Wednesday, January 16, 2013

James Franco's "Blue Being": an explication

So James Franco is the biggest thing to hit poetry since Jewel and Tupac.

I am torn now as I was torn then--I really want these famous people to be good poets.

Really I do. I remember being disappointed picking up (actually just seeing the title of) A Night Without Armor and just being wholly underwhelmed by The Rose that Grew from Concrete.

So when Actor-turned-Poet James Franco started popping up all over the blogo-twitter-facebook-sphere I was trepidatiously intrigued.

And then Eyewear (linked above) published his poem. I'm not convinced their lineation is correct, so I'll take out the extra spaces. Feel free to send corrections:


by James Franco

There is a surface
That we all make together
And the wild man
Seems to pop through

Like a line dancer out of step
And others start complaining
That he doesn’t know the moves
And he’s stepping on everyone’s toes.

There was a man named Mike
Who called my father five times a day.
You’d hear each burdened voice of the family
Shout across the house,

Daaad, it’s Mike.

At dinner my father often explained
That Mike saw demons.
They spoke to him,
He thought they were real.

I pictured a flaming blue being
Entering the dingy room,
And sitting by Mike
On the gray sheeted bed.

Part of me can hear William Logan's voice crawling through my ears: "what damned surface? how do we make it together? You expect the reader to believe this bullshit? No reader is going to buy this. Quit telling the reader what is and what isn't."

But I ignored William's advice for a while so let's skip that, shall we (note: he was at least partially correct).

The title: "Blue Being" (let's forego the all caps). It's ambiguous and playful and sonic but it's also cliched. Both words. "Blue" and "Being" are struck right out of some Beat-Ashbery mashup. Again, though, they sound nice (and it's better than the possibility of the reverse: "Being Blue").

The two opening stanzas don't give us anything the transcendentalists already hadn't--and folks have said it better before. There's an interesting colloquialism regarding line dancing--one assumes most poets are too uppity to know the boot-scootin' boogie and may even scoff at the electric slide--but if one's attempting to secure a broader readership, I can see the appeal of gutterizing one's metaphors. The problem is that it's not a terribly interesting symbol. The out-of-step line dancer. I think it implies we're having more fun that most people say we're having. 

Having said that, I must address the damned word "seems." Franco--and all poets--should know better. As Pound said, either it is or it isn't. A little decisiveness goes a long way.

Then to this Mike fellow. Would the father have to "often explain" that Mike saw demons? Wouldn't that be something you'd likely remember?

Then the image of the "flaming blue being." 


Like, folks, not even the promise of the hint of a description. And it's in a "dingy room." Franco is demonstrating a serious need for the "show, don't tell" lecture. 

The poem's not good. It's not terrible. I've read terrible poems. It's just not good. I could see it getting a chuckle or two with a well-timed reading at a poetry jam but unless Mr. Franco is releasing a YouTube series instead of a book he better get serious with his verse.

I hope for his sake and that of Graywolf Press the remainder of his book's poems are superior to this one. Otherwise The Strongest of the Litter will turn out to be a runt.


stu said...


I liked this piece, by which I mean your piece, not the poem.

I agree with what you've written, but have a few reactions of my own.

Franco's famous? Never hear of him. Not my generation. A quick Google search shows that John Stamos and Charlie Sheen are poets too. I get the attraction. Actors live by speaking words that other folks have written, and so may feel an especially acute need to establish that they have a voice of their own, especially attention seekers like Stamos and Sheen. Is the existence of Franco poetry indicative of an inner poetic spirit, narcissism, or both?

Thinks I disliked about the Franco piece.

Taking some mundane quirk of childhood experience, and investing it with pregnant significance. Not to be ego-centric, but I don't get why this matters to him, let alone me.

Using one abstract metaphor (the surface) and one concrete metaphor (line dancing) to make the same point. This is the poetic analog of the three anecdote sermon, and I'm no fan of those, either.

Calling it poetry because he's chopped a few sentences into quatrains, but then not bothering with rhyme, meter, alliteration, or any of that shite because he's way too hip for that. Oh, and throwing in a single, unimportant verse that breaks the pattern of quatrains, because he's a wild man. Like.

It feels lazy. "Seems?" Seriously? "Like." Like I wouldn't know a metaphor if you didn't announce it. "Pop." Just the wrong word. The wild man is not a zit that's been squeezed. He's the active agent, propelling himself through a barrier that he doesn't even recognize. Consider "shatters." "There was a man named Mike..." Who fucked a baboon on a trike? And it's not just laziness in word choice. A flaming blue demon sits down to this dude on a thinly sheeted bed. And the next thing that happens is a phone call, and a conflagration? I get suspension of disbelief, but flames have consequences, even in poetry.

Thinks I liked.

The metaphor of surface is compelling to a mathematician. It's the idea that social constraints are a low-dimension manifold embedded in a higher dimensional space (that's mathematicianese for "surface"). It works for me.

The involvement of multiple senses (hear, see) without it becoming a punchlist (no smells or tastes).


Take this poem, strip the author, and drop it into a stack of poetry homework assignments for an AP English class. How does he stack up against the kids? I'm thinking the third quartertile -- in the pack with the guys, behind most of the gals.

stu said...


G. M. Palmer said...

"Pop." Just the wrong word. The wild man is not a zit that's been squeezed.

Mr. Franco is going to need some salve to go on that burn.

G. M. Palmer said...

Hey--I'll have you know I was the best poet in my high school. ;)

stu said...


Hey--I'll have you know I was the best poet in my high school. ;)

I've read your poetry. Heck, I've bought your poetry. I'm not doubting you for a second.

G. M. Palmer said...

I was just commenting about your placing of the boys and girls in ranks of poetry :)

stu said...


Oh, I get that. My take is that if you look at the distribution of language skills by gender, they have the same support, but different skews. Somewhat surprising, this is true even at the upper tail of the distribution, i.e., in the AP classes.

No reason a guy can't be at the top of the class, and even put some distance between himself and #2, but that's not going to be the usual case, at least not in my experience.

Kirby Olson said...

I'm trying to catch up on Franco. I hadn't heard of him either. It doesn't feel mellifluous and I like that in poetry. Silliman judges negatively anyone who doesn't love Franco on his blog. I wouldn't know. He usually has political reasons that trump his aesthetic reasons. I generally go the other way. Thanks for trying to bring me up to speed. It takes me a while to reflect.

G. M. Palmer said...

Silliman judges negatively anyone who doesn't love Franco on his blog.

Ugh, really?

I mean, I'm not surprised that RS doesn't know crap poetry when he sees it but come on--Franco hasn't done anything good yet (that we've seen).