Why Poetry Can’t Find its Public

Hey Poets.

I was in LA last month for music work, and I think I found something you dropped:

The public. There, there.

So—Maybe you weren’t sure when you lost it, but you seem pretty certain music stole it. Or film perhaps? Or YouTube cats?

Meanwhile, poetry’s stayed alive. It’s been breeding and cloning; there are more of us all the time! (Thank god; someone’s gotta read our poems.) We’re like the Duggar Couple, happy we’ll always have at least our 19 fans.

But for all our liveliness, poetry’s not exactly on speaking terms with the public. By which I mean, we don’t speak to it. Except in English class.

So anyway, when I found your public, it was like, “Idk, I never hear from poetr—Oh hey! I love this song!”
And then I knew: We have to snag lessons from a genre that beats us out for public love. What can we learn from pop music? Here’s a start:

1. Pop Music Loves the Public.

In Poetry Land there’s a myth that art is tainted by popularity: the more eyes see it, the more corrupt it becomes. Said myth is outdated and nonsensical, but survives because it’s a nice stunt double for artistic integrity.
It’s also great for cognitive dissonance: if no one’s reading poetry, it helps to think we never wanted them to. AND it justifies our laziness in connecting with non-poets. Hooray!

But um… The myth is rank, you guys. It creates disdain for the public, shames us for our desires to communicate, and imprisons us in Insular Poetry Land.

So let’s lose that thing; it’s embarrassing.

Pop music has an audience in part because it wants one.
It appreciates, respects, and engages the public. We should, too.

Similarly…

2. No Pop Music Is an Island.

Like poets, musicians sometimes create their own magazines, networks, and events. But their goal is to reach beyond one another—out to a wider public.

Like poets, musicians love to play for each other. But they don’t play only for each other. If they did, they’d cry themselves to sleep at night, then go get a job at Staples.

The lesson here: don’t get so comfy with our private poetry-trading.

3. Pop Music Trusts Itself.

Thinking about audiences while writing could drive ANYONE to madness. But generally desiring that our work connect with people? That makes us better, and more human. Musicians trust this.

While in LA, I attended a conference panel featuring Ne-Yo and Stargate. They wrote the crazy-successful “Irreplaceable,” released in 2006 by Beyonce. There are formulas for successful pop songs, but “Irreplaceable” didn’t follow one. Because of this, it almost didn’t make it onto Beyonce’s album.

In other words, these guys made something true to their crafts—trusting that by doing so, they’d create a song that resonated. They were right; it became a number one single. “Make the music you love,” Mikkel Eriksen (Stargate) has said. “That’s when you’ll have success.”

We don’t have to choose between making great art and wanting people to see it. We’re not that irresponsible. Poets too can trust ourselves.

[I won't deny there are songwriters who follow formulas, copy successes, create for the lowest common denominator. But I might suggest that they too are doing what they love. They're not sighing, "If only I could write a vulnerable chorale—just once!"]

4. Pop Music Waits for No (Wo)Man.

This may be the most self-evident thing I’ve ever written in a blog, but: no one can love a song they don’t hear, or a poem they don’t read. You won’t YouTube “Thrift Shop” or “Do Not Go Gentle…” unless you already know they exist.

That’s why musicians put their work where we’ll find it without even looking: social media, bars, radio, stores, restaurants, TV, movies, commercials, video games, clubs, fundraisers, sporting events. It piggybacks on artists and activities we already love.
It has to do this, and it knows it.

yes, of course

By contrast, poets often expect the world to come looking for US. And when it doesn’t, we blame it on attention deficits, poor poetry educations, an increasingly “Idiocratic” culture. But we certainly won’t blame it on our failure to venture beyond our own front lawns.

[Note: There ARE poets who are venturing and connecting. Please share your links to them in the comments! But these are exceptions, and my point here is to question the conditioning that tells poets we don't want or need cultural connection.]

5. Pop Music Works Its Ass Off.

The most successful musicians spend as much time reaching out to listeners as they spend making music. Those who can’t take this—who prefer to focus strictly on their art—don’t find listeners. (There are exceptions, but they’re exceptions.) No one in music will deny the WORK that goes into getting an audience.

