Poetry Crit
April 26, 2005 7:40 AM   Subscribe

An insightful piece of poetry criticism by Adam Kirsch encapsulates the work of Charles Bukowski, popular poet with MeFi's and others. Camile Paglia has a go at poetry crit in her latest, Break, Blow, Burn. I read the Kirsch piece because I have a passing familiarity with Bukowski, and if I saw someone reading a volume, I'd have some snap insight into what their interests may be. Though I often judge a reader by their book's cover, I could do this with very few poetry books, and I can't remember seeing anyone with a poetry book, or telling me about a poetry book in a long time. While some of us read for pleasure, we probably aren't reading poetry. The slam poetry movement of a few years ago seems to have lost its media fire. The death of poetry is periodically announced, and others disagree. My casual observation is that many poetry lovers actually write poetry, and are not students of the genre. Poems are short, it's easy to call something a poem, and it may make the writer feel better to write one out. Rarely are they good, and rarer still will they find an audience outside of web communities of other poetry writers. Can vigorous and accessible poetry criticism revive poetry readership? Does anyone who does not write poems read poetry, especially unfamiliar poetry? Will anyone cop to writing it but not reading it? And should we care?
posted by rainbaby (39 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I love poetry and read tons of it (and don't write any) and find it's a lot like music: there is a lot of it out there but only some of it will suit you. Word of mouth from friends or family is often the best way to find something you'd like. I'm not any more interested in reading criticism than I am reading music criticism or discussions though, i.e. not at all.
posted by fshgrl at 8:10 AM on April 26, 2005

It's true what you say: it's easy to call something a poem, and rarely are they good.

A good poem is a wonderful thing to find though, imho.
posted by maggiemaggie at 8:20 AM on April 26, 2005

I, too, love poetry, read at least fourteen poems a week, but have no desire to write any. 98% of what I read doesn't work for me, but once a month or so I come across something transcendent, including some Bukowski.
I recently discovered that my father, who is 80, has been writing poems and sending them to his old high school English teacher ever since he took her class.
"Just a schoolboy crush." he says.
posted by Floydd at 8:27 AM on April 26, 2005 [1 favorite]

Poetry isn't dead: there are many great poets alive and writing. Frank Bidart, Geoffrey Hill, Jorie Graham, and Louise Glück come to mind. These are all great poets who are writing powerful work in the poetic tradition. As the New Yorker piece shows, I think, what makes Bukowski (or Eminem for that matter) 'not a poet' is that they are writers working without a real tradition. That doesn't necessarily mean they're bad--it just means that they're not doing something that poets do, which is respond to, argue with, and modify and develop the ideas of their predecessors.

I've linked to Helen Vendler's lecture before on MeFi; it's a very well-argued polemic about the importance of poetry and about the relation between the poet and the audience. One of the themes she touches on is that nowadays we don't teach kids using great poems; we teach kids using simple poems written for kids, even all the way up through high school. As a result, it's hard for today's readers to understand real poetry, and it's tough to see how today's working poets are tied in to thousands of years of poetic history. IMO, this is the big reason poetry readership is on the decline. Poetry is just a form of art, a growing tradition, that most readers aren't in touch with anymore, which is sad. It's not something that can't be changed, though, with good teaching and a willingness to persevere among readers, and it's totally worth it to make the effort.
posted by josh at 8:42 AM on April 26, 2005

bukowski represents everything a middle class college professor would hate having as a neighbor ... which explains the snootiness in the first article ... if one has a clear view of one's life and surroundings, a complexity of thought and tradition isn't necessary ... it's useful, but it's not necessary

come to think of it, there's some similarities between bukowski and villon ... i think the real reason his books sell so well is that they're understandable, touch a nerve and actually draw a picture of american life in a way that common people can relate to ... that's more than many contemporary poets can say

i won't say he's a great poet, but from what i've seen, he's a good one
posted by pyramid termite at 9:11 AM on April 26, 2005

Personally, I don't read much poetry, but I do go to poetry slams whenever I can, and I write slam poetry as well. Poetry for me is similar to stageplays. I have no desire to just sit there and read Shakespeare, but to see it performed is another thing altogether. Same thing with poetry.
posted by eppaRixey at 9:15 AM on April 26, 2005

