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A Clamshell in Concrete 

I was a child in kindergarten class.
My mother held my hand as we trod on
The sidewalk leading to the boulevard.
This was 1951. The path
Was paved in smooth cement, and at the edge
The numbers 1 – 9 – 4 – 0 were inscribed
No doubt when masons poured fresh concrete out
To lay a walkway down that quiet street.
And, embedded at the corner was
A single clamshell, perfectly preserved,
Round and neat—no bigger than a nickel.
I stooped once just to touch it, and I felt
The tiny ridges on its curving back,
And as the years passed, gazed at it each day.
I went to school, then high school, and then college,
Graduate studies, work, and love, and marriage.
Right up to 1995 that shell
Was there in summer heat or springtime rain,
Iced over in the winter, and in fall
Swirled with the browning foliage from trees.
The shell was laid there back in 1940
And may have been old when cement was spread
To fix it in its little corner niche.
In 1995 I came and saw
That workers had ripped up the sidewalk squares
To lay new concrete for street renovation.
The clamshell was no more—just hauled away
With broken slabs of pavement to be dumped
In landfill, or perhaps into the sea.
I like to think the latter was the case
And that the clamshell went back to its home
Deep in the ocean’s bosom to remain
Untouched forever, and its brief sojourn
Here on the sidewalk was an interlude
Meant only to provide a compass point
To guide me in the passage of the years.

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A Note on Modernist Failings

I’ve written this poem purely as a teaching exercise, to provide an illustration of what I find to be the basic trouble with modernist approaches to poetry. As I have argued several times both here at the SCP and elsewhere, modernism strives to find significance in smallness, and realms of meaning in the limited space of something humble. And it does so by the pure legerdemain of a rhetoric based on sighs, dreaminess, Romantic aspiration, and lachrymose longing. This kind of wistful whining over nothing, with a trembling upper lip, is what gives contemporary mainstream poetry the insufferable “Portentous Hush” I have frequently mentioned.

What I have tried here is to write a modernist poem, but one that employs the formalist technique of simple blank verse. By doing so I am attempting to show how modernist poetry seeks out subjects that are ordinary, unremarkable, and even petty, and inflates them with the gaseous ambience of pseudo-reference. But the straightforward blank verse used here strips away the opacity that an “open” structure employs to cloud meaning; while at the same time revealing that the poem’s meaning has very little depth, other than a whiff of nostalgia and wistfulness.

Is it a good poem? Well, since it’s my baby I like it—but let’s be honest: it fails to generate the kind of electric charge and excitement that a poem rooted in fictive mimesis produces. It is wishy-washy. It is feelings-oriented. It is pale. It is surreptitiously sentimental. It says very little except “Time passes,” and “Things change.” It hungers after meaning, but all it can give the reader is smallness and inconsequentiality. I kept this piece to a mere thirty-five lines, since if it had been any longer it would have been utterly numbing and soporific.

If the poem were rewritten without the imposition of iambic pentameter, it might very well be the sort of thing that the workshops and study groups and mainstream magazines might like. With broken irregular lines, fewer adjectives, sketchy syntax, and a fraudulent pose of “sincerity,” it would garner all sorts of praise and commendation, and sentimentalists would swoon over it. And that is why I deliberately wrote the piece in a formal meter. It makes it much easier to diagnose the faults of this poem when it is not disguised with modernist fakery.

And here I think we can discern something important about formal, metrical verse. By its very nature it tends to exclude the weak, the pathetic, the nebulous, and the uncertain. Formal structures give backbone, not just by providing a template for composition, but by compelling the use of proper syntax, good grammar, clear sentence structure, and wider-ranging vocabulary to satisfy metrical demands. Free verse can easily avoid all of those things, and swathe itself in clouds of emotional gush and calls for sympathy, thereby duping the reader into thinking that he is experiencing something “of deep feeling and significance.”

Yes, yes, I know… there are plenty of formal, metrical poems that can just as easily fall into these traps. But really good formalist poetry does not do that. When people write metrical poems that fail, it is usually because they are still in thrall to modernist and free-verse suppositions about poetry’s supposed need to be about intense personal feeling and quivering throbs of heartfelt rapture.

Verbum sapientibus satis est. A word to the wise is sufficient.

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Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine TRINACRIA and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


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24 Responses

  1. fred schueler

    I’m not sure of the critique of insignificance, but here’s a sidewalk phenomenon poem of almost opposite duration, from 1967:

    Silver Maple

    In the wind-blown rain
    On the new concrete
    The new-blown leaf lay down to rest
    And it left itself
    And was blown away

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. A pointless little epiphany, a meaningless snapshot.

