Nemerov, Howard (Poetry Criticism)
Howard Nemerov 1920–1991
American poet, critic, novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, essayist, editor, and playwright.
Nemerov is known for a diverse body of poetry that has been praised for its technical excellence, intelligence, and wit. Writing verse in a variety of forms and styles—including lyrical, narrative, and meditative—Nemerov examined religious, philosophical, scientific, and existential concerns. Although Nemerov frequently has been labeled an academic poet because of his detached stance, his firm grounding in formal verse, and the moralistic tone of some of his work, he often incorporated irony, satire, and colloquial language into his works. In addition to winning numerous prizes for his verse, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov (1977), Nemerov was appointed poet laureate of the United States in 1988.
Nemerov was born in New York City, where his father was president and chairman of the board of an exclusive clothing store. After graduating in 1937 from the elite Fieldston School in New York, Nemerov earned his bachelor's degree from Harvard University in 1941. Nemerov served in the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1941 to 1944 and in the U.S. Army Air Force from 1944 to 1945. He later incorporated his war experiences into such poetry collections as Guide to the Ruins (1950) and War Stories (1987). After World War II, Nemerov returned to New York and published his first poetry collection, The Image and the Law, in 1947. He worked as assistant editor of the irreverent magazine Furioso from 1946 to 1951 and was appointed consultant of poetry to the Library of Congress in 1963. During his academic career, Nemerov taught at such colleges as Brandeis University, Washington University, and Bennington College. At Bennington, he met such notable literary figures as Kenneth Burke, Bernard Malamud, and Stanley Edgar Hyman. Nemerov died in 1991 in St. Louis, Missouri, of cancer of the esophagus.
In The Image and the Law Nemerov utilized a variety of poetic forms and introduced themes that would recur in his subsequent collections, including war, urban blight, art, death, and religion. The poems in this volume, the title of which reflects Nemerov's examination of the dichotomy between what he called "the poetry of the eye"
and "the poetry of the mind," are often pessimistic in outlook. "The Situation Does Not Change," for example, contains a description of New York City: "Only the dead have an enduring city, / Whose stone saints look coldly on a cold world." In the war poem "For W——, Who Commanded Well," which centers on a military officer who served in World War II, Nemerov wrote: "Money is being made, and the wheels go round, / And death is paying for itself." Guide to the Ruins, which also contains a variety of poetic forms, including sonnets, epigrams, and ballads, addresses similar concerns, particularly World War II and "the ruins" of post-war life. For example, in "Redeployment," Nemerov proclaimed: "They say the war is over. But water still / Comes bloody from the taps."
The Salt Garden (1955) marks a shift in the tone, style, and themes of Nemerov's poetry. Although his earlier poems were often abstract, esoteric, formal, and derivative of the works of such poets as T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Wallace Stevens, the poems in this volume are less rigid, impersonal, and bitter; they explore such subjects as perception, nature, and the duality of man. With this volume, Nemerov reached what many critics consider his poetic maturity; The Salt Garden was also the first verse collection to bring Nemerov widespread critical and popular attention. Mirrors and Windows (1958), which won the Blumenthal Prize from Poetry magazine, reveals Nemerov's increasing confidence as a poet. In addition to addressing the limits of perception and the boundaries between the inner and outer worlds, many of the poems in this volume examine the nature of poetry writing, including the difficulty of capturing reality in verse. In "A Day on the Big Branch," for example, Nemerov provided an ironic look at himself and his literary and academic contemporaries. In The Next Room of the Dream (1962), which contains two verse plays devoted to biblical themes, Nemerov simplified his poetic approach, emphasizing description, observation, and direct language over abstract philosophical concerns. The Blue Swallows (1967) is considered another turning point in Nemerov's career. In this volume, which won the Theodore Roethke Memorial Prize, Nemerov was less pessimistic than in earlier collections and used more short-lined poems in keeping with his trend toward simplicity. The Blue Swallows also evinces Nemerov's continuing concern with nature and his increasing interest in science and technology. In The Western Approaches (1975) Nemerov returned to the more formal metaphors and conceits of his earlier works. The poems in this collection, most of which are short lyrics, are divided into three sections: "The Way" contains ironic poems about modern life, "The Mind" includes verse about art and culture, and "The Ground" focuses on nature. War Stories draws on Nemerov's war experiences and addresses illusions and misconceptions about war and military life. In the poem "The War in the Air," for example, Nemerov declared, "That was the good war, the war we won / As if there were no death, for goodness' sake."
