James Franco Reads 6 Short Poems from His New Collection

James Franco, like Ethan Hawke before him, is one of those movie stars who gets bashed left and right for daring to behave like any other arty young man. How dare he think he can write a novel, or paint, or make short films? What a pretentious idiot, right?!

I would counter that these activities out him as a passionate reader who cares deeply about art and movies.

His celebrity opens doors that are barred to your average arty young men, but it also ensures that he’ll be scapegoated without mercy. (An arty young man of my acquaintance earned some nice publicity for himself performing a one-man show titled “Bring Me the Head of James Franco, That I May Prepare a Savory Goulash in the Narrow and Misshapen Pot of His Skull.” )

I rarely feel sorry for celebs who tweet their wounded feelings, but I was rather moved by Franco’s poetic take on what it’s like to be on the receiving end of all this vitriol. It’s the first of six poems he reads in the video above, when he shared the stage with his 74-year-old mentor Frank Bidart, who no doubt enjoyed performing to a sold out crowd of 800. Franco’s debut poetry collection’s title, Directing Herbert White owes something to Bidart. His poem, “Herbert White,” is the inspiration for a short film directed by Franco.

Those who would consider all that just more evidence of Franco’s insupportable pretentiousness should consider the opposing viewpoint, courtesy of non-movie star poet Bidart, who told the Chicago Tribune:

 “I’m almost 75. At some point you know the parameters of your life. The terrifying thing about getting older is the feeling that everything that happens from now on will be a species of something that has already happened. Becoming friends with James changed that: I no longer feel I can anticipate the future. Which is liberating.”

Perhaps all that frantic, cross-media creative expression can result in something more than a snarky one-man show.


Because I played a knight,
And I was on a screen,
Because I made a million dollars,
Because I was handsome,
Because I had a nice car,
A bunch of girls seemed to like me.

But I never met those girls,
I only heard about them.
The only people I saw were the ones who hated me,
And there were so many of those people.
It was easy to forget about the people who I heard
Like me, and shit, they were all fucking fourteen-year-olds.

And I holed up in my place and read my life away,
I watched a million movies, twice,
And I didn’t understand them any better.

But because I played a knight,
Because I was handsome,

This was the life I made for myself.

Years later, I decided to look at what I had made,
And I watched myself in all the old movies, and I hated that guy I saw.

But he’s the one who stayed after I died.

You can see James Franco and Frank Bidart’s Chicago Humanities Festival appearance in its entirety here. Find more poetry readings in the poetry section of our collection of Free Audio Books.

Related Content:

James Franco Reads a Dreamily Animated Version of Allen Ginsberg’s Epic Poem ‘Howl’

James Franco Reads Short Story in Bed for The Paris Review

Listen to James Franco Read from Jack Kerouac’s Influential Beat Novel, On the Road

Ayun Halliday is a  Freaks and Geek diehard who gets all her Lohan-related intel from the poetry of James Franco and  d-listed. Follow her@AyunHalliday

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Comments (14)
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  • Robert says:


    I’m all for questioning groupthink and for applauding actors — and anyone in any profession — for reading books and being generally curious about culture (and science and politics etc).

    But I take issue with your assertion that the quote from Frank Bidart amounts to an “opposing viewpoint” to the claim that James Franco’s writing endeavors are just “insupportable pretentiousness.” (Is there such a thing as supportable pretentiousness?)

    In the quote, Bidart says that life’s experiences tend to repeat, but “Becoming friends with James changed that: I no longer feel I can anticipate the future.” So, Bidart says that his friendship brought something new to his life. But he says nothing about whether Franco’s writing is pretentious, frivolous, genuine, sincere, good, bad — nothing.

    Franco might or might not be pretentious, his writing might be good or lame (the poem above suggests the latter), but you and this website have an obligation to discuss it intelligently.

  • Robert says:

    Also, look up scapegoat. It does not mean the target of resentment.

    Are there any editors on this website? Any writers?

  • Robert, if nothing else, thank you for pointing out an inadvertent typo switcheroo… the opposing viewpoint was actually offered by Ian Belknap, a Chicago-based writer and performer. We’ll make sure that it gets changed.

    I stand by my modern use of scapegoat, as opposed to what it meant in ancient Greece or in the book of Leviticus.

  • Ian Belknap says:

    Hey Ayun and, to a lesser extent, Robert

    While I’m tickled that anyone would publicly refer to me as “young,” and while I will argue till my last that Franco’s literary and artistic output is slapdash and subpar, my show – which you kindly mention in the above piece – was an effort to lay bare the celebrity-sotted cultural miasma that permits this huckster to leapfrog both the gatekeepers, and thousands of more worthy and skilled artists and writers (publishing deals, gallery shows, admission to grad programs, Broadway stage, Times op-eds, university teaching gigs, etc).

    What my show endeavored to do was interrogate a system that permits a (in my view) vacant-eyed pretty boy to sidestep all the usual mechanisms of assessment to reap the benefits of all these undeserved opportunities. The paradox with Franco is that I’ve come to conclude that money or prestige or acclaim are not his quarry – it is simple attention. He is – in childish, ego-fired fashion – driven by a feverish need for regard, and it is essentially immaterial to him whether it’s positive or negative in tone. Witness the furious pace at which he documents his every bit out output and process (his social media presence is constant), and unfailingly swift response to his detractors – the point is churn, at which Franco is an uncontested master.

    And the villain of my piece – to the extent that there is one – was not Franco, whom I find to be a desperate and hollow figure, but the publishers, galleries, universities, and especially the uncritical art-consuming public that permit his work – which occupies a spectrum between half-assed and god-awful – to keep finding conspicuous public outlets.