“But they have reason to do it!” you cry. “Music could actually make them a living someday, whereas writing poetry…”
But finding an audience isn’t strictly about finding a salary. It’s about connection, feedback, influence.

Also, in 2013, few musicians make enough to live on. Even “indie-rock royalty” Grizzly Bear can’t afford health insurance.

So, just like poets, most songwriters wear many hats. And still, the average (living-making) musician boasts a mid $30s salary, including all sources of revenue- like giving private lessons. (Be very jealous.)

So I’m calling your bluff. These days, the main differences between a poet and most indie musicians are the freedom to reach out, and a willingness to work at it.

6. Pop Music Assumes It Has Something to Offer.

Musicians are (in)famous for believing that if only people heard us, they’d LOVE us. This is often delusional, but it’s necessary for the work music requires.

Similarly, poets will only do the work of reaching non-poets if we believe we have something to “offer.” We should assume that when poetry goes where it can be found, it can have politicalsocialtherapeutic impact. Because it can.

7. Pop Music Innovates. (Beyond Music.)

Like many poets, beginning songwriters can’t get on the cover of Rolling Stone, or appear on The Daily Show. But they don’t give up and play for one another (see #2)…

I'm innovatingThey play local venues, partner with local companies, create stories that make the local news. They work with nonprofits, participate in campaigns or fundraisers, tour town to town, make documentaries.

They want to be in conversation with the public. This requires exploration, innovation, and risk-taking, and they do it.

So How Might WE Innovate? (Beyond Language?)

First, we have to stop blaming our culture for failing to seek us out. It’s on us to find ways to be discovered and engaged. (This is good news!)

We also have to stop cowering before the silly myth that going public will destroy us. Reaching out is not artistic heresy. And there’s certainly no artistic virtue in keeping poetry academic, spineless, or relegated to a readership of one another while we climb ladders to tenure.

And finally, we have to ask—patiently—the questions we’ve long feared:

  • How can my poetry get read? (Apart from journals only my peers see?)
  • How might my poems be inserted into existing public conversations?
  • Given the stories, messages, or truths my poetry communicates, where might it help, be relevant?
  • With what artists, studies, organizations, ideas, thinktanks, publications could it partner? How?
  • With what art forms?
  • What poetry am I disdaining/avoiding, that might actually shed light on my craft’s potential role(s)?

Join the Conversation! 

How might you answer the above Q’s?
What other questions should we ask?

Post links to innovators—and to poetry + the public!

Comment/share below.

Might we be so bold as to suggest that you subscribe to Ploughshares?

About Tasha Golden

Tasha Golden is the singer and songwriter for the critically-acclaimed band Ellery. Her songs have been heard in major motion pictures, TV dramas, radio in the US & the UK, and Starbucks stores throughout the country, and her albums have been featured in national publications such as Paste Magazine and M Music. Her poetry and prose have been seen or are forthcoming in The Humanist, Gambling the Aisle, Luvah Journal, Pleiades, Ploughshares, and Patrol Magazine. She tweets @goldenthis
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56 Responses to Why Poetry Can’t Find its Public

  1. G.M. Palmer says:

    Hey.

    I have been thinking a lot lately about this very question (well I have been thinking forever about it but that’s neither here nor there).

    What the answer is in part comes down to a difference between the performance and the script (I fear that phrase is going to become tiresome in my criticism over the next few months).

    Keeping things only in the literary arts, pop music (and any recorded music and film and and) is all about performance. It is not the work (generally) of one person but of a team. But more importantly it is a performance. The audience is able to passively receive the art.

    With on the page poetry (note: prose also does this but there’s reasons it has gotten a better rap*), however, the audience is *also* the performer. They are the ones who imagine the inflection, the pacing, the emphasis. They bring the “what’s my motivation” to the lines.

    That’s a hell of a lot to ask an audience. Do we (as poets) even realize we’re doing this? What do we do about it once we do realize it?