Critical reaction to Nemerov's verse has been as diverse as his poetic oeuvre. Scholars have consistently praised his technical mastery of various verse forms and the diversity of his subject matter; James Billington, at the time of Nemerov's appointment to U.S. poet laureate, stated that Nemerov's subject matter ranges from "the profound to the poignant to the comic." Joyce Carol Oates has also emphasized the diversity of Nemerov's works, writing that as "romantic, realist, comedian, satirist, relentless and indefatigable brooder upon the most ancient mysteries—Nemerov is not to be classified." Critics have also lauded his emphasis of philosophical themes, particularly his examination of individual consciousness and how it is affected by the external world. However, Nemerov has also been decried as an academic poet because of the difficulty of his verse. Similarly, his works have been called self-indulgent, cocky, obscure, and overly pessimistic. Nemerov's use of humor has also been called into question, with some stating that it sometimes descends into mere wittiness or sarcasm. Others, however, have observed that Nemerov's humor provides a counterbalance to the urbanity and intellectual weight of his poems. Despite mixed reaction to his poetry and a lack of what some consider serious scholarly study of his work, many critics have applauded Nemerov's ability to address contemporary concerns, including the dichotomy between inner and outer life, the isolation of the individual, and the limits of language, in a way that is relevant, compassionate, and thought provoking. Ross Labrie has observed: "No modern writer has more eloquently traced the subtle emanations of consciousness and its shadowy journeying through the fine membrane of language out into the strangeness of the external world."
The Image and the Law 1947
Guide to the Ruins 1950
The Salt Garden 1955
Mirrors and Windows 1958
New and Selected Poems 1960
The Next Room of the Dream: Poems and Two Plays 1962
The Blue Swallows 1967
The Painter Dreaming in the Scholar's House 1968
The Winter Lightning: Selected Poems 1968
Gnomes and Occasions 1973
The Western Approaches: Poems, 1973-1975 1975
The Collected Poems of Howard Nemerov 1977
By Al Lebowitz's Pool 1979
Inside the Onion 1984
War Stories: Poems about Long Ago and Now 1987
Trying Conclusions: New and Selected Poems, 1961-1991 1991
Other Major Works
The Melodramatists (novel) 1949
Federigo: Or the Power of Love (novel) 1954
The Homecoming Game (novel) 1957
A Commodity of Dreams and Other Stories (short stories) 1959
Endor: Drama in One Act (drama) 1961
Poetry and Fiction: Essays (nonfiction) 1963
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SOURCE: "Question of Strategy," in Poetry (Chicago), Vol. LXXI, No. 11, November, 1947, pp. 94-7.
[In the following mixed review of The Image and the Law, Golffing questions the dichotomy between images and ideas in the volume.]
Mr. Nemerov tells us—on the dust-jacket [of The Image and the Law], of all places—that he dichotomizes the "poetry of the eye" and the "poetry of the mind," and that he attempts to exhibit in his verse the "ever-present dispute between two ways of looking at the world." Though usually skeptical of programmatic statements, I find this particular one quite serviceable as a clue—a "way in"—to the plexus of Nemerov's poetry.
The dichotomy itself is fashionable, and it is peculiar. It has almost assumed the status of doctrine in the work of Wallace Stevens, who disassociates mind and eye while paying homage to both, and in the work of W. C. Williams, who, while exploiting sensory perception, makes short work of the mind. There are other poets—none of them of comparable rank—who would, on the basis of the same antinomy, dismiss sense-perception for the sake of pure intellection.
