Jun 30, 2010

Emily Dickinson, "After great pain . . . "

After great pain, a formal feeling comes – (372) by Emily Dickinson : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

In case I wasn't clear yesterday about the relative simplicity and sweetness of Dickinson's "Hope Is the Thing with Feathers," compare it to one of her darker poems, "After Great Pain a Formal Feeling Comes." Maybe I'm just a downer-guy, or maybe depression, despair, and death are inherently weightier matters than hope. In any case, it seems to me that nothing in "Hope" matches the power and nuance of the imagery and state of mind at the center of "After Great Pain." I'm not sure I've experienced the poem's dark weight of mind, emotion, or spirit, but when Dickinson calmly states, "This is the hour lead," she makes me think I know what she's talking about. She makes me want to flee, except that she seems to know something I need to know, whether I want to or not.

We're probably left with more questions than answers in "Great Pain." Exactly what constitutes "great pain" and a "formal feeling"? What caused them? Or does a little voice then kick in and call us dishonest for pretending we need to ask?

Also, Dickinson tries to make herself clear, but the grey blankness of this state of mind (should we call it layered?) is too amorphous for clarity or logic, even though it has the color, heft, and authority of lead. The best Dickinson can do is offer images that might come close to capturing a condition as elusive as it is definite. It lacks definition; it is definitive. It's been said that paradox is the language of poetry.

In every stanza, if not every line, there's a word, phrase, or concept that stuns me. Who would have thought of this as a "formal" feeling? Less mysterious, but awfully interesting is the fact that it arrives "after" great pain. Wouldn't most of us have chosen pain itself as the subject rather than its aftermath?

Why is this state personified as "He," and how does He become a "bore"? Or is "bore" the past tense of "bear"? If that's the case, what was it that He bore? The formal feeling? How so? And is there a play on the word "boor"? This might be a spot where Dickinson's quirky punctuation and word choice are pushing things at least an inch too far. How can we not wonder if she's simply struggling for rhyme?

A what contentment? "Quartz," you say? And wait, you're associating this aftermath of great pain with some kind of "contentment"? And then those last two lines--what happens, in what order, and how does it amount to a "letting go"?

All of this illustrates one of the great purposes of poetry (and probably all art): to capture experiences rather than talk about them, to use imagery and metaphor to express the inexpressible. I doubt any writer has offered any Message that has the impact of Dickinson's attempt to render an experience here.


Jun 29, 2010

Emily Dickinson, "Hope is the thing with feathers." Video, cardinal landing.

I'm not a Dickinson expert, but my sense is that "Hope Is the Thing with Feathers" is a favorite for many. I like the central metaphor of hope as a bird and the title's focus on feathers--maybe a bird's most fragile feature. However, E.D.'s development of that idea is a little sweet for my tastes, especially compared to the complexity of so many of her better poems.

On the other hand, I get sappy about birds, and cardinals in particular. I stumbled onto the video below while looking for images of cardinal chicks--I'm pretty sure I had one this morning, just after first light, with mom and dad at the platform feeder.

When I consider that chick, that plump grey ball, becoming Mr. Red adult--or Mrs. More Modest Red--one word that comes to mind is magic. Ditto the video's excellent close-ups of a cardinal's landings in some snow. Whatever else he might be, the cardinal as a metaphor for hope is a perfectly reasonable notion.

Hope is the thing with feathers

YouTube - Cardinal landing close up


Jun 25, 2010

The Carter Family

YouTube - Anita Carter - Don't Worry 'Bout Me - Prague 1978

That's Anita Carter, sister of Helen and June Carter Cash. They are the daughters of Mother Maybelle Carter. If you don't know her or the family's classic, "Wildwood Flower," take a listen. This is American History, so sit down and be good. And watch Maybelle's right hand on the guitar. I recently read a description of her picking style, and it's baffling.