    So this – right here: your piece, my comments upon it – represents another victory in his unrelenting campaign for our attention.

  • Jake says:


    I appreciate your ire regarding the publishing industry’s lack of vision and the people they employ to perpetuate their profit margins to investors and shareholders and relevance to the consuming and brand-sensitive public, but I think you’re making the mistake of conflating art with institution. I think the author of the post on this site is probably doing the same thing – but I think that is another issue and regarding Open Culture’s very positive social goal it is not a problem.

    If you hold any institution in high regard, meaning you attach your definitions of seriousness or importance or meaning to established orders or rules of what you find is worthwhile or contributory to culture or society, then you should at the same time at least recognize that you are implicitly submissive to those institutions’ definitions of worthiness. Your acknowledgment of James Franco, whatever intellectual frameworking you’re using to deconstruct his existence, is reduced in most people’s minds to a mere cog in the machine of his ambiguous celebrity/art persona. You seem aware of this, but you don’t know what to do about it.

    To me your aim, without using psychological non sequiturs to unpack it, is to reclaim what you think you know of as art. You regard these gatekeepers at institutions and universities with some amount of esteem, but in the end they are managers, professionals, and profit-seekers just as any highly paid person is at a well-financed and storied company/university/brand.

    What will you have art be today? To many it’s some mix of profession and expression, a media bereft of what we once thought of as meaning that its only contribution to the world seems to be the aesthetic – as the messages within the texts of our most esteemed artists have become so trivial, consummable, and instantly recognizable in their symbology that the conclusion I’m drawing is that the only place one can really be artistic is alone without an audience and as such without outside analysis. If this is the course that art must take then I think that is fine. Art as it is a public or social currency I believe in as a part of the capitalist world system’s survival through the upcoming years of cultural consolidation. Art as some precious, meaningful attempt at announcing ourselves, which is what James Franco is something we can all do but not without consequence. James Franco can do it without consequence – but the only way people can behave as he does in future generations – as a person with multiple personalities and ambiguous desires and motivations, doubts – I think Kanye West often does it better – is for people to stop tearing them down and recognize that there are people out there with equal power and money who are attempting to render humanity homogeneous and efficient, and spiritually broken underneath the consistent motions of never-ending competitiveness. I will take the prevaricating, childish, and genuinely disingenuous James Franco over some polished and function-servicing “artist” any day, because at least he is making people upset.

  • Jake says:

    That all said I think it’s despicable that James Franco sells any of his “art”. Kanye for that matter too. They should be giving all of this stuff away – on that matter I’m completely against this type of business.

  • Ian Belknap says:

    Wow. Jake.

    You have projected a great deal upon a piece of work which to my knowledge you have not seen, and upon my intentions, intellectual limitations and predilections, all while ascribing to me a high degree of reverence for institutions the presence and influence of which I am unable to detect.

    Which is a variation of what I see going on with Franco – we project upon him and his meekly transgressive bullshit what we wish to see.

  • Jake says:

    I just find it interesting that you’ve invested so much of your time and work into a person you obviously so dislike. I detected a regard for the institutions, not necessarily a reverence (and by the way I understand that you are deeply connected to the institutions so your reverence seems professionally linked) and I am analyzing your interpretation of work, not the work itself. I won’t begin to postulate on why you are obsessed with Franco, and I’m not fighting you on having that anger because I think there is currently a giant and pathetic hole where anger should exist in art and writing, but I am challenging your perspective with regards to transgression.

    I’ll ask you a question instead of heedlessly projecting onto you my assumptions: Is there a part of you that supposes that your love and understanding of the arts, and with it your idea of what constitutes a transgressive work, is distorting how you view James Franco? In other words, isn’t it ironic that someone you deem meekly transgressive and hollow – which I agree with – is causing you, a person who has I would assume a well-formulated idea of what art is and is not, so much anguish? What about that is not transgressive to you?

    Sorry if the question is leading but I didn’t know how else to put it. And I am not trying to offend you, I’m actually just really curious.

  • Blah says:

    That poem sucks. ‘Nuff said.

  • Blah says:

    And you folks commenting on this crap fest are pretentious boors. I can easily envisage the lot of you sitting round a perfectly worn wooden table, sweating in your tweed jackets but refusing to remove them lest you ruin your carefully contrived image, sipping the most precious sherry (which you don’t really enjoy) from the rarest crystal, with your pinkie poking out. Of course, you’ll be sure to make as conspicuous as possible that worn copy of Une saison en enfer, which you’ve never really understood or even enjoyed.

    Quit with the snooty shit, pick up some Bukowski, read a few good ones, and pull the stick out of your ass. It’d do you some good.

  • Smartish Pace says:

    I planned on not liking this but plans fall through as so often they do. I don’t even know actors and never seen this guy before, but “like.” Funny though, for an actor he doesn’t have great stage presence.

  • wpw says:

    The chief characteristic of these ramblings is how very very very utterly, interminably DULL they are. No amount of art this and art that can alter that. Transgressive? Huh?

  • Sal ty says:

    Poetry is real. people who critique it are not.

  • Kay says:

    Wow. What a lot of hate.
    You know, the thing about art is that it is meant to be open to perception. Yes, people need to devolop a sense of criticism, too. But creative-criticism. Nothing good comes out of calling someone a “hollow, vacant-eyed, pretentious, stupid fag”. (Just to mash some of the most notable child-tactic insults I’ve heard together) other than showing your ignorance.

    His art may not be for everyone but it is still “art”.
    And your personal losses aside, there are MILLIONS of artists who go unnoticed, die before they get a chance to really live and are opressed more than they’re allowed to freely express what they feel.

    Woe is fucking me.

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