What matters here is not the individual emphasis of the poet but the fact that the underlying assumption is unsound. Eye and mind are not two contrary ways of looking at the world but two interdependent modes of prehension, the perceptual mode...
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SOURCE: A review of Guide to the Ruins, in Poetry (Chicago), Vol. LXXVI, No. VI, September, 1950, pp. 365-70.
[In the excerpt below, Shulenberger provides a mixed review of Guide to the Ruins, commenting on Nemerov's poetic style and the influence of Ezra Pound and William Shakespeare on his works.]
Among the forty poems in Mr. Nemerov's second book [Guide to the Ruins] there are several kinds: epigram, song, sonnet, fragment, and brief essay. They are written in formal or near-formal verse, and are concerned chiefly with the contemporary scene, "the ruins" of a post-war world. In the absence of many positive qualities, their striking characteristic is chiefly their conventionality. They employ conventions of tone, meter, and attitude. The most widely conventional tone of modern serious verse since at least the early work of E. A. Robinson has been that of irony, and many of these poems are heavily ironic. In "Song" the author writes of a dead friend:
And write him letters now and then
Be sure to put them in the post
Sound cheerful as you can
Care of the holy ghost.
(It is incidental to the matter of irony that the grammar here seems determined by the rhyme scheme.)
The chief metrical convention in modern poems has been that of variation from the traditional line,...
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SOURCE: "Nemerov: The Middle of the Journey," in Poetry (Chicago), Vol. XCIII, No. 3, December, 1958, pp. 178-81.
[In the generally positive review of Mirrors and Windows below, Kizer praises the intelligence, daring, and maturity of Nemerov's poetry, but states that some of the poems in the volume are too long.]
With this book [Mirrors and Windows: Poems], his fourth, Howard Nemerov now belongs to that group of poets who are most difficult to review. To express joy in the accomplished poems, yet receive them ungraciously! For, alas, the homage a serious reviewer pays to a serious poet is a vigorous appraisal. Still, the poems must be handled with care, care in many of its meanings: mental effort, a sense of responsibility, solicitude, affection, and concern. Nemerov's own criticism has been distinguished by these qualities, so there is the added obligation of trying to serve him as well as he has served other poets.
Howard Nemerov is brave, intelligent, resourceful, crafty, accomplished and grown-up. He not only takes chances with poems and ideas, he is unflinching: The poem, "A Day on the Big Branch," provides us with, among other things, a long, frank and tenderly ironic look at himself and his contemporaries: the generation that was abruptly certified as adult in 1941, and that felt like surplus property from about 1945 on. How many of us marked or saved...
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SOURCE: "Outside Faction," in The Yale Review, Vol. 1, No. 4, June, 1961, pp. 585-96.
[In the following excerpt, Gunn offers a laudatory review of New and Selected Poems and discusses Nemerov's place in contemporary American poetry.]
Poetic theory in America is at present in an extremely curious state, resembling that of England during the Barons' Wars rather than that of a healthy democracy or wellrun autocracy. It is not even a decent civil war, tradition alist against modernist. At one extreme, it is true, there are the academic-suburban poets who aim so low that it is difficult to see why they bother to aim at all; at the other there are the remnants of the neo-Bohemians, who aim everywhere and thus nowhere. Between these comparative majorities of those who are timid or eccentric on principle exist the Barons, each commanding a troop of ill-equipped and determined fighters, and each against all the rest: Baron Bly, recommending a slightly surrealist imagery that looks a little old-fashioned nowadays; Baron Rexroth, exdirector of the Beat advertising campaign; Baron Fitts, who has just announced that the one distinguishing characteristic of true poetry is Strangeness; and a host of others who are convinced that they, and they alone, have discovered the criterion for good poetry. What is interesting, or rather, distressing, is that none of the Barons' retainers are good poets. Or if they...
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SOURCE: "Interim Report," in Poetry (Chicago), Vol. CII, No. 6, September, 1963, pp. 389-90.
