It would be too easy to conclude that James Franco's new collection of poetry and prose, from Faber, Directing Herbert White, is the weakest book of poetry they have ever published, though one would have to go back to, arguably de la Mare, to find an equal. Simply put, most of the poetry in the book is so flat that one is forced to conclude that some kind of post-modern hoax is being perpetrated, the kind of thing that, from time to time, Hollywood actors get up to in their vanity project phases.
Dismissing Franco, who is, after all, a good actor, a handsome young man, a rich and famous American, and a student and promoter of poetry, might smack of envy, or sour grapes. After all, very few humans alive are currently as fortunate as he, in terms of health, wealth, looks, and opportunity. He is, in the secular and gross way of celebrity, blessed - or cursed, as he would like us to think, too. Using the persona of Lohan, the doomed actress, he is prepared for any mockery in advance, noting that blogs do not master him, and basically the rich and famous have the sex and bungalows the rest of us can only dream about. And, from my few dealings with him by email, he is a nice and helpful guy.
Choosing heroes like The Smiths, Brando, James Dean, and Frank Bidart, Franco's world is pop-cultishly blank and unsubtle, but not without interest - for he writes of some experiences that most of us, even poets, or especially poets, won't have, like acting in major motion pictures, and living in expensive, hip hotels for years on end. A mood is generated, of waste, arrogance, and a festering artifice of immortality which movies seem to donate to those who find themselves enambered therein. It's all very Sunset Boulevard.
Franco is not the first actor to write poetry - surely the greatest poet in English, our immortal Will, was an actor. Nor is Franco the first rich, famous or desired man to pen verse - Byron was more celebrated than Franco, in his day. Nor is he the first young American to be published by Faber, either - that would be Eliot or Pound. So he is not as rare as he might at first appear, or as preposterous. Yet, his poetry cannot stand up to those forebears.
Not that it tries, either.
Despite the many many famous friends and mentors he mentions in the book, his poetry seems to resist either the music of the traditional lyric, or the post-structural linguistic innovations of the conceptualists. He writes in a deadpan, flat, banal, and generally plain spoken free verse, of statement, and line break, where portentous meaning is derived from every act of enjambment.
Don't get me wrong. I like the book, in many ways. I too, for example, have written poems about The Smiths, movies, Hollywood, and materialism, sometimes assaying a free verse style, and creepy personae. Of course, I did this in 1999, 15 years ago, and my Budavox is a better work - more shocking, perverse, witty, allusive, complex, and, for the time, visionary.
But the reason it is a better book is subtle - it is because I was not then, and am not now, really a movie star.
Poets, to rise to their highest calling, cannot be entangled in another vocation - at some stage, and the word is intentional - their poetry must imagine, must envision, and enact, a world their work brings into being, a more-than-mimetic making, which is what poeisis is.
Yeats, as in all things, is the benchmark. His occult powers of generation are staggering, and he became a Mage - because he believed in, yielded to, and in turn channeled, the powers of rhyme, and metre, and verse. He embodied, he became, poetry.
Yeats did this by becoming a god. Or thinking of becoming a god.
James Franco, sadly for him, is already a kind of god, for he is a famous star. His imagination is embedded in a world he already surveys and in many ways dominates. He is a master of the ultra-hip bungalows of the super-famous and sexy. He has the keys to many doors of experience and satiation. He can sleep with any one of a thousand men or women tonight - less limited in reality, his powers of poetry are more limited in compensation.
Franco can become a far better poet. He could even become a genuine, potentially serious, poet, one to be reckoned with. Yet first he must renounce his ego, and his fame, and go into retreat. This is what Leonard Cohen did, for years, and it served him well.
Franco's book, despite its dire and uninviting title, is a good book to read - it is entertaining, eye-opening, often funny, and even a bit gossipy, bitchy, cheap, trashy and daring. It is a book almost no British poet could write, except maybe Joe Dunthorne - and so it needs to be welcome on these shores for all its problems and challenges. It is a book that affronts us, because we know 100 great American poets that do not have publishers in the UK, and we know they are not actors and never will have books here. But Franco cannot be dismissed as being simply the child of good fortune. He is lucky, and he doesn't on the face of it deserve a Faber book. But if this book had been published by a smaller press, already, the modest impulse would have set the work off better. It isn't bad poetry, per se - it is simply non-canonical, and we read Faber books as if they are canon-forming.
As such, we can conclude, it is not like when Wallace Stevens, or Frost, were first published in London. But this book challenges what we think popular poetry is and does, far more than any ten books from Cambridge or UEA, and as such, it is a bitch-slap to our pretensions and our critical senses, made infuriatingly lively by its arrogant and assured provenance. In short, we must read it, before we can toss it aside. And so, Franco has already won.
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