Maybe I should read some Bukowski poetry. I remember reading some of his prose, and being amazed that someone was making a living basically writing about getting drunk and f*cking.
posted by clevershark at 9:22 AM on April 26, 2005

Camille Paglia fans may want to check out breakblowburn.com, the site of the book mentioned in the post. It features the list of the 43 poems she selected as "the [English] world's best", and excerpts on Donne, Herbert, and Wordsworth. It links to a long interview on bookslut.com discussing poetry (e.g.: "Lyric poetry, to me as a teacher, is one of the best ways to remove any privilege the better-educated students might have"). You can also hear her staccato voice on NPR's Talk of the Nation, a 30-minute radio show featuring Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, and Joni Mitchell (e.g.: "It's almost a holy writ, a kind of magic. Poetry to me is close to incantation. ... The way literature has been taught ... there's a kind of mechanized cynicism stripping away at everything which is most lovely and suggestive about the fine arts."). For true fans only: Camille's top 10 sculptures.
posted by Turtle at 9:22 AM on April 26, 2005

eppaRixey nails it on the head for me as well. I could never get into poetry until I saw it live at a slam contest. Now I seek it out live whenever I can and perhaps there should have been a third part of the question - Will anyone cop to not writing it, not reading it, but watching it?
posted by Staggering Jack at 9:30 AM on April 26, 2005

Maybe poets need image makers, a back story to generate some publicity for their work. Get out of the garrett, etc. Writers these days need to brand themselves as much as any other artists, and it's like somebody forgot to tell the poets. Can't name a spoken word poetry star either, you'd think someone would emerge as a media darling.
posted by rainbaby at 9:37 AM on April 26, 2005

I don't think poetry is short. Some is for sure - Haiku for example but what about John Donne or Coleridge or Homer or the Sagas?
Or are you just talking modern poetry here - poetry by living people which has yet to stand the test of time?
Oral record and contemplation seems more likely to be set to a musical background these days but this is only really in the last 50 years or so. Modern from an historical perspective. Bukowski will probably pass the test of time in that he managed to encapsulate an era and a location and attract both fans and critics who are vocal as well as somehow being a voice for a particular section of American society to those who read, which in itself is a minority.
posted by adamvasco at 9:39 AM on April 26, 2005

Short compared to a novel or short story, or an essay, generally speaking, in the present day. Makes it easier for people to write casually, so there are more bad, unpublished poets than bad unpublished novelists running around, I'd hazard.
posted by rainbaby at 9:47 AM on April 26, 2005

people, the new Simic is out -- it's a marvelous book
We were never formally introduced.
I had no idea who among them was really I?
It was like a discreet entourage.
Each one about the same height.
Variously dressed we took the subway
Stealing peeks at each other over newspapers.

In moments of danger, they made themselves
Where did they all disappear?
I asked some mugger one night
While he held a knife to my throat,
But he was spooked too,
Letting me go without a word,
Skipping over rain puddles
As if chased by his own shadow.

It was disconcerting, not to say criminal.
Flustered as I was, I reached
For the little black comb
I keep tucked in my breast pocket,
To run it through my hair once,
And make absolutely certain
At least one of us was still here.
posted by matteo at 9:47 AM on April 26, 2005

I love poetry. I used to write it, don't much any more, and don't get much chance to read it. Except the last few months, in which I have been in a Modern poetry class.

I haven't read much (any?) Bukowski, so this is all completely idle speculation, but it is quite possible that he is both a great writer AND a shitty poet. I have read several postmodern/contemporary poets that were really good writers and narrators, but wouldn't know verse from a tsi-tsi fly.

That is not to say I am some kind of sonnet fetishist or free verse hater, but simply to make the observation that traditionally, poetry has been much more than prose with funny line breaks. Sadly, interestingly, prose with funny line breaks is actually publishable today.

Prosody is hard, it's complex, it's an art AND a science. With the declining readership of poetry, there seem to be less willing to take it up. The "free verse revolution" of the last century has convinced a lot of people that prosody and its study is old fashioned (I am in a class with some of them: they are insulted to think about such things as rhythm, meter, alliteration, rhyme, etc. as they "just want to write poetry." You can't write good poetry without understanding those things. Period). The reality is that someone like Yeats or Levertov or Wilbur understands verse very well, even if they don't always seem to be using it.