[Below, Carruth calls most of the poems in The Next Room of the Dream "wisecracks " and discusses what he considers Nemerov's "technicalfailures."]
Half of this book [The Next Room of the Dream] is taken up by two verse plays on Biblical themes, and since I'm not qualified to discuss them, I'll pass them over; remarking only...
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SOURCE: "Twenty Years of Accomplishment," in The Critical Reception of Howard Nemerov: A Selection of Essays and a Bibliography, edited by Bowie Duncan, The Scarecrow Press, 1971, pp. 29-39.
[In the following essay, which was originally written on the occasion of the publication of The Blue Swallows and published in Florida Quarterly in October 1968, Meinke examines the first twenty years of Nemerov's poetic career, stating "more than any other contemporary poet, Nemerov speaks to the existential, science-oriented … liberal mind of the 20th century."]
It's a bad word, perhaps, but Howard Nemerov is really a philosopher. And judging from the scant space allotted him in the latest books on modern poetry, he is still one of our most underrated poets, despite a steadily widening audience (his New & Selected Poems, for example, is in its fourth printing). His latest book confirms what really has been evident since 1955 and The Salt Garden, more than any other contemporary poet, Nemerov speaks to the existential, science-oriented (or -displaced), liberal mind of the 20th century.
The Blue Swallows, published exactly 20 years after his first book, is Nemerov's seventh book of poetry, and the 67 new poems it contains represent not so much a culmination of his efforts as another step along a clearly defined technical evolution, and another elucidation...
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SOURCE: "Such Stuff as Dreams: The Poetry of Howard Nemerov," in Imagination and the Spirit: Essays in Literature and the Christian Faith Presented to Clyde S. Kilby, edited by Charles A. Huttar, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971, pp. 365-85.
[In the following essay, Olsen provides a stylistic and thematic overview of Nemerov's poetry, focusing on the unifying elements in his works.]
The serious and the funny are one. The purpose of Poetry is to persuade, fool, or compel God into speaking.
—Howard Nemerov, in a letter to Robert D. Harvey.
The poetry of Howard Nemerov is conventional and con versational; it has been called "academic" and even pro saic. His best poetry, however, is among the best American poetry written since World War II, partly because it is poetry that comes so close to being prose. Much postwar poetry, in reaction to the Eliot-Pound influence, attempts to communicate outside the classroom by using colloquial idioms and even slang, a conversational and even flippant tone, and contemporary subjects, such as Old Dutch Cleanser, television, Merritt Parkway, and J. Edgar Hoover. The danger in such poetry, of course, is that it may communicate to our time and our time only. It may be only Instant Poetry or Disposable Poetry (reflecting perhaps a fear that there will be no centuries to communicate to...
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SOURCE: An interview with Howard Nemerov, in Salmagundi, Nos. 31-32, Fall, 1975/Winter, 1976, pp. 109-19.
[In the following interview, which was conducted in March 1975, Nemerov discusses such topics as his composition process, the relationship between poetry and meaning, politics, and the influence of other writers on his works.]
[Robert Boyers] : In the past year or so, Howard, you 've written a great many poems, by any standards more than most poets expect to write in several years. Is there any way you can explain to yourself, or anyone else, how this came to be?
[Howard Nemerov]: Well, I'd settled down thinking to myself, listen, you're 54 years old; who the hell goes on in this business, year after year, waiting for something to happen? You're supposed to grow up, you might as well cease to expect. And I said to my old lady, the minute classes stop I am facing the inner emptiness. After settling down, though, or trying to, I began saying things to myself, and appreciating again that when I think to myself, it's usually in blank verse, sometimes in rhyme. I'm very old-fashioned in this respect, you know, wrote all my free verse when I was 26, so I didn't have to do any after that. But how the new poems came so fast I can't say. All I know is every night I would go to bed and think, well, that's the end: look, you had another poem today, it could never happen again—all the...
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SOURCE: "The Urban Landscape," in The Stillness in Moving Things: The World of Howard Nemerov, Memphis State University Press, 1975, pp. 119-42.
