James Franco Selects His Favorite Poems

Today, Howl opens in theaters, with James Franco inhabiting the role of Allen Ginsberg circa the mid-fifties, as his most famous poem creates a national controversy. Franco is no stranger to poetry himself, however: He studied it at Warren Wilson College, and, as a director, he is currently filming a series of short films, each based on a different poem. This got us thinking: What poems and poets are Franco’s favorites? We asked the bazillion-hyphenate artist, and he thoughtfully obliged. Franco selected eighteen poems, and then wrote a personal introduction to some of them below. Click through to read most of the poems. (Owing to copyright restrictions, we weren’t able to link to full text of them all.)

• C.K. Williams, “Tar”
• C.K. Williams, “The Gas Station” (found in Williams’s Collected Poems)
• C.K. Williams, “From My Window” (also in Collected Poems)

Franco: Here are three poems by C. K. Williams from his book Tar. Tony Hoagland gave me this book when he was my adviser at Warren Wilson College. Look at the blurring between the past and the present as the speakers look back on memories. The physicality of the scenes and the specificity gives them direct power, the W.C. Williams idea of “no ideas but in things.” But this is complicated here because the speakers are tying up these concrete memories with their musings. The past infects the present, and in the poems, the two time frames are blurred on an emotional plane. He uses an incredibly long line in all the poems in this collection, which gives a sense of spoken speech, but he turns the poem on incredibly sharp description.

• Allen Ginsberg, “America”
• Tony Hoagland, “America”

Franco: The “America” poems, by Ginsberg and Hoagland, show two men taking account of the present state of things. They are both working in an idiomatic manner so that the poetry of everyday speech is uncovered. They are also working in a political mode without being idealistic, something very difficult to do.

• Frank O’Hara, “The Day Lady Died”
• Frank O’Hara, “Ave Maria”
• Frank O’Hara, “Personal Poem”

Franco: The O’Hara poems are beautiful and deceiving. On one level they feel frivolous, but O’Hara always ties them up with a significant event or line that pulls everything taut and reveals the connections and meaning underneath the seemingly desultory elements. C. Dale Young gave a great lecture at Warren Wilson College last summer on the depth beneath O’Hara’s “Ave Maria.” Using the movies and simple diction and surface structure, he speaks of a secret inner life that transforms sensuous experience into spiritual experience.

• Frank Bidart, “Herbert White”
• Spencer Reece, “The Clerk’s Tale”

Franco: Frank Bidart’s “Herbert White” and Spencer Reece’s “The Clerk’s Tale” are two poems that inspired me to make short films. They have both become friends. These poems are both portraits of loneliness. Bidart wrote “Herbert White” when he was a graduate student at Harvard. In Robert Lowell’s workshop, someone said that there were some subjects not fit for poetry, and the subject of Frank’s poem was one of them. But Frank proves him wrong. Through this portrait of his anti-self Frank achieves great depth. Spencer worked at Brooks Brothers for over a decade. This poem is a kind of portrait, but it moves beyond portraiture to subtle art. There is great sorrow but also great strength in the poem. The miraculous thing is that it is an accumulative effect, it is hard to nail emotion down to any single line.

Other Franco Favorites:

• John Berryman, “Dream Song 4”
• John Berryman, “Dream Song 14”
• Louise Glück, “Purple Bathing Suit” (found in Meadowlands)
• Robert Creeley, “Bresson’s Movies” (found in Echoes)
• Robert Creeley, “The Rain”
• William Carlos Williams, “Danse Russe”
• Czeslaw Milosz, “The Merchants” (found in New and Collected Poems)
• Denise Levertov, “The Mutes”

James Franco Selects His Favorite Poems