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.

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