    *As I said, prose has this problem too but prose has rather infinite room for context (giving those poor readers something to go on) but poetry’s got no time for that.

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Some great thoughts here – Thanks for posting! You bring up an interesting point about what’s being asked of readers– Could engender productive discussion!

      I do think however that most artists would take issue with your supposition that performances ask nothing (or even little) of audiences, or that an audience is able to be passive when watching/listening to performances as opposed to when reading.
      Watching and listening are of course types of reading, and the visual and musical arts are their own forms of texts.

      Certainly some art works make passivity more possible than others (and certainly, some thrive on an audience’s lack of attention to detail!), :) …but such things aside, the works of musicians, songwriters, producers, and of course painters, photographers, choreographers, and actors are nearly always better realized, more fully experienced, and more appreciated when an audience inserts itself into the performance: becomes part of it, applies itself, and engages the “text” before it.

      As you say – it’s a hell of a lot to ask of an audience! But such a lovely invitation. And extraordinary when they accept!
      Thanks again!

    • Egypt Steve says:

      I know nothing about this and never read poetry. But I know there were times when public performance of poetry was commonplace — Homer, for starters. And maybe it’s a cliche, I don’t know, but I can picture Allen Ginsburg reciting “Howl” to bongo drums and marijuana smoke in a West Village coffee shop. Get back to where you once belonged, guys!

  2. I was working in a bookstore the first time Billy Collins was on Prairie Home companion, and guys in suits were in the store Monday trying to remember the name of that Billy poet. If you snorted twice at that sentence, once for Collins, once for PHC, you’ll notice the knee-jerk contempt reaching the non-poet public immediately produces. Poets don’t even bother to argue against Collins (and those arguments could be usefully made) — they just sneer, assuming the joke has already been made. I suppose indie musicians are accused of selling out when they become popular, but poets are worse — when they get the chance.

    Then, too, a musician has to have some musical ability. A person who is excited by poetry pretty much becomes a poet, and that step across the fence means our audience once again becomes us — so we’d *better* listen to one another!

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Hi Susan!
      Yes yes — It takes little time in Poetry Land to notice that certain names produce predictable reactions (Collins, Oliver, any Laureate, any Inauguration poet, etc). Sigh.

      Criticisms of poets are necessary and welcome, but when they seem to stem primarily from The Myth (popularity –> suspicion), we all lose.

      I’m most struck, I think, by the lack of awareness necessary to cultivate this much hauteur (and simple ill will), particularly among a population known for noticing.

      Fortunately, a great many poets are on to the whole myth thing- and are too honest to shame or disdain one another. (And too honest to think this means “No Criticizing!”)
      So here’s to a better us, and to poets who connect. Yes yes.
      Thanks again Susan!

  3. Dante says:

    This guy named Josh Smith turned me on to good poetry. For years I really did assume that it was something for people I didn’t want to understand or be around or, like you mentioned, other poets. When he first told me that he did poetry I sighed on the inside and felt bad because I like the guy. Then one day I checked some of his stuff out and was so surprised to not only like it, but actively search for it. I even went to a poetry reading here in L.A. He’s been doing new things with his work and put out a fantastic DVD detailing his beginning and inspirations in poetry.

    http://www.youtube.com/user/JoshSmithPoetry

  4. Miguelito says:

    See these great organizations doing just all this:

    omiami.org

    universityofwyndood.com

  5. And it is possible to reach a wide audience, you just have to work to make it worthwhile.
    Here’s the title ‘track’ of my new – and debut – album of poems – I Love The Internet featured on the Maddow Show blog.
    Not bad given I am unknown and based in Dublin
    http://maddowblog.msnbc.com/_news/2013/01/24/16683584-bawdy-bullying-smelling-of-cats?lite

    • Tasha Golden says:

      YES YES EXACTLY
      This is GREAT; thx for reading & sharing.

      Such fantastic use of media, and a great eye for the social/political relevance of your piece, for where it could go and how it could have impact.
      And the presence on Maddow affirms poetry’s relevance: its ability to spark conversation, its ability to speak to common experience and be appreciated (by the poetry-layfolk!) as/for having done so.