I also differ with fshgrl in that I love reading criticism, because poetry, much more than fiction, is an interactive pursuit. One often has to really think and analyze a good poem to truly appreciate it, and reading someone else's thoughts on the matter is fun.

Also, unlike Josh, I would attribute the decline of the popularity of poetry directly to Modernism and its bastard child Postmodernism, but that's another story and I'm really rambling. (Which is not to say I have anything against those movements, just that their changes were often antithetical to popularity).

Well, have you ever read any Language poetry? Blech! It's pure dreck. And no fun to read.

It also frustrates me that the overwhelming majority of contemporary song writers don't seem to have spent any time studying poetry, and yet they make their living selling poetry accompanied by music. That kind of ignorance drives me nuts.
posted by teece at 9:56 AM on April 26, 2005

See, I think Bukowski is a crummy, adolescent poet. And I think that the point of poetry is not to be "accessible to common people" or easy to understand, but to be beautiful and meaningful first and foremost. Accessibility is for Jerry Bruckheimer. Great art puts quality first. Shakespeare was difficult even for his contemporary audiences. Another way of putting it: it seems like Bukowski is admired for one kind of 'difficulty,' in that he is the kind of guy you wouldn't want to have as your neighbor. But beyond that his poems are simple and a little vacuous.

Raymond Carver, or even Raymond Chandler, are better Bukowskis than Bukowski. Bukowski might see clearly, but what he sees isn't real; his work is a prolonged exercise in make-believe. The only thing he's seeing clearly are his own desires. So IMO the "snootiness" comes, pretty simply, from the fact that the poems aren't that good.

As for poetry slam--which is awesome--I don't think it's really the same as poetry-poetry because it's so improvisational, and so it can't do a lot of the awesome things that poetry does, which are, in the main, too difficult and complex for folks, no matter how gifted, to come up with on the fly.

Anyway, here is my haphazard list of reasons why poetry is not widely enjoyed any longer:

1. Lack of familiarity with poetry as a tradition (as I said above). It reminds me of the thread over in AskMe about graphic novels. Everyone seems to agree that in order to enjoy a graphic novel, you have to be familiar with the form and its formal possibilities. Well, the same goes for poetry--and a lot of people have never been taught how to enjoy poetry.

2. Ways we read. Poems (like matteo's Simic poem) are short, and you have to read them slowly, and maybe even out loud, to understand them. Gerard Manley Hopkins said that poetry was "language, heightened." Reading poetry is a whole different kind of reading than many of us are used to. Poetry takes more brainpower to read than prose. It also asks you to have a greater facility with language: to sense the difference, for example, between an English word with Latinate roots or Germanic roots, or to sense when a word has been imported from another language (like "entourage.")

When was the last time you sat down to read a poem aloud to someone else as best you could? It's just not something we have time or space to do any longer.

3. Actually, teece, while I wouldn't blame Modernism, which produced amazing poetry, I do blame the academy somewhat: for (a) not teaching prosody and not teaching poetry formally and (b) for the postmodernist ethos of Language, which is related, I think, to poetry slam, but which creates the appearance that poetry has 'self-destructed.' In other words, people don't seem to respect poetry or the poetic art any longer because nowadays anything can be considered successful poetry.

I'm a grad student in English right now, and I can honestly say that my appreciation of great poetry has just about quadrupled over the last two years, simply becasue I've read a lot of it and have been taught how to read it. The best exercise ever: take a poem, like Wordsworth's "Intimations Ode," print it out, and read it to yourself out loud, trying to get all of the intonations right. Figure out how a line is supposed to sound: is it supposed to be sad, ironic, rueful, resigned, resolved? At least as I've been taught, this is how poetry is read: slowly, with great consideration, as though you are, yourself, the poet.

But who has time for that kind of reading nowadays? Most people read a poem in the New Yorker really fast and then move on. That's why people don't read as much poetry.
posted by josh at 10:06 AM on April 26, 2005

What about song lyrics? I would say they are currently the most popular form of poetry. And last I checked, songwriting as a craft was very much alive and kicking.
posted by afroblanca at 10:13 AM on April 26, 2005

I was once an avid reader and writer of poetry. I still enjoy both, but find it difficult to immerse myself in either the way I did when I was younger, mainly because I find both activities incompatible with the silly, grown-up, 9-5 life I lead. Other people don't seem to have this problem. I've loved Bukowski since I was 13 or so. I don't write like him, though I made my youthful attempt at it, like many. He is like a friend to me. Or, rather, his writing is my friend. Bukowski the man would have been a very difficult person to be close to. I just read Ham On Rye a month ago. Heroic is the right word for it.

