Directing Herbert White by James Franco, book review: Clunky lines from Hollywood's poet laureate

Ultimately, as a work of art, the juice isn't worth the squeeze

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The Independent Culture

Has Hollywood ever crowned a poet laureate? If the position were to come up, James Franco would surely be a contender on the strength of his CV alone. The star of Howl, in which he played Allen Ginsberg, is a PhD student in English Literature at Yale; he teaches creative writing at NYU; he's written eight books in between a host of literary film work. And he's got the face for a laureate, a sort of Californian Keats, fed on wheatgrass smoothies and outdoor sex.

Only the poetry snags. In his TS Eliot lecture of 2004, the Scottish poet Don Paterson extolled the forgotten "science" of verse-making. The most obvious thing in Franco's poetry is how regularly lines clunk. With the first letter of every one capitalised, despite wild variations in metre, the journey through a poem can feel like a drive down a road scattered with speed bumps: "I took two Oxycontin / And things got bad. / The DJ was this bearded dude / Named Paul / I remember requesting", runs a stanza from "Lindsay".

The publishers blurb suggests that Directing Herbert White recalls Frank O'Hara. Yet lithe, conversational free verse of the sort that O'Hara crafted doesn't permit for line breaks that appear motivated by little more than an awareness that, as it's poetry, you have to hit the return key every so often.

An eye for the detail of life, or ear for linguistic play, might have concealed this. Neither makes more than a passing appearance. Poems deal, for the most part, with places that Franco has been and people he has met ("New Orleans Square is my favorite part of Disneyland. / I spent two New Year's Eves on one of the balconies there" starts one particularly bald entry).

As a consultant might say, poetry is supposed to "add value" to lived experience, or at least refract it for beauty's sake. With the exceptions of "When My Father Died" and "Hello", which show, respectively, touches of lyricism and formal wit, Franco never quite gets there.

What we do get enough of are acting tips ("In 127 Hours I knew / The key would be show don't tell") paeans to the author's idols (Brando, Dean, Truffaut, Fellini), and rehashed gossip from his private life (basically, he turned down Lindsay Lohan for sex). This piques the interest. But ultimately, as a work of art, the juice isn't worth the squeeze. "Five per cent of people who write poetry really want to write poetry," said Don Paterson. "The other 95 per cent just want to be a poet". He's right. Wouldn't get far in Hollywood, though.