      Thx again; keep us updated!

      –tg

  6. Pingback: What Poetry Can Learn From Pop Music | The Penn Ave Post

  7. isaacplautus says:

    It took guts to say this but you’re exactly right. This reminds me of what Michael Chabon has been saying about entertainment and fiction. We certainly shouldn’t say that poetry needs to be popular in order to be valid. But the lack of non academic audience for poetry today is a huge problem. And i Tennyson and Frost were magisterial poets who commanded the attention of the entire public. So for modern poets to say that it can’t be done strikes me as laziness and fatalism.

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Hello Isaac,
      Thanks for these thoughts, & the encouragement! As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I don’t think poetry should attempt to BE pop music, or “compete” with it, or etc… But I certainly agree with you that the assumption that poetry’s relevance is simply on an unalterable downward trajectory may say more about poets’ lack of imagination than about poetry itself, or about our culture —
      Thanks for reading and participating!

  8. David Graham says:

    With the grand exception of the Victorian era, I don’t think poetry as a whole *ever* enjoyed the sort of popularity that pop music always has–at least in the U.S.A. Chasing that dream is maybe useful–for all the reasons stated so wittily in this piece–but ultimately it IS a dream. And very likely a futile dream. Just look at which poets actually *were* wildly popular, in Victorian times, for instance. (Hint: not Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson, indisputably the greatest from that era.) Or take a gander at the full list of winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, especially the early decades: how many have you heard of? Time will tell, as always, what tiny fraction of work being produced today endures. Yes, among intellectuals there is always a backlash against the few who achieve true popularity in their lifetimes: Billy Collins is not experiencing anything Robert Frost didn’t a half century ago. But popularity by itself says nothing at all about a given work’s value. Nothing. Personally, I like to be read, and enjoy it when people read my work. I like publishing it, giving readings, attending open mics, talking with people about poetry, even reading essays bemoaning its lack of popularity. And I have no use for self-defensive elitism in poetry. In fact I would love it if poetry were more visible and significant in the culture at large. But in my opinion it’s just not likely that with better marketing poetry as a genre will ever break through to true cultural popularity. A Glenn Miller will always sell more records than Robert Frost sells books. As I say, a possibly productive dream, but one whose side-effects are likely to be more valuable than anything else. In other words, I don’t think poetry will ever “find its public,” not really. But that doesn’t mean the effort isn’t worth making.

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Hi David!
      Great thoughts here… It’s always wise to check one’s expectations. In a previous draft of this blog, I’d written, “Poetry will never be ‘Titanium.’” Because you’re right!
      (Not that any of us wants poetry to be Titanium)
      (but if you do, I don’t blame you; that song’s b.a.)

      My goal here was to describe what poets can learn from pop music; not to suggest that we can compete with it! :) It’s a great teacher, given its appreciation of the public, its habits of innovation, and perhaps especially its work ethic with regard to outreach.

      And I of course wanted to call poets out on their complaints re: poetry’s waning cultural influence… Poets who won’t work for a readership have little business complaining about a lack of one. (And they certainly have little business criticizing the public’s lack of interest.)

      However, as you note, pop music IS a privileged artform right now. Poetry won’t be Fun.
      (the band, you guys)

      But as you also mentioned, it’s capable of far more than we’ve attempted… There’s a lot that can happen with a knowledgable reach-out.

      Thanks David!

      –tg

    • isaacplautus says:

      Whitman and Dickinson were not popular, but Tennyson was. And all three are among the greatest. Granted there’s a lot of bad verse from the Victorian era. But what era is this not true of? There were many admirable and necessary qualities to Modernism. But one of its unfortunate legacies has been that in casting off rhyme and meter it also cast off some of the melodic appeal which makes popular poetry possible. I remember being in a creative writing class where the professor read aloud a Swinburne ballad. One student complained that poems like that are “sing songy”. To which the professor said “don’t you like songs?” A valid point I think. Not that poetry should ever be forced back into rhyme and meter restrictions. As Whitman said, the poet makes the meter, the meter doesn’t make the poet. But I do think poets can learn a lot from the musical qualities of Tennyson, Swinburne, Kipling, A.E. Housman.