I do agree that Shakespeare and a lot of poetry is meant to be performed, but I must insist that it can also be appreciated by simply reading, if you have a little patience. The complexity and brilliance of Shakespeare really hit my while reading the text.

Slam is pretty different from other kinds of poetry. It has its merits, but tends to be repetitive and boring on the page. The performance is as much a part of it as the writing itself. I do enjoy it though. I went to the National Slam in Ann Arbor a few years ago. It was like a rock concert--people sanding and cheering for poetry! Patricia Smith was fantastic, of course. I noticed that a lot of my favorite Slam poets are black--which got me to thinking about rap as poetry (duh, I'm a bit slow). I gained a new appreciation for rap as spoken word art.
But I digress.
posted by apis mellifera at 10:15 AM on April 26, 2005

teece writes " That is not to say I am some kind of sonnet fetishist or free verse hater, but simply to make the observation that traditionally, poetry has been much more than prose with funny line breaks. Sadly, interestingly, prose with funny line breaks is actually publishable today."

You know, the beginning of the first sentence above sounds as hollow as those who preface racist jokes with the habitual "I'm not a racist, but...". Your summing up of contemporary poetry as "prose with funny line breaks" says a lot about your ability to understand poetry today.
posted by clevershark at 10:31 AM on April 26, 2005

there's no question that bukowski was a crummy adolescent person ... i'd agree that accessability is not the major purpose of poetry, but it is a virtue and a virtue that seems to be missing from a lot of today's poetry

even seeing one's desires clearly is an accomplishment ... and i don't regard the surroundings of suburban life and western art as any less "make-believe" than bukowski's self-mythologizing ... there's a peculiar unreality about our lives today

it's my view that much of today's poetry suffers from a homogenization of experience and viewpoint ... and much of the tradition expressed seems to be from the last 90 years or so

bukowski's too literal and plain spoken to be "great" ... but that doesn't make him crummy

i'd also like to agree that an understanding of prosody and craft seems to be missing these days ... even if they end up writing free verse, people should try writing formal verse for the discipline and experience
posted by pyramid termite at 10:52 AM on April 26, 2005

josh: people don't seem to respect poetry or the poetic art any longer

That rings true. And I would couple it to the education deficit mentioned above and also a devaluing (which may well be in the realm of a post-modernist argument) of the important role the muse has traditionally played in societies.

I see this also as a collateral symptom of the digital soundbite generation, which is ironic because a lot of poetry ought to fit the short attention span bill of fare. But there's a hankering for input that doesn't require undue cogitation or deeper consideration - and I'm as guilty on that front, sitting here with multiple browser windows and mp3 player open, as anybody.

Poetry is alive and well and will always have a foothold among a certain % of the population. But for the masses in the last 50 years at any rate, the zeitgeist has been carried poetically in the lyrics of popular music which I think has taken up a far more prominent reflective role than at any time previously. Poetry's role has been partially usurped. Although that would bring us to consideration of how much, if any, of these lyrics stand up as Poetry with a capital P.

And who will buy poetry anyway when matteo pastes it up for us or we can otherwise cherrypick it from around the net at will to one extent or another? That must also be having an effect on how many potentially gifted souls choose to apply their energy to their art.....or not.
posted by peacay at 11:19 AM on April 26, 2005

Will anyone cop to writing it but not reading it?


And should we care?

posted by heavy water at 11:45 AM on April 26, 2005

And I think that the point of poetry is not to be "accessible to common people" or easy to understand, but to be beautiful and meaningful first and foremost.

The first part of this sentence makes me gag. The second part makes me think of buk above any other modern poet.