[In the following essay, Mills states that Nemerov's poetry of the urban landscape "concentrates on the most powerful institutions of society" and "is particularly concerned with the tyranny of the past over the present."]
Nemerov's poetry divides itself between contemplative poetry, which most often springs from his encounter with nature, and satiric poetry that finds its nourishment in disparities and paradoxes that reveal themselves in the urban scene. To say that the poetry is divided in subject matter and concern is not, however, to say that the poet is divided. These disparities and paradoxes are revealed by a vision that knows the difference in authentic and inauthentic existence, and knows the call of conscience. This vision knows that for someone to say there is a boom in religion because of increased affluence is to hear what Heidegger calls "idle talk."
And because this discoursing has lost its primary relationship-of-Being towards the entity talked about, or else has never achieved such a relationship, it does not communicate in such a way as to let this entity be appropriated in a primordial manner, but communicates rather by following the route of gossiping and passing the word along. What is...
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SOURCE: "Saying the Life of Things," in American Poetry Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, January/February, 1976, pp. 46-7.
[In the positive review of The Western Approaches below, Randall compares Nemerov to English poet William Wordsworth.]
If you really want to see something, look at something else. If you want to say what something is, inspect something that it isn't. It might go further, and worse, than that: if you want to see the invisible world, look at the visible one.
—[Howard Nemerov], "On Metaphor," Reflexions on Poetry & Poetics
If you really want to see Howard Nemerov, look at practically anybody else writing today. But I pick a non-controversial foil, Wordsworth, because the comparison is fun and, for me, illuminating. It clarifies both what Nemerov's poetry is, and what it is not.
Wordsworth and Nemerov share the plain style and the same grand epistemological theme. Both write many disarmingly simple poems that help the reader grasp the occasional intricate star. Both avoid the marketplace, lead quiet lives, and would like to see Elysium a simple produce of the common day. Wordsworth tries to convince us that he succeeds. Nemerov, who takes a more realistic view of human nature and does not go in for the Egotistical Sublime, assumes that the attempt is useless. As he wittily quotes a...
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SOURCE: A review of The Western Approaches: Poems 1973-75, in The Yale Review, March, 1976, pp. 425-42.
[In the excerpt below, Howard praises The Western Approaches, calling it Nemerov's "wisest" book.]
Three years ago, when [Nemerov] published Gnomes and Occasions, even the vivid and lovable poems in that book were spiked and spooked by so many sour epigrams and put-downs of Others that it seemed Howard Nemerov must have forgotten Marianne Moore's hard truth: there never was a war that was not inward. Were all the enemies out there, one wondered, could none of the problems be played closer to the chest, even the medicine chest, than so much snarling seemed to suggest? Of course there were, as I say, vivid and lovable poems in the book—Nemerov is the master of his generation (he is fifty-seven), and since Auden's death he is the only poet of that generation in America who has found it possible to continue serving wisdom without forsaking intelligence or even knowledge; as long ago as 1961, James Dickey in a beautiful review of Nemerov's New and Selected Poems said the necessary things about this poet, the things necessary to make you go on reading him from beginning to
the definite announcement of an end
where one thing ceases and another starts.
But by 1973, one gasped at what Nemerov...
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SOURCE: "Death and the Poet," in The New Criterion, Vol. 6, No. 5, January, 1988, pp. 72-7.
[In the following review of War Stories, Richman discusses existential themes in Nemerov's poetry as a whole.]
"They say the war is over," writes Howard Nemerov in "Redeployment," one of his most memorable early poems. "But water still / Comes bloody from the taps." Today, thirty-seven years after writing these lines, Nemerov's whole outlook on life is still haunted by the memory of war. This is the impression one has from Nemerov's new book, War Stories: Poems about Long Ago and Now. Nearly a third of the poems in this volume have their source in the poet's experiences, between 1942 and 1944, as a flying officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force, and as a first lieutenant, during the final two years of the conflict, in the U.S. Army Air Force. In the RAF, Nemerov's missions included the bombing of German shipping boats on the North Sea. A few poems are based directly on this experience, and others treat of the more banal aspects of war, such as Nemerov's dealings with his colleagues in the air force and his training as a flyer.