      Reply
  2. C.B. Anderson

    I don’t mean to make light of this poem, Joseph, but clams are one of the edible things on this earth I most desire. Oysters are a close second. A shell — even half a shell (clams being bivalves) — deserves to be embedded in concrete, or even in stone, if that were possible. In 1940 you and I were not even gleams in our fathers’ eyes — let that thought linger — and so I find a kernel here that is neither pointless nor meaningless. Ha! So you thought you could write a poem that carried no weight, and you were wrong.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Kip, I never intend to write a poem that is bad. I just wanted to write one that was consciously shackled by the emotional limitations of free verse. That little clamshell in the pavement really did mean a lot to me as I was growing up. I felt I could always depend on its presence. So I like this poem of mine, but my main intention was to demonstrate that a small perception or a minor recollection or a passing feeling is not enough to generate really great poetry.

      Reply
  3. Paul Freeman

    A clam shell was set in the road,
    striated like some secret code.
    But now the shell’s marred,
    coz the street has been tarred.
    What might this ill omen forebode?

    Hi, Joseph. Your ‘Note’ is very thought-provoking. I find that free verse helps me expand and explore imagery and metaphor and explore other literary devices more freely than is possible in structured, metrical verse. This in turn helps with my prose.

    However, I prefer structured verse for all the reasons you do, and have done so ever since I chose to try writing a Canterbury Tale over a decade ago.

    Your poem above brought back memories from when I was about nine or ten, taken into London by my grandfather on the bus and discovering that the paving stones on Tower Bridge have ammonite fossils in them.

    I feel a poem coming on….. a metrical one about fossils, Iron Bru, sugar cubes and my granddad trudging round London during the Great Depression, looking for work.

    Thanks for the read, Joseph. As always, enlightening.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      I’m glad you like the poem, Paul. The clamshell has been gone for nearly thirty years, but I still think of it sometimes.

      Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Coming from a family of Glaswegian ten-pounders, I’d love to see the delights of Irn Bru immortalised in verse. Please make this happen, Paul.

      Reply
  4. James A. Tweedie

    I see the point. I get the point. But I also found more depth of meaning in your poem than you may have intended to place there.

    You see, on one level, in Hawaii (where I lived for 17 years), there are local contractors who leave a precious (and valuable) Sunrise clam shell in their sidewalk cement as a mark of the quality of their work and the pride they take in it.

    But more to the point, your sidewalk clam shell serves as a metaphor for those things that serve as anchors in our lives–people, events, life-changing insights–that give meaning and guidance to our lives–even when the person/thing itself has long since passed away.

    My mother, for example, will turn 101 years old next month. Like your shell she has been a part of my life since walking me to kindergarten, through college, marriage, and has served as an anchor for her grand-children and great-grandchildren as well. Soon, she will be broken up like concrete and thrown into the sea (metaphorically speaking, of course!) and be gone.

    Freud is reputed to have said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” But sometimes, a seashell in a sidewalk may well be more than the sum of its part!

    Even so, as I said, I get the point.

    And, as always, it is a point worth getting.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      God bless your mother. Longevity is a great gift of the Holy Ghost.

      I agree that any small, seemingly insignificant thing can (in the hands of a good poet) be turned to metaphorical force. When the early modernists and imagists tried to do this, as a natural reaction against the over-abstraction and generalization of much Victorian verse, it was an honest and creditable attempt, with some successes.

      But unfortunately the fashion was seized upon by lesser poets in later days as a kind of all-purpose recipe for grinding out short, clipped, verbally parsimonious poems of epiphany and passing emotion. I think this is why haiku have become so popular — they are a simple form for producing this kind of poetic expression. And it has had the bad effect of contaminating even longer modern poems, by compelling the poet to slash away all adjectives and copia and rhetorical flourishes in favor of “concision” and “starkness.”

      Small things can of course be the substance of fine poetry. I think of one of the songs in a Shakespeare play, where he describes the cold of an English winter, and writes the brilliant line “While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.” The simple image of this greasy scullery maid tending one of her cooking pots (an ordinary and commonplace reality) is unforgettable, despite the fact that it carries no especial meaning beyond itself.

      Reply
  5. Shaun C. Duncan

    The passing of time is a noble and worthy topic for poetry and it’s a shame that it’s been so abused by a century of twee emotionalism and dubious typesetting.