YouTube - The Carter Family - Wildwood Flower

I'm having a good time with June's 2003 CD, titled Wildwood Flower, one folk or country classic after another. Her version of "Sinking in the Lonseome Sea" is rivaled only by Odetta's version (titled "The Golden Vanity," I think). Now I want all of Anita Carter's songs plus Marty Robbins' oldie-goldies. Happy weekend, exploring the Carter family stuff available on YouTube. What a resource. Maybe progress isn't all bad after all.


Jun 24, 2010

Randall Jarrell, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." Arrogance, continued.

Big water in better days.

Hamlet says, “What a piece of work is a man.” I go back and forth between seeing a slab of meat hanging in a butcher shop—that’s a man—and more positive images—say, the artist if he’s striving for honest as well as elegant utterances, or the martyr if his cause is just (MLK or Gandhi, to be obvious).

Where do Tony Wayward, and the Enron boys, and other sociopaths among our elite, present and past, fit into “what a piece of work” man is? On the Great Chain of Being, what link do they occupy? What link do they think they occupy?

In an effort not to be arrogant about arrogance, I try once more to imagine myself in charge of an operation that could inflict the damage BP is doing. Here is my translation:

“On my watch, the lads have had more violations than any other oil company (which are not known for the choir boys among them). I ignored warnings from my underlings about imminent danger. At each stage of the explosion's aftermath, I lie and evade. I deliver sanitized bromides of regret to the millions of little guys on the Gulf, waiting for me to make it all (sound) better.

“That’s enough to make even a slick, hardened sociopath tired. I need to get away, so I'm off to a sailing thingy, with our kind of people, safely across a sea into which my machinery hasn’t yet defecated. But I’m really not a bad sort, not an arrogant bloke. With my boyish face, I'm rather liked in the circles I choose.”

So can I see myself as that guy, as Tony Wayward? I honestly cannot, and if that sounds sanctimonious, so be it. Maybe it means I sit in safe havens, lacking the stuff of leadership in a major enterprise, which by definition risks both nature and humanity by the thousands of units. Maybe I’m a short-necked gander with no honk.

But no, I cannot see myself as that Tony-guy. And no, I don't have anything like envy for his daring or his life of luxury. (Or his absence of conscience, diligence, compassion). I don't want to be an empty suit when I grow up. Or is it a vacancy of soul we're trying to measure here?

Maybe we should all write lists of whom and what we cannot imagine being or doing, both the positive and negative models. Tony is not in my list of ways I can see myself. I'm sure it's my fault.

A World War II air combat poem might seem an unlikely companion to the above, but when I think of arrogance, I envision people who think of others as servants or objects. How would some of the high rollers in industry esteem this speaker, a mere ball turret gunner, dead, who hung in the belly of his bomber, exposed to enemy fighter planes in his transparent bubble? Are those the chunks of flesh the high roller sees when he regards the people and animals of the Gulf Coast? Wash 'em out with a hose.

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner - Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More


Jun 23, 2010

Shelley's "Ozymandias" in Our Time

I’ve never entirely understood the spirit of conquest, or monuments to oneself or one’s tribe.

I had a friend once who was a serious mountain climber. Let’s say Ben was a Dartmouth grad (those names are close enough) and an ex-marine (he was that), and one day in casual conversation, he spoke of “attacking the summit” of Mt. McKinley.

I wondered if this was the way all Dartmouth grads thought. They desired an assault and more or less assumed they would succeed. And the mountain, I suppose, would hang its head in defeat. I’d always felt sure I wasn’t Ivy League material, so this was comforting—this clinched it, and it had nothing to do with IQ. Whatever Ben was demonstrating—pluck? scrappiness? confidence? ambition? arrogance? energy?—I didn’t have it and didn’t want it. And still don’t.

So now I consider the current environmental crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. Then I work backward: the failure (and deceit) of the banks, the insurance companies, the insurer of the insurance companies, the infallibility and lack of redundancy in the Internet, the American auto companies and built-in obsolescence, the assault on Toyota’s competence and integrity, the fall of the Twin Towers, the Nixon presidency, Vietnam and imperialism in general (we even have margarine that's Imperial). Somebody is salivating at the prospect of somebody else's summit.

In that light, Shelley’s famous sonnet, “Ozymandias,” seems remarkably on target, though it goes all the way back to Egypt’s Ramses II for its model.

