. 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. . . 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. . . 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.