    I think you’re onto something with the notion that formal verse excludes the anaemic and the vacuous and I also think it goes the other way. I can’t imagine writing a satire in free verse. The very idea seems ludicrous to me as satirical poetry is a form of sublimated rage and it only works within the strict confines of a form – remove the form and it just becomes a mean-spirited screed. The use of form is what makes it art.

    I think most of the common poetic genres similarly collapse if you remove the form. This would explain why free verse poetry quickly took the absence of the poetic as its primary subject matter and free verse poets are forever trying to extract meaning from emptiness. This in turn is perhaps why they look to eastern poets as their models, but unfortunately it seems few westerners are capable of actually understanding Buddhism.

    It would be an amusing exercise to try to write a poem on some pathetic and vague subject matter employing the most heavy-handed use of alliteration and rhyme (both end and internal) as you can reasonably get away with. “Sing, O Muse of that winsome wheelbarrow red!”

    Reply
      • Julian D. Woodruff

        Mr. Tweedie,
        I missed this spoof when it went by. It hits the nail on the head (or maybe 2 or more nails), deliciously.
        But you also seem to be an articulate potential participant in a debate on the merits and possibilties of “free verse” that could enliven this site.

      • Shaun C. Duncan

        This is fantastic James – it perfectly captures the self-absorption of modern poets but it’s much more amusing than anything I’ve read from that scene.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Yes — “extract meaning from emptiness.” That’s what a great deal of modernist poetry seems to aim at. But I think it would be more precise to say that such poets try to extract meaning from the ordinary, the quotidian, the humdrum, the plain, and the unnoticed. This has become a kind of religion today, and it has a major effect on style, word choice, and rhetoric. What in the past would have been called “the traditional pomps and honors” of poetry have been abandoned (since they are largely useless in dealing with trivia and banalities), and replaced by the fourth-grade basal vocabulary list and a Subject-Verb-Object sentence order.

      Certain genres of poetry are absolutely dependent on their formal armature. You CAN’T change the form of a limerick without destroying it totally. Neither can you mess with a Rubaiyat quatrain, or some of the fixed medieval French forms like the triolet or the chant royal. Sure, one can tinker a bit with the sonnet, but the sonnet already has so many sub-forms (Petrarchan, Spenserian, Shakespearean and many others) that tinkering with it now is basically a sign of childish arrogance. One of the problems in the movement to return to classical formal poetry is the presence of many subversives in our ranks who talk glibly about “moving forward,” or “shifting paradigms” or “stretching the envelope” or “being open to variation.” When I hear phrases like that, I reach for my revolver.

      Concerning poems about “emptiness” or “pathetic and vague” subjects, the Earl of Rochester has a brilliant long poem titled “On Nothing.” I can only imagine what some modernist dweeb would have done with a subject like that! But Rochester was a fine poet of excellent training and abilities, and his poem is an amazing fictive artifact — a pure product of highly imaginative fictive mimesis.

      Reply
  6. Brian Yapko

    First of all, Joseph, the poem itself is enjoyable on its own terms. I’m not sure that it’s particularly memorable or deep, but I enjoyed reading it fully aware of the fact that not every poem has to be memorable or deep. Still, I was happy to learn – after my first reading – that this poem was a “bait and switch” in the sense that you didn’t present this as your best work but as an educational exercise. You yourself know that most of your work (some of which is quite astonishing) really is superior to this poem. But as an educational exercise – as a pastiche of contemporary poetry which has been elevated with meter – it succeeds admirably. From your poem and your subsequent discussion, there is much to learn here for both poets and critics.

    Your discussion about “duping the reader into thinking he is experiencing something ‘of deep feeling and significance’” is really instructive. In the end, your narrative of how a seashell embedded in concrete somehow changed your life, although surprisingly convincing, feels a bit like empty calories. “Empty calories” is an issue that is rampant in contemporary poetry, but I see it in all forms of writing, including classical poetry.

    I was led to consider poems that are “overproduced” so to speak. The booming of an orchestra when a string quartet might serve the subject better. A half-hour TV show inflated into movie length. That, in turn, made me wonder if your poem is related to Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” – a big poem built on a somewhat fatuous idea. But there is a huge difference. Pope’s work was “mock heroic” whereas yours, though with a special agenda, is meant to be read as sincere. What does one do when a perfectly good, short one-act play is expanded into a 2 ½ hour epic?

