Monthly Archives: October 2015

The War of Form in John Steinbeck’s ‘Cannery Row’

John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel Cannery Row opens with a striking sentence. It is a striking sentence because it makes use of the novel’s title. (I will be awarding points for examples of other novels that do this) It is a striking sentence because the particle word ‘a’ forms approximately 30% of its content. It is a striking sentence because it is inaccurate. The sentence runs as follows:

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

I’ll leave aside these subsequent descriptors and focus on the first.

Cannery Row is not a poem; it’s a novel, barely, if you, like me, subscribe to the Goodblood Theory of Prose Genre by Length, the terms of which are outlined below:

Flash fiction = 1 page

Short story = Between 1 and 50 pages

Novella = Between 50 and 150 pages

Novel = 150+

There, neat categorisers for those sick of the ‘it-both-is-and-it-isn’t’ language of the literati.

Anyway, Cannery Row is not a poem, but it obviously means something important when Steinbeck says that it is. I find that when the words ‘poem’ and ‘poet’ are used to describe texts or artists that are not strictly poems or poets, that the usage is generally suspect. For example, when rappers, singer-songwriters or comedians are described as poets, I find that the delineation generally does an injustice to both art forms, as if what makes a great comedian or rapper are somehow analogous to what makes a great poet.

What I think is going on here when critics say things like this is that they are internalising the intellectually bankrupt notion that the culture that we consume should be graded on a scale of respectability. Poets tend to reside at the Olympian end of the scale and comedians are somewhere towards the bottom. Incidentally, comedians that are praised as poets are generally the prematurely dead ones known for their acerbic political commentary, wearing of leather jackets and posing with cigarettes in black-and-white photographs. See also, when television shows such as The Wire are compared to the novels of Charles Dickens, as if in order to make ourselves feel better about the fact that we’re watching TV, we have to pretend that the great serial novelist of our time is David Simon, just because they both deal with questions of how people’s lives are dictated by their social milieu. One is far better at doing so than the other. I’ll leave it to yourself to choose which one I mean.

Towards the end of the book, Steinbeck introduces a series of poems, read by the altogether lovely main character named Doc. Doc is a romantic, which means that he gets drunk by himself and reads melancholy poems about unrequited love while listening to Monteverdi and broadcasts a general vibe of quiet desperation, tempered with an essential benignity. Thanks to a group of good-ol’-boy ne’er-do-well brothel creepers, Mac and the boys, Doc is a reluctant host of a couple of raucous soirées and towards the end of one of them he reads a translation of a Sanskrit poem, quoted below, with a view to developing Cannery Row internal dialogue between novels/poetry/life:

“Even now

If I see in my soul the citron-breasted fair one

Still gold-tinted, her face like our night stars,

Drawing unto her; her body beaten about with a flame,

Wounded by the flaming spear of love,

My first of all by reason of her fresh years,

Then is my heart buried alive in snow.”

With its sickly-sweet Keatsian indulgences and Homeric compounds, social realism this poem is not.

Steinbeck’s subjects in Cannery Row, live on newly emerged societal frontiers. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, vast swathes of the American population were reduced to transitory existences, with what fledging skills they had, they tried to get by. Despite his engagement in social matters and social justice, or the lack of it, the medicine of his novels is generally sweetened with a larger poetic mission statement, or a sense of cosmic redemption. When Mac and the boys’ first party destroys Doc’s home, this rift emanates outwards into the wider community, “a black gloom” descends upon Cannery Row itself.

This is a big part of what the novel is supposed to do, perhaps allow the abstract emotions of the poem above to descend to a more comprehensible level, attach a few specificities and inveigle itself to the average reader with a more holistic approach. If Cannery Row is a poem, it is definitely not the one cited above.

Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ and William Butler Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’

When I was reading Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, I was interested in figuring out what the relationship the title has to William Butler Yeats’ frequently quoted poem Second Coming. In case you are not a product of the Irish education system, the poem reads as follows:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

What is interesting about the first three words of the third line of this text being chosen to title this book is that Yeats is not a poet of ‘things.’ Yeats, I would say, is known for his absolute lack of interest in mere ‘things,’ a fact attested to by the result of his meeting with members of Fine Gael involved in establishing the Blueshirts, an Irish fascist movement. Diarmaid Ferriter describes the meeting between the politicians and the poet as concluding ‘in mutual bafflement.’ Yeats later wrote that the Blueshirts attributed their use of the colour blue to him, as he had always hated the colour green. Yeats writes that he cannot recall this being the case, but accepts their version of events in the main.

Even when Yeats talks about ‘things,’ he is talking about abstractions. ‘Things’ in this context probably means a monument of unaging intellect, a ‘thing’ more in line with the kind of ‘thing’ that Yeats is invested in. (If these monuments of unaging intellect which ‘all’ neglect, as he has written elsewhere, one wonders how much in the way of further disrepair these monuments have to fall into.) Are ‘things’ falling apart in Things Fall Apart?

Quite the opposite. The ‘things’ in Things Fall Apart retain their solidity. The gourds made of goatskin, the kola cubes and the objects which populate the domestic sphere of the novel remain steadfast in their function as ritual objects. What is constantly under threat of dissemblance in Things Fall Apart are identities, both individual and collective.

The first part of the novel depicts a Nigerian village in a pre-colonial state, a time in which religious observances are pagan. The villagers depend on oracles, high priests and a generally decentralised order of ecclesiastics. Achebe is writing against Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, which represented this part of the African continent as in opposition to a more enlightened West, a barbaric un-civilisation. Achebe goes into great detail about how complex and multi-faceted Nigerian society is at this time. In fact, to refer to ‘Nigerian society’ is itself misleading, we do not find out where the novel is set until a colonial administrator informs us in the last line. The daily lives of each villager are socially over-determined by a seemingly endless multiplicity of codes and signs. A writer such as Conrad may read this as indicative of this countries’ essential simplicity, but Achebe demonstrates that the inner lives of the villagers are far from neat and often exist in opposition to these minefields of societal expectation.

When Okonkwo is exiled from his village for accidentally slaying a young boy, the village bands together to carry out his banishment. They assume a collective identity in doing so and act collectively without malice. This is simply the thing that must be done. However, Okonkwo’s closest friend, Obierika, who participates in the purging of Okonkwo’s land, dwells on the contingencies of Okonkwo’s fate in solitude afterwards: “When the will of the goddess had been done, he sat down in his obi and mourned his friend’s calamity. Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offence he committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities.”

This is part of the reason why the ending is so distressing. Achebe writes in a mode that is intimate and at a remove. We understand these characters’ motivations, the richness of their inner lives, but, as in the quotation above, Obierika’s thought processes are obliquely rendered as ‘greater complexities,’ and there is frequent repetition of who a character is relative to another, as if the focaliser of the narrative action is uncertain whether the reader has been paying attention or not. As such, we know that Okonkwo is wilful, violent, sometimes cruel and intensely driven  and yet his final action before the seismic shift that the final chapter enacts is described: “He wiped his matchet on the sand and walked away.”

When we next see him, it is through the eyes of a faintly annoyed colonial administrator, estranged from everything in the novel that has come before. The man inwardly complains that the Nigerians are frequently superfluously expressive, itself a repudiation of the entire novel and its dependence on excess, the mode of communication integral to the nature of literature. He also considers writing his own book, one with the depressing beaureaucratic title of The Pacification of the Primative Tribes of the Lower Niger. In this book, the kind of book that the administrator plans to write, Okonkwo would not merit an entire chapter, perhaps merely ‘a reasonable paragraph,’ and this, rather than Things Fall Apart, is what will represent Okonkwo for posterity.