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

This poem is perhaps over-taught and over-anthologized. But how can we over-expose the young or ourselves to such an important, chilling tale of arrogance? I doubt it will do any good; attacking summits or other people’s sand or retirement accounts is too much fun for too many scrappers and too many people on silver spoons in overdrive. But we can say we tried.


Jun 22, 2010

Ted Kooser, "An Epiphany"

I've mentioned epiphany a few times. Is Kooser right in thinking that's what's happening in his spider scene?

An Epiphany by Ted Kooser : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Given Kooser’s talky voice, we might overlook his flirtation with rhyme. Now we have it, now we don’t. But with or without exact rhyme, we have the “r” and “l” sounds.

And rather than tie up everything—neatly and over-resolved—in the end, Kooser plays with those “r” sounds, ending on “finger” and “broken.” We can’t ignore the “r,” given the accumulation of the sound, but he slyly refuses to give us an exact rhyme, which would imply balance, order, peace, law, and justice as a conclusion, when in fact things are broken and the “me” is left alone at the end of a line, with no rhyming partner.

If there is an epiphany here, surely it has to do with “broken” things, and the speaker is alone with his understanding of that.

In the video below, the deer biz might be apropros of nothing, but I found it curiously interesting, understated, amusing, touching. Then, rather than re-running the Bambi pic, I figured some bison in the rain, near Corydon, Indiana, might be more interesting. I wonder if the restaurant makes them nervous.

That, in turn, has made me wonder if there's a thread here after all: spiders eat, bison eat, people eat. Everybody eats. Even Bambi. Welcome to Banjo Brain.

YouTube - Deer Calling Tips: Trail Grunt Sequence


Jun 18, 2010

Favorite Lines: What Is It We Remember?

Whether or not she meant to, Altadenahiker in her visitor comment yesterday reminded me of the old writing guideline, "Show, don't tell." It works for both fiction and poetry, and I think I believe in it strongly.

On the other hand, I find myself as well as others loving lines that are at least on the verge of telling. Whether or not we mean to, I suspect we all go to writing and the arts for wisdom as well as beauty, entertainment, and other purposes.

Here are a few lines that come to my mind. If they’re not didactic, full of message, and “telling” more than showing, aren’t they perilously close to it? Yet I remember them and love them, whether or not I believe in them. And I am not a crook—though I wonder if there’s a streak of Bible-thumper in me that makes me like these truths. Truths? Well, there are no turkeys here.

Please feel free to offer your own favorites in response.

Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all Ye need to know.

I wake to sleep and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

Can't repeat the past? Why, of course you can.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Do not go gentle into that good night.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing,
For every tatter in its mortal dress.

Ah, Margaret, are you grieving
Over goldengrove unleaving? . . .
It is the blight man was born for.
It is Margaret you mourn for.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

A poem should not mean, but be.

. . .

And what if William Carlos Williams had not begun with “so much depends upon”?


Jun 17, 2010

Mary Wallach, "Why I Don't Write Autobiographical Poems": Questions about Prose Poems

Too Gawky for a Lyric?

The prose poem is a form I don’t trust—can it be true that it was genuinely impossible to render the work as either prose or poetry?

My knee-jerk response is to call each prose poem intellectually lazy and dishonest. If it doesn’t trust itself to be A or B, why should I trust it? What need is there for some hybrid C?

Will most prose poems really, truly, honestly refuse to fit themselves into any of the uniforms worn by poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction? Shame on me, old curmudgeon? Anal fuddy-duddy? Prescriptive Tyrant?

As always, however, exceptions keep cropping up. Here is a prose poem in which the first paragraph seemed to be headed nowhere better or bigger than the bitter sarcasm of a crowd I call The Young, The Ironic, The Angry, and The Bogus (YIAB). I almost didn’t finish “Why I Don’t Write Autobiographical Poems,” and what a shame for me--and shame on me--that would have been.

The turns in Mary Wallach’s piece beautifully illustrate why poets talk so much about turns. In most poems the turns support the notion of a poem as discovery (or discoveries) for the poet as well as the reader.

