james-franco-calvinist-poetry-tradition

 It is never too late
 I advise you all
 to become rich and famous.

- Leonard Cohen, The Energy of Slaves

James Franco has written some poems. Well, who hasn’t? But James Franco’s poems matter because he’s James Franco. Yours don’t, because you’re not.

That’s really the key fact about Franco’s poems. They can’t be called good or bad; those distinctions are difficult to make when assessing American free-verse poetry. Almost anyone can write passable free verse, but hardly anyone can write it in a way that will make others read it. Franco’s poems will be read because they’re the assertion of a self, an “I,” which has earned the right to assert itself by becoming a star. Your dorm-room poems will never be read, because you’re not James Franco.

You can read one of Franco’s poems in an article he wrote in the Huffington Post (naturally) promoting his new verse career.

Franco’s poem is almost too perfect a specimen of what American free verse really does. The poem is a gloating evocation of the vast difference between the worlds inhabited by truly singular first persons, like James Franco, and the worthless landscape occupied by the nobodies. Franco is in nobody-land for the sake of authenticity; he’s filming a movie which includes scenes featuring nobodies and the horrible world they inhabit.

It was birthday thirty-one

I was in Suffolk, Virginia, directing

A short film called Herbert White.

We stayed at the Hilton Gardens,

The only hotel in town,

The rest are motels, rented monthly.

There are no restaurants, but plenty of strip malls,

Prefabricated houses and little swamps;

People sit in their cars in gas-station lots

And eat and smoke.

This is eating out in Suffolk.

“This is eating out in Suffolk”? Say it ain’t so, Mister Franco! For our James, this is the real horror of being a nobody: The thought that “eating out” consists of munching fast food in a parking lot. Because that’s as close to real privation as an “I” of the Franco class will ever get.

To drive home the contrast between his “I” and the miserable third-person un-singular of the people who eat in their cars, Franco introduces us to one of the nobodies:

The actor that fucks a goat in my film…

a handsome, dumb-faced kid.

This actor’s nobody-ness is so poignant that it reminds James Franco of himself — that is, his former self, the wretched self he possessed before he became an “I” worth celebrating:

When I had no friends and my mom drove me to school

Because I lost my license drunk-driving, and we wouldn’t talk,

We would listen to Blonde on Blonde

Every morning, and life was like moving through something

Thick and gray that had no purpose.

And now I see that everything has had as much purpose

As I give it, or at least it can all make its way

Into my poem and become something else,

And in that way all that shit, and all those bad birthdays,

And the good ones are markers in an anniversary line…

The moral of the story is very simple: James Franco was once a nobody, just like this “dumb-faced kid,” but through God’s will and a good agent, he has been saved, become one of the Elect, a self entitled to write in the first-person singular. The poem invites you to share for a moment in Franco’s gloat over the yawning gulf between himself and the “dumb-faced” nobody who “fucks the goat” in his movie.

This sort of crude gloating may seem like mere Hollywood vanity, but it actually has deep roots in American poetry. It is, at heart, the gloating of the Saved over the damnation of the Unsaved, the heart of Calvinist doctrine. In contemporary America, the Calvinist division of the world into the Saved-Elect and the Damned-Unsaved slots very tidily into the cult of celebrity. “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not” was a classic Calvinist utterance; there are the famous and the unfamous—James Franco and the “dumb-faced” nobody. There is nothing in between, which is why, in contemporary American English, “Almost Famous” is an oxymoron, like “somewhat pregnant.”

American culture is deeply Calvinistic, whether you like it or not (and if you like it you’re sick). The Puritans weren’t just Halloween décor; they were the pure products of the Northern European Reformation, a reactionary movement that delighted in contemplating the fate of the individual (implicitly male) soul fiercely struggling for its own salvation, and in the process consigning the rest of the universe to Hell with indifference, if not glee. Calvinism was radical in its celebration of the first-person singular “I.” It went further than any religion in history in elevating the individual soul over the community that nurtured it.

In the nineteenth century, as American free verse was being developed, two books defined Anglo-American mass culture: The King James Bible and a very significant but largely forgotten book called Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan.

If an American household of the nineteenth century had only one book, it was inevitably the KJB. If they owned a second book, it was almost certain to be Pilgrim’s Progress. And that was where we went bad—because Pilgrim’s Progress is an awful book, a cruel Calvinist hymn to pure selfishness.

John Bunyan was a classic 17th-century English bigot of the sort who inspired the dark heart of American culture. He distilled a lifetime of ranting into the allegory he called Pilgrim’s Progress, an account of one man’s quest for salvation—no matter what it might cost the wife and children who depended on him. Bunyan makes this very clear on the first page of Pilgrim’s Progress, when the hero, Christian, literally runs away from home to seek Salvation. His family, seeing their breadwinner loping off across the fields in obedience to the voices in his head, start screaming:

Now, he had not run far from his own door, but his wife and children, perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on, crying, Life! life! eternal life! [Luke 14:26] So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain. [Gen. 19:17]

That’s the last we hear about Christian’s wife and family. This is 17th-century England we’re talking about; they’re gonna die, gonna starve, without Christian. The point of the book is that Christian does not and should not care about them. Conscience is the enemy, in pure Calvinist doctrine. Only the solipsistic ranting of the “soul,” demanding its personal, individual salvation, really matters.

Walt Whitman, our national poet, managed to combine the two key books of American Calvinist culture by using the rhythms of the King James Bible in a poem based on Pilgrim’s Progress’s relentless emphasis on the first person singular. Whitman’s vast free-verse, first-person poem, Leaves of Grass, is the wellspring of all modern American poetry—most definitely including the works of James Franco. In fact, Whitman’s worship of the “I” far surpasses anything James Franco could manage. Whitman made his goal very clear at the start of this lifelong project:  “I celebrate myself and sing myself/And what I assume you shall assume….”

American poetry, ever since Whitman yanked it into this self-celebration, has  been stuck with the first-person singular, quibbling only over which “I” should be celebrated. The cult of celebrity, accelerated by mass media, made it very simple to answer that question: Famous “I”s are worth celebrating; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be famous.

So James Franco’s banal anecdotes deserve to be framed in line-breaks, asserting their special importance (which is all that line-breaks do in free verse, just as a picture frame announces that what’s inside it has some special value).

Franco’s poems are pure result, like an inconvenient swamp you happen to encounter. Geological forces that have been operating for a long time created that swamp, and there’s no point in casting personal aspersions at it. It’s probably a perfectly good swamp, as swamps go. It’s kind of dismal, but there’s not much you can do about it now.

It’s important to remember that quality is not an issue here, whether the qualities involved are literary or moral. In Calvinist doctrine, the Saved are not Saved because they’re good, and the damned aren’t damned because they’re bad. Those choices are made by God, for reasons we mere humans cannot and should not try to understand.

In Calvinist terms, it’s very simple: James Franco gets to inflict his little stories on us without having to listen to ours in return because he is one of the Saved, and you (and I) are among the rest—the nobodies. Or, to put it bluntly, the damned.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]