  9. Pingback: Why Poetry Can’t Find its Public | Ploughshares – Joshua Keiter

  10. god damn
    god damn
    god damn
    that was funny and exciting.
    but god damn it, I hate pop music! Couldn’t you have found a better metaphor?

    and god damn it,
    I don’t know, there is something wrong with poetry. I write poetry, but even I can’t stand to read what passes for poetry these day. Well, some it really is bad, but others… so much hot air, it puts blow dryers to shame, so much avant garde bull shit, even the savant has developed a raw spot from all the head scratching. Are complete sentences really that old-fashioned?

    My heart lives in the hermit crab’s empty shell, but it still wants to connect. Damn you, heart. Must you feel so much? all the time?

    Can poetry survive the image macro? Can poetry compete with Beyonce’s bouncy knolls?

    Please say yes. please read my poems. I can get better; I promise.

    • Tasha Golden says:

      This comment wins so many points. LOVE IT

      oh the bouncy knolls

      fabulous

      I’m not sure anything can compete with those, but–

      I often hate pop music too, so the good news for all of us is that we don’t have to like it to learn something from it. Poetry doesn’t have to BECOME pop music – just snag what it’s doing well, and appropriate it at will.

      Maybe pop music’s that sweaty substitute teacher in high school who smelled vaguely of eggs and later became embroiled in horrifying scandals but who nevertheless managed, during your teacher’s absence, to explain how to do that one geometry thing that you could never do before.

  11. Sam Jack says:

    One problem with the analogy here is that poetry, unlike pop music, is not disposable. I’m not saying that all pop music IS disposable, or that all pop music listeners ignore the history of the form. But my teenage sister listens to pop music, and she doesn’t give two hoots about the ancient history of the genres and forms. She just digs whatever is on the radio. Now, find me even one poetry fan of whom that’s true. Someone who just reads the latest Timothy Donnelly and Joyelle McSweeney and Anne Carson, and ignores all the old stuff.

    Maybe there are a few out there, but for the most part the situation is the reverse of pop music: casual fans of pop listen to the new stuff, whatever’s on the radio; and casual fans of poetry read the old (good) stuff, your Frost and Dickinson and Shakespeare and Whitman, and throw in Kahlil Gibran.

    Do we want to somehow change things so that casual fans read the contemporaries instead of the classics? Even if we could… I don’t find the level of communication that’s possible in a pop song all that satisfactory. Stuff like Michael Robbins’ Alien vs. Predator, and maybe Flarf, can work without any context–but that stuff amuses me for an hour or two, it doesn’t do what I’m really looking for poetry to DO.

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Hello Sam,
      Some great thoughts here – and you bring up an interesting point re: a difference between casual fans of pop music and poetry. This is great and should engender more conversation; thank you!

      But I would caution any of my readers to note the difference between learning from pop music and *becoming* it… While positing that poetry can learn quite a lot from pop music, I’m not suggesting that poetry should become pop music, try to “compete” with it, or attempt to more thoroughly imitate it down to its last nasty attribute. (god help us!) :)

      (As a sidenote, as much as pop music may often be dispose-able, simplistic, inartistic, etc, it still has to WORK to get its material to the public. The fact that we hear/see pop music everywhere is constant evidence that people are working their asses off to get it there…So our estimations of the *quality* of that artwork are ultimately irrelevant to a conversation about what we can learn from pop’s (successful) efforts to connect with listeners.)

