippages of mask and voice into a syntactically tauter and sonically more coherent sentence (notice the assonance here, for instance, the looped long i’s) than he has managed up to that point to pull off. It’s as if, for a moment or two, line and poet begin to coincide, to listen to each other. And they coincide, too, in a line that thematizes both spectatorship and desire, to look and to like.
Frank Bidart’s sense of line, and the prosaic character of his own poetry, is much more resonantly complex, involuted. His Herbert White, distanced from himself in the act of murdering a girl, perceives “Everything flat, without sharpness, richness or line.” The genius of Bidart’s work, the genius of this first poem in his first book, is his capacity to catch a vestigial pathos, a trace humanity, in a voice that remains self-consciously repugnant, and to do so – Richard Howardargues, in his introduction to Golden State, an essay James Franco also “references” in his on-stage interview with Bidart and Polito – in a poetry that remains essentially prosaic:
Prose . . . is the basis of Frank Bidart’s prosody, his organization of language to suit and serve his need, which is his quest: a poetry in search of itself. (viii)
You can feel Bidart’s need in the displacement of commas in the line from “Herbert White” I’ve just cited, in its distanced, displaced articulation of a self approaching a line, a poetry of resonant flatness. Franco, too, wants such a poetry, and writes about that pervasive want. At times, he catches in his own awkward slippages something like Bidart’s affective prosody, his aspirant line. Honestly, I hope he keeps trying.