If you think you know where you’re going, and that’s where you go, where’s the surprise for you? Without surprise, where’s the delight, the urgency? Are you just re-filling a prescription at the drug store? Where’s the chance for epiphany or other kinds of a-ha moments? And without those, are you offering a poem or a stale self-indulgence?

The fact that rhyme or the line breaks in free verse can produce, or at least add to, surprise and discovery in a poem is one more reason to doubt the prose poem as a genre or subcategory. Once again, however, the exception reinforces the rule.

See if you agree. Here is “Why I Don’t Write Autobiographical Poems.”

Why I Don't Write Autobiographical Poems by Mary Wallach | The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor

Jun 15, 2010

Robert Frost, "Design"

Northern Parula Warbler and Yellow-rumped Warbler, Magee Marsh in NW Ohio: sitting pretty, scanning for food, mate, territory, and nerds with long lenses.

Here is Robert Frost's sonnet, "Design," which I offer as a comparison to Sunday's Lux poem. It's probably not debatable that the Frost is denser and verbally more complex, including the rhyme, meter, and the tradition of the sonnet. Is it therefore a better poem? Is its philosophical content larger, more substantial, more complex, more legitimate? Is its language more pleasing or more compelling than Lux's? If Lux's monkey poem is better, what makes it so? (And "better" is not the same issue as "I like it more." Your mom might be prettier or wittier than my mom, but is she a better mom?).

Design - Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

Jun 13, 2010

Thomas Lux, "To Help the Monkey Cross the River"

To Help the Monkey Cross the River by Thomas Lux : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Maybe this is the Thomas Lux poem that will make you a fan, especially if you like story problems in math class, or monkeys, or underdogs, or oblivious creatures who ought to be desperate. Or if you've noticed how wide some rivers are. Or if you like poets whose inner tough guy struggles with a big, soft heart.

I just drove along the Ohio River for a couple of days, and at some point I recalled another of Lux's poems, where he offers one of the better lines anywhere: "if a river could look over its shoulder." In one sense, that line is a team player in the poem, blending in, doing its job; it's not especially interested in stardom. In another way, it tore my head off. What if something as powerful and important as a river is as nostalgic, wistful, uncertain and maybe as sad as we humans are, to be leaving?

So why a goat picture? First, I don't have a monkey pic; secondly, goats are almost as goofily fetching. Finally, as Vonnegut says, "Vy you, vy me, vy anybody?" (Slaughterhouse-5).

To Help the Monkey Cross the River by Thomas Lux : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Jun 11, 2010

William Stafford's "Traveling through the Dark"

Speaking of road trips, sometimes I understand the popularity of William Stafford's "Traveling through the Dark" and sometimes not so much. The plot is compelling, the philosophical stalemate centers on a situation that many of us have feared or experienced in some way, and most readers of poetry care more, perhaps, for animals than each other. The plainness of the language also highlights by contrast the drama of the situation. All that and its quasi-sonnet form make it a good poem for classroom discussions.

However, I also hear some forced or otherwise clunky language. Rhyme almost always makes for an additional factor to consider, but isn't some of it forced here? And what about "our group"? Who comprises that collection? Doesn’t the fourth stanza get just a touch too poetic and unnatural in syntax?

“to swerve might make more dead.”
“My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—“
for the sake of rhyme “purred the steady engine” instead of the more natural “the steady engine purred”
“our group”—is that a little forced or pretentious? The two deer and he amount to a group? Or do we add other details like the red of the tail lights in the exhaust?

I like very much the idea of hearing “the wilderness listen.” There’s a larger, yet natural resonance there, which I’d rather not reduce to the word “symbolism,” but maybe that’s what it is.

So I do see much to like in the poem, especially its stopping well short of soap opera. But I wonder if it’s over-admired. And as for the philosophical center, the question of what to do with the cadaver, isn’t it a bit of a false conundrum? Such acts are difficult, yes, but what are the alternatives?

So here's the poem; I'll be interested in other reactions.