Nemerov's poetic response to war is not unusual. The dispassionate, ironic voice of the poems in War Stories has also been employed to good effect in the war poems of Randall Jarrell and Karl Shapiro. All the same, it is a fitting response to the...
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SOURCE: "Howard Nemerov and the Tyranny of Shakespeare," in Centennial Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 130-49.
[In the essay below, Jensen examines the influence of William Shakespeare on Nemerov's verse, stating that Shakespeare is "the guide and genius of [Nemerov's] poetic achievement. "]
John Lehmann, writing in his autobiography, claimed for Shakespeare the greatest intellectual and creative sovereignty over the minds and feelings of both the writers who followed him and all those whose literary inheritance derives from the English tradition. Shakespeare, he declared,
was the key to the whole of English literature, the mastermind that determined its course and depth and vitality so fundamentally that we can scarcely conceive what our imaginative life—perhaps even our moral values—would be like without him.
His assertion, in its nature more of a celebratory declaration than a critical argument, was picked up and expanded upon by T. J. B. Spencer in his British Academy Lecture, "The Tyranny of Shakespeare." Spencer argued that "The history of Shakespeare criticism …. has connexions with the production of poetry; and it is likely to be an unreal thing if we attempt to write it abstracted from the moulding influence of Shakespeare's writings upon subsequent literature." In this, Spencer was not merely agreeing...
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SOURCE: '"Between the Wave and the Particle': Figuring Science in Howard Nemerov's Poems," in Mosaic, Vol. 23, No. 4, Fall, 1990, pp. 37-50.
[In the review below, Clark examines Nemerov's incorporation of science and technology into his works.]
As reader, namer, knower, skeptic, Howard Nemerov has had a long and productive engagement with the material world and with the sciences which explore its laws, its oddities. His work alludes often to scientific and semi-scientific writing from Euclid to Einstein; his many, diverse sources include Goethe, Godei, Eddington, Sherrington, Freud, Whitehead, Russell; Herbert Muller, Scott Buchanan, Owen Barfield and Lewis Thomas.
Such engagement, though generally acknowledged, has curiously been given little detailed attention by critics of Nemerov's work. Peter Meinke, for example, notes broadly [in his Howard Nemerov, 1968] that Nemerov has become a "spokesman for the existential, science-oriented (or science-displaced), liberal mind of the twentieth century," and Julia Bartholomay argues simply that the poet is one of the few to "incorporate science into his work" [in her The Shield of Perseus: The Vision and Imagination of Howard Nemerov, 1972]. Undoubtedly, partly responsible for failure to pursue the issue further is the way Nemerov himself has seemed not to encourage it. Thus early in his career, in Journal of the Fictive...
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Potts, Donna L. "Howard Nemerov: An Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Sources." Bulletin of Bibliography 50, No. 4 (December 1993): 263-67.
Comprehensive bibliography about Nemerov's works.
Wyllie, Diane E. Elizabeth Bishop and Howard Nemerov: A Reference Guide. Boston: Hall, 1983, 196 p.
Contains an annotated list of works by and about Nemerov.
Labrie, Ross. Howard Nemerov. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980, 159 p.
Biographical and critical study of Nemerov that includes chapters on his poetry, novels, and criticism.
Boyers, Robert. "Howard Nemerov's True Voice of Feeling." In Excursions: Selected Literary Essays, pp. 217-41. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1977.
States that "contrary to what so many have said of Nemerov, his characteristic idiom is not the language of unruffled calm or serenity. Always he has written with a sharp sense of troubled waters threatening beneath placid surfaces."
Burke, Kenneth. "Comments on Eighteen Poems by Howard Nemerov." The Sewanee Review LX, No. 1 (Winter 1952): 117-31....
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