      It strikes me that the difference you mention between casual readers of poetry and casual listeners of pop music may have something to do with what’s immediately on the cultural conversational table. When people think of music, they often think of what they’ve heard recently (or a lot) on the radio, youtube, TV, Spotify, a film screen, etc. If earlier music were as immediately hear-able/accessible as pop – (and I mean hear-able and accessible WITHOUT the requirement of an already-existing interest!) – there may be a great deal more people listening and loving pop-formative, mid-20th century works. (For example, sales of old/former hits often skyrocket when the song is remixed, featured in a new movie, or re-tracked by a new artist)

      Similarly, the poetry that’s most-often available, discussed, written about (in widely-read publications), performed, recited, etc in the public sphere is older work such as (as you mentioned) Whitman, Tennyson, Dickinson, Gibran, Poe… I cannot and don’t wish to deny this, but by getting more imaginative/active re: how to connect our CURRENT work with the public sphere, I think we can alter this situation to some extent. Will a contemporary poet be as widely-read as Whitman? I’m not sure it matters. But we should get our hands dirty finding out where it can go, and whom it can reach.
      And to that end, we can take some cues from pop music – its innovation, work ethic, etc.

      Thanks again Sam!

  12. Leigh Stein says:

    I loved this post! I want to kiss you.

    I aim to write popular poetry. My favorite compliments have come from people who confide they’ve always hated poetry until they heard me read, or read my book.

    I have a project in which I watch reality TV shows and create poems from the dialogue: http://leighstein.tumblr.com/search/bachelorette

    For the release of my poetry collection, I collaborated with Jorge Colombo, a New Yorker cover artist, on this animated trailer: http://vimeo.com/melvillehouse/dispatch-from-the-future-book-trailer

    Other work I can recommend:
    http://poemswhileyouwait.tumblr.com/ (typewritten poetry on demand in public places)

    Poet, cartoonist, comedian Sommer Browning (@vagtalk): http://www.birdsllc.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=85%3Aeither-way-im-celebrating&catid=35%3Abooks&Itemid=18

    Melissa Broder’s poetry & aphoristic tweets (@melissabroder)

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Hello Leigh,
      oh the kisses!

      thanks for reading & responding —

      transforming someone’s opinion of poetry – that IS quite a compliment; so fantastic that your work is reaching out.

      And thanks for these fabulous links!

  13. Jim says:

    I enjoyed this. My view is that poetry and song used to be porous to each other: that is to say a poem could be sung and a song could be recited as a poem. The Confucian classic, ‘The Book of Odes’, a collection that is read as poetry, consists mostly of song lyrics. In the west, many forms have their roots in song; song as the Sonnet (Italian: Sonetto or ‘little song’), the Villanelle, and the Ballad (obviously). The most significant form in Japan, the Tanka, was originally called ‘Uta’, which means ‘song’.
    For some strange reason, poets in the early 20th century distanced themselves from popular song, or from song at all. And in doing so they self-alienated themselves from their audience and became a kind of enclave. Being an enclave isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are enclaves of people who like bonsai or bread making or quilting or certain types of singing. Still, this shift away from popular song is something new for poetry and is a marked change. I see it especially in the free verse aversion to rhyme. Popular song has gone right on rhyming without any hint of finding that problematic. In contrast, free verse poets actually work to avoid rhyme. More than anything this avoidance of rhyme is what alienates modern free verse poetry from a larger public; at least I see it that way.
    Thanks,
    Jim

  14. Murphy says:

    …if I missed this point, forgive me, but…

    pop music has a reputation for being accessible. It doesn’t have a reputation that’s a hundred and twenty years old for being difficult and obscure, like poetry does, at least in America. I’ve taught poetry at all levels for almost a decade and all but a handful of my students had already written poetry off based on, like, two Robert Frost poems they read in high school.

    Most people don’t listen to experimental pop. Most people don’t go see experimental art. Most people don’t read poetry because it’s “difficult.” I think poets want a wider audience, but we’re not going to Katy Perry ourselves to get it, and it’s really hard to swim against the current of uninformed opinion that poetry is too obscure to bother with.

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Hi Murphy,
      Thanks for your feedback!
      I do think you missed the point a bit – but it’s been a common mistake with this particular topic, and I totally get it.

      The above post ends with a list of questions, which get at the heart/purpose of the comparison of these two genres: Regardless of what any of us thinks of pop