Traveling through the Dark by William E. Stafford : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Jun 10, 2010

Hank Williams' "Mansion on the Hill," Sung by Charley Pride

Okay, I couldn't get an actual mansion on a hill, but these two are close enough, and it's time everyone revisited the Hank Williams song. I liked the Charley Pride version better than the other three or four I tried on YouTube, including Hank's very own. Location, Ohio River in southern Indiana, near Madison.

YouTube - Charley Pride - A Mansion on the Hill


Jun 7, 2010

Sylvia Plath's "Cut"

< delicate digits

In spite of a typo or two, I chose to print Plath's "Cut" from this site because of the readers' comments (are they all students?). I found them consistently entertaining, often funny, sometimes intelligent and sometimes mean. Maybe they're more about social networking than responding thoughtfully to the poem. I might go easy on a teacher who became impatient with this level of analysis, though some of the earlier comments make an honest effort and have merit.

I hope you will paraphrase Plath's train of thought and consider what each new image might add to her notion of a cut. If "homunculus" and "trepanned" are new to you, be sure to look them up.

Also, notice Plath's use of rhyme and other sound devices in a free verse poem. Once noticed, they might feel so exaggerated that they suggest violence. If they do, it's a good example of poetic devices adding to or carrying meaning, rather than serving as little flower decorations on a birthday cake.

I find all those aspects of the poem to be like certain kinds of neurosis, in love with themselves, hysterical, hyperbolic, but at the same time, too menacing to dismiss as frivolous. If a friend had handed me "Cut," I hope I'd have insisted on some long talks and attempts to persuade him or her to see a professional. How does one do that, by the way?

Below is the link to the poem itself; the second link offers Plath's reading of it on YouTube.

Cut - A poem by Sylvia Plath - American Poems

YouTube - Sylvia Plath reads "Cut"

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Jun 5, 2010

Sylvia Plath's "Metaphors"

Technically it's still spring, so I offer two bird pics involving parenthood. Sparrow Dad with Junior-the-Charity-Case is a re-run, but that little two-tone job is new. It's a young blue jay, and I promise, he looked even stranger in real life.

Speaking of the strangeness of children, and since I mentioned Sylvia Plath in the last (June 2) post, here’s a reminder of her voice.

Metaphors - Sylvia Plath

I wonder, by “voice,” which is so often used and perhaps over-emphasized in discussions of poetry, do we mean a physical manifestation of the speaker and poet’s attitudes, the interior made external, palpable?

Try applying the word to singers. To mention a few obvious choices, Elvis, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Odetta, and Joan Baezare unique. We recognize their voices with no need for introduction, and realizing that led me to consider poets and other writers in the same way. Would I recognize the voice of so-and-so with no name attached? I'm still not sure how essential that is, but at least I get the issue now.

Of course, and to get back to juveniles, we have to make allowances in many cases for the poet's stages and phases, for example, the early, middle, and late voices of the same person. It's a given that the early and later (or modern) Yeats are pretty much two different guys. Sylvia Plath began by writing sonnets and villanelles by the dozen.

So, about the Plath of "Metaphors," how many mothers have viewed pregnancy this way? The self-effacing humor and complaint about weight are familiar and often jovial. But can we finish "Metaphors" with a smile? Or does the last line add something too chilling for a mere “fat momma” poem?

Try to forget what you know about Plath's life. Would you want the psyche behind this voice to babysit your children? If you answered yes, please read Plath's poem, "Daddy."

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Jun 2, 2010

Kim Addonizio, "The First Line Is Deepest." Shredding.

The First Line is the Deepest by Kim Addonizio : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

Watch it Shred!: "The Monster"

You might want to skip the first minute of the video, though the whole thing is only 2+ minutes. Am I just odd for seeing connections among the parts of today's post: Addonizio, Shredding, Teaching, Condescending, Catching in the Rye, and more? (Addonizio's poem is full of witty allusions. We could have a contest to see who catches the most).

Maybe I am taking Altadena Hiker’s recommended video too seriously. But try to imagine how much professorial arrogance I've witnessed as a student and teacher. The stories I could tell. I'd like to think I haven't been part of it, but no guarantees.