Words like

Style is a difference, a way of doing, a way of being done.
Six herons standing quietly in a pool of water, or you, walking naked
out of the bathroom without seeing me.

from Style [mp3] or this:

there's a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I'm too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody's asleep.
I say, I know that you're there,
so don't be
then I put him back,
but he's singing a little
in there, I haven't quite let him
and we sleep together like
with our
secret pact
and it's nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don't
weep, do

from Bluebird definitely fit the "beautiful" and "meaningful" definitions, imo.

In my reading experience, Bukowski had more insight into what it is be a man in North America in the 20th century than just about anybody except maybe Philip Roth. No doubt the anti-Buk people will just think I'm not well read; me, I think that we're just come from the same cloth psychologically. Many writers have made me care or feel as much as Bukowski has. Few have made me understand as much.

Bukowski might see clearly, but what he sees isn't real; his work is a prolonged exercise in make-believe.

I'd love to know what you're basing this on as I couldn't disagree more.
posted by dobbs at 11:48 AM on April 26, 2005

You know, the beginning of the first sentence above sounds as hollow as those who preface racist jokes with the habitual "I'm not a racist, but...". Your summing up of contemporary poetry as "prose with funny line breaks" says a lot about your ability to understand poetry today.

Um, no, you completely misunderstand me, but thanks for playing. I like plenty of contemporary poets, and my ability to understand it is just fine, thanks. What I don't like is poets with no understanding of prosody, of which there are many.

I don't require nor solely like poetry that is highly structured, but I do like poets to have an understanding of what poetry is.
posted by teece at 11:54 AM on April 26, 2005

Here is a poem
just for you
use more inside
it's the right thing to do
posted by fixedgear at 12:02 PM on April 26, 2005

I recently discovered that my father, who is 80, has been writing poems and sending them to his old high school English teacher ever since he took her class.

For the love of God, how old is his high school English teacher??
posted by languagehat at 12:03 PM on April 26, 2005

Hiroshi Kashiwagi, a pioneering San Francisco playwright, actor, poet and writer, recently published his first book, "Swimming in the American: a Memoir and Selected Writings," at age 82.

oh -- I like Bukowski's stories more than I like his poems, but for me he's one of the American greats. I still consider him inferior to Hubert Selby jr, but that's saying a lot.
posted by matteo at 12:38 PM on April 26, 2005

by the way, Selby died exactly a year ago.
posted by matteo at 12:41 PM on April 26, 2005

serious question, why is rap not poetry? (Not necessarily 'good' poetry)
posted by delmoi at 2:01 PM on April 26, 2005

serious question, why is rap not poetry

Why do you think it is not poetry, delmoi? It certainly is. Some of it's doggerel, but certainly not all of it. Of course, some "serious" poetry is doggerel, too.

I love the poetry of Ani DiFranco. She just happens to set her poems to twangy guitar.

The only problem I see with most lyrical musical poetry is that it is not all that great in terms of poetry. Ani is a fascinating person to listen to, but I don't think she can craft verse as well as someone like Denise Levertov, say. But I still like listening to her sing, even though it is "only" good, but not great, poetry that is carried by the music.

Yet Ani is a really good poet compared to many people that sing and write lyrics for a living. I'm sure their are rappers like her, but I don't know them because rap isn't my thing.
posted by teece at 2:23 PM on April 26, 2005

...and let us not forget the 'ranker

Better than a punching bag.
posted by lastobelus at 3:37 PM on April 26, 2005

Can vigorous and accessible poetry criticism revive poetry readership?

I don't know how much of a help most literary critcism is. Most critiques I read just use someone's work as a launching pad for describing the aesthestic of the critic (as in the NYer piece). Unfortunately, most critics (and ardent English majors) can't put their own aesthetic aside long enough to approach someone's work on its own terms, applying only some pre-determined standard of what is 'beautiful and meaningful.'

I always appreciate hearing someone discuss how they enter a poem, how they approach the study of poems and poetry. I (nearly) never appreciate value judgements about poetry (or other literature, but I read mostly poetry these days). Most criticism just sounds to me like someone trying to pay off that big student loan, or justify the critic's point of view. Write a poem!
posted by al_fresco at 6:43 PM on April 26, 2005

It's always tiresome to hear poets complain about the general readership not giving poetry due attention, as if anyone were entitled to have attention heaped upon their poems by the very virtue of finding a sympathetic publisher or critic. Whether it be a hoard of academic sycophants, coattail-riding would-be poets, or a few earnest readers in the corner -- contemporary poets receive exactly the readership they deserve. No more, no less.