    There are a whole bunch of poems out there that focus on trivialities. The problem is that those poems are generally comic. Yours is not. When we rule out the possibility of comedy or satire, the possibility of building a big sincere poems based on a trivial subject becomes quite difficult. Can one create a good poem on such fuel? Well, you do. But is it memorably good? In its capacity as an exercise, yes. But on its own subjective terms, probably not. You yourself point this out its “lack of charge.” In the case of your seashell, I think the form you have selected and the subject matter are disproportional and, as a result, instead of empathizing with this sweet story, I am left pondering the difference between pathos and bathos.

    For me the question of subject matter and how it fits to form is paramount. You’ve written a 36 line, blank verse poem about a seashell in the sidewalk. Had you not written this poem with an agenda, I think it is a subject that might have better fit into a short poem, a sonnet or something even shorter, a haiku even. I think your subject matter isn’t weighty enough to fill the form you’ve chosen in a context where subject matter and chosen form really must match. A triolet on the meaning of life might be a bit fatuous while a lengthy ode on a visit to McDonalds would probably be excessive. And while a skilled poet might be able to fit a complex subject into a short form, a non-comic/non-satirical trivial subject lengthened into a long form can be painful.

    In the case of your poem, does the subject matter justify 36 lines? Your poem is far from painful. As I said before, it’s enjoyable. But might it not be more enjoyable if it was shorter? Alternatively, what would justify a poem of such length? Well, what if, instead of a seashell, you had come across an embedded wedding ring? Or a human skull? Now that might easily justify more than 36 lines. Indeed, you’d have Yorick in Hamlet. But it would work. Proportionality between subject matter and form. In contemporary poetry as well. At least that’s my theory.

    Thank you for a brilliant lesson in how poetry works!

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thanks for your kind words. For me Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” is one of the greatest and most important poems in English literature. Even the triviality of its subject matter is utterly entrancing. And its language and structure and rhetoric are the “ne plus ultra” of eighteenth-century verbal art. Yes, it is a poem of mockery, but it is also filled with brilliant perceptions, dazzling descriptions, hilarious comedy, and the sheer ebullience of courtly, extravagant, and glittering self-indulgence. And above all, it is an amazing fictive artifact.

      Yes, there is a tendency today to take what should be small and limited productions and inflate them into lengthy potboilers. But isn’t that a result of the collapse of real creativity and imagination? If a poet or a playwright or a screenplay writer can only come up with some basically uninteresting and commonplace notion, he has to expand it into something that will fill up the three hours of a movie, or the two hours of a play, or the blank pages of a book. Hence the “empty calories” that you notice. What tends to happen in modernist poetry, however, is that the poet will put a small and basically insignificant poem on one page, and fill up his book by doing the same with all the other pages. One pathetic little epiphany after another!

      Sure, I could have made my poem much shorter. But then I wouldn’t have been able to demonstrate the failures of the modernist approach. By putting the material into some thirty or so lines of iambic pentameter I was able to show that there really isn’t much substance to what modernism lays before us.

      One of the inherent problems with modernism in poetry is that it wants to have two incompatible things: the clipped succinct reticence of H.D., and the expansive worldliness of Robert Browning. This why the early modernists broke their backs trying to produce longer poems (sometimes called “sequences”) such as Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” Pound’s “Cantos,” W.C. Williams’ “Paterson,” Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West,” etc. They knew very well that small snippets of imagistic verse were unsatisfactory in the long run. But they failed to recognize that lengthy poems written on modernist/imagistic principles were going to be unreadable to all but a limited niche-market of fellow modernist poets.

      Reply
      • Brian Yapko

        Thank you, Joseph, for your detailed reply. Just so you don’t misunderstand, I happen to like Alexander Pope very much, especially his Essay on Man and Ode to Solitude. My use of the word “fatuous” may have given the impression that I don’t respect his work when, in fact, I do. I was trying to say that The Rape of the Lock was based on something very light indeed. In fact, much of its entertainment value lies in the contrast between its light subject matter and the gravity in its telling.

        I also hope you understand I was not presuming to tell you your own poem was too long. I understand why it needed to be thus, and you’ve made it explicit that this was a necessary aspect of your demonstration of the modernist approach. My observations assumed a perfect world in which all things were equal. In this case, all things were not equal — you had an agenda and your observations about modernism necessarily took it out of that perfect world.