I think it’s easy to kill writing for a kid who has interest and potential, but also some problems and pretensions to work through. I'm fairly sure there's one response to that I don't buy: if he's a real writer, he can't be stopped.

People can be stopped. Not all, I’m sure, but enough.

It is not the right of a (temporarily) hotshot writer or teacher to kill in a beginner an activity that might serve him well through his life, even if it's "only" journal-keeping or painting water colors in the city park. Or blogging! How many bloggers drop this line to a photography blogger: “That’s the most trite postcard picture I’ve seen in years, Wally. Bad day at the office?”

Producing art of any kind is a naked adventure. Your zits show, and you know it, but you probably feel you must cover up. So a developing writer/artist grows into one defense or another—most likely arrogant bravado or defiant, sullen, dramatic withdrawal or terminal, genuine shyness.

So when I see (temporarily) successful writers sniggering at the kind of stuff they themselves used to, or still do, produce, I want to smack 'em, or at least tell 'em to get off their high horses and pick on someone their own size.

I must say, I wonder how many of them could/would engage in a project of showing their youthful, disgraceful stuff. I have looked at my youthful crap a few times, and I'm not sure there's enough money on earth (especially in recent months) to pay me to show it. It's a fun idea, but I guess I'm not mentally healthy enough to indulge.

Back to my paragraph one above: let me add that the few dozen writers I've gotten to know (just a bit and only professionally, as visiting writers, or at conferences and such) do not seem to follow the model of "look-at-the-alienated-deep-greatness-of-me" (ADGOM?), established by, say, Hemingway or Plath. As a crowd, the writers I’ve met in the last twenty years or so have been friendly, down to earth, and eager to help young people. They've also tried to be socially comfortable at obligatory tea or beer gatherings, which would make me cringe if I were in their place. In fact, I cringe on their behalf.

It's almost disappointing. Hey! Where are all the mean but brilliant psychos I read about in college?

Then a mean psycho shows up, of course, with or without the brilliance. But it's rare, at least in my experience. Of course, I'm seeing them in contexts where they could establish nasty reputations they wouldn't want, now that readings, mentoring and guru-hood are so lucrative. In any case, they show up and behave. I think they acknowledge the loneliness of the work and are glad for any kind of companionship and recognition. A couple of them have said so.

How would Hemingway have fared on the college circuit?

Yes, I wonder if they are the same, kind, well-adjusted folks they seem, and I doubt it. I’ve probably never met a well-adjusted adult, according to my definition. But that's not the topic, and that’s not where art comes from.

These professional settings are all I've got to go on. And I can think of only one time when a celebrity writer made an ass of himself by scoffing at a student-something, a question, a comment, or student writing — though some of those comments and questions might have deserved a metaphorical slap in the head.

Maybe the kinder, gentler America has arrived, at least in writerly circles. I doubt that, but in any case, I’m not going to applaud the inflicting of middle-aged issues, or the issues that come with (temporary) success, upon the earnest young.

The arrogant young? That’s another story.


Jun 1, 2010


YouTube - 16: Moments

A friend sent this 4-minute video, which he found on YouTube. I think it's awfully good to be just floating around like that, but if filmmaker William Hoffman is hoping people like me will help spread the word, I'm happy to oblige.

A very few of the images might make you wince, but if the film has a flaw, it might be that it's a litte too feel-good and sentimental. However, I've been hooked for some time on the importance of realizing that time goes by in moments--whatever else it does, according to folks like Einstein. I humbly submit that most of us don't pay enough attention to the fleetingness of things; otherwise, we'd all be filmmakers, photographers, and poets. Or sky divers?

About 20 years ago, I came up with "The Lyric Moment" as the title for a course on poems under two pages; the colleague who taught it agreed that most short poems, even those with some narrative line, amount to a capturing of moments, often moments of epiphany.

So this 4-minute film is right up my alley, and I hope it's substantial enough to be worth your time, but light enough to be a welcome splash for the first day after a long weekend.

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Lovers' Lane