Sturgeon's Law says that 90% of everything is crap. That may be too kind when applied to contemporary poetry.

al_fresco: Literary criticism represents everything that's wrong with poetry today.
posted by DaShiv at 6:47 PM on April 26, 2005

I moved to Chicago in 87 and attended quite a few of the slam poetry events; mostly because I had a friend who was a frequent participant and wanted to support him.

For me, slam was to poetry what the Red Hot Chilli Peppers were to funk. I could never really wrap my head around some of the bombast and probably missed a few things in the process.

The only person who does it for me now is Sharon Olds:

The hair I pull, out of my comb,
drifts off, from the rail of the porch.
It is curled on itself, it folds, kneels,
bows and buckles over onto our earth.
This is the soil I came from, sour
tang of resin and baked dust.
I saw my father's ashes down
into the dirt, except for the portion I
put on my tongue like the Host and swallowed and ate.
I have always wanted to cross over
into the other person, draw the
other person over into me. Fast are the naked palms to the breasts
from behind, at the porch rail, fast
is a look. Slow is the knowing where I come from,
who I might be, like a dream of matter
looking for spirit. Now the hair
rises on an updraft, wobbling, reddish,
in a half-circle, it wavers higher--
the jelly head of the follicle has the tail of the hair in its mouth, it rolls back
up, toward me, through the morning, as if
someone, somewhere, were saying, to me, we are one now.

posted by KevinSkomsvold at 8:17 PM on April 26, 2005

I used to be infatuated with the slam poetry movement, but I eventually realized that most of what the people involved in the scene in my area were doing was not really poetry. It was stand-up comedy with line breaks, or fairly interesting sounding spoken-word pieces that ceased to function when put down on the page. And for me, poetry is all about the page. Readings are nice (and Bukowski readings are the best, if you can see recordings of him, he is the man) but I'm a print snob. I admit it.
posted by Tesseractive at 8:48 PM on April 26, 2005

its easier to announce death than it is to breathe life -- you must know 'the death of' is just part of the cycle.
posted by Satapher at 9:19 PM on April 26, 2005

I love Buk's work. If I'd ever met him, I like to think we would have quietly loathed each other as we got shambolically, tectonically pissed, then lurched into a blind-drunk fistfight. I'd have knocked the old fucker down, kicked him in the head, pissed in his ear, then gone back to the wine.

And that'd be fuckin' poetry, friends.

Not really, though. Would've liked to sit incognito beside him at an East Hastings Street dive bar, though, drinking flat beer by the glass and insulting the bartender's girlfriend or something. Who knows? Maybe I did. I've got more than a few slightly fuzzy years back there.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:21 PM on April 26, 2005

Also, if you're interested in Bukowski and his work, this recent documentary is well worth a watch.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:00 PM on April 26, 2005

To me a good poem (for reading) needs to be like a puzzle, deciphered and contemplated. It is too easy to dismiss and poem if your not willing to give it space and time, which is especially true if your an inexperience reader of the particular poetry school. I read a lot of poetry and to be honest don't feel there's enough time give every poem the full time it deserves, the world is too cluttered with words as it is. Bukowski I find an easy and usually enjoyable read (although I prefer his short stories or recordings of readings) where as Modernist Poets and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets are for times I want something more complex to work with. And at other times I'll enjoy a bit of Vispo.
posted by skarmj at 2:07 AM on April 27, 2005

Ishle Yi Park slam poet that was up at my school last week.

Saul Williams, another good slam poet.

I was going to post buk's 'Bluebird', until I saw someone had beat me to it.

Good poetry does demand time. One can appreciate it on the surface, much of the time, but really good poetry is the stuff you find yourself coming back to over and over again.

Good poetry, imho, is something can touch you deeply, can transcend, give insight into the human condition, the commonalities that we share, a window into the occult aspects of nature... it can be all or some or none of these.

Pablo Neruda. Matsuo Basho. Issa. Frost. Dante. Rilke. I could list a page of names just like this. There are tons of them.

Yusef Komunyakaa is amazing. (more contemporary poet)
posted by exlotuseater at 4:46 AM on April 27, 2005

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