  7. Cheryl Corey

    Writing formal, metrical verse compels you to be disciplined, to be more logical, more creative, to dig deeper. I will, however, use free verse on occasion for the reasons Paul stated above, as an initial draft. I also believe that writing formal poetry makes you a better writer overall. I’ve noticed this in my own fiction writings.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Yes, I see what you mean. I frequently read free-verse poems and immediately think “This is a draft of a poem.” It strikes me that the poet has put down some basic idea or image, but has not developed it fully.

      You’re absolutely correct about the effect that the composition of formal poetry has on one’s skill in writing prose. The more you work at putting together a proper sonnet, or an ode, or a narrative piece — or even just a limerick! — the stronger and more supple your prose style becomes. In fact, skill in English prose becomes much easier to achieve, since by composing formal verse you have put yourself through the powerful constraints of meter, rhyme, syntactical arrangement, and strict grammar.

      Reply
  8. Margaret Coats

    I too hope your clamshell has returned to the sea. In the present poem, you’ve both created a memorial for it, and turned the elegy to good use as a warning against weaknesses of formless modernism.

    You may be right about haiku having given modernism a “shell” in which to display the triviality you criticize. And you may be interested to know that the English-speaking haiku establishment has smashed it. I recall another thread in which you and others pronounced that the 5-7-5 form could not be Englished with any profit. But having looked at what American haiku websites and journals publish and reward, I find once again the whole story of abandoning form to the detriment of poetry. While the 5-7-5 form is not absolutely forbidden, it is rare, because powers-that-be in that poetry niche insist that even less is more. What’s now favored is 2 lines and 10 or fewer syllables. The other traditional requirements and recommendations that give “armature” to haiku are derided. And to this distaste for their chosen form, they add all the general modernist strictures, such as broken sentence structure and no adjectives. In effect, this doesn’t even leave intense feeling as a possibility. From my point of view, the current word/picture game has maimed any potential for the development of English haiku.

    This doesn’t have to be the case, as there are examples of excellence. But with so little interest in studying what makes haiku great, this form stands still in arrested development. I will agree that the brevity of haiku is not congenial to the writing of great individual poems. How many great stand-alone couplets as complete poems do we have in English?

    I don’t want to go farther into haiku here. This is just to point out that modernism fails in more venues than we expect, for the same reasons you have outlined in this poem and note.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      I wonder if similar misfortunes have occurred in the case of other non-Western forms like the pantoum and the ghazal. The tendency to want to “stretch the envelope” or “expand possibilities” or “welcome creativity” seems to be glandularly rooted in the Anglophone poetry world, even in its small formalist niche. Alfred Dorn once told me of the idiocy that exploded in one of his formal poetry classes: the members wanted to revise the 5-7-5 haiku form to 9-1-1 (the police emergency number here in New York). They did so with great enthusiasm, producing various absurdities. Dorn was too polite to stop them.

      Reply
  9. BDW

    as per B. S. Eliud Acrewe:

    Supposedly, Mr. Salemi, in “A Clamshell in Concrete” sought out a subject that was “ordinary, unremarkable, and…petty” inflating it with the “gaseous ambience of pseudo reference”…revealing “little depth, other than a whiff of nostalgia and wistfulness”. The poem, with its frank, attached, little, Eliotic-like note, shows the artist’s reaction to his work, revealing in the process tidbits of English Modernist, PostModernist and NewMillennial poetic theory.

    I am reminded of a poem, “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound, who wrote of his poem:

    “I wrote a thirty-line poem, and destroyed it because it was what we call work ‘of second intensity’. Six months later I made a poem half that length; a year later I made the following hokku-like sentence:—

    The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
    Petals, on a wet, black bough.”

    Reply
  10. Geoffrey Smagacz

    Can metrical verse ever “be about intense personal feeling and quivering throbs of heartfelt rapture”? Some of the Romantics pulled it off. Doesn’t some Lyric poetry encompass this definition?

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Yes, of course metrical verse can deal with intense personal feeling. Just look at Shakespeare’s sonnets, or Donne’s Elegies, or the love poems of the Cavalier poets. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde is powerfully emotional and moving. And yes, lyric poetry from its very beginnings has been concerned with such things. But lyric poetry for most of its history has been metrical.

      The difference with much modern free verse is that it is pretentious and posturing, in the manner of an obnoxious drama-queen who wants attention. Its “quivering throbs of heartfelt rapture” (I was deeply sarcastic when I wrote those words) are frequently as put-on and phony as cheap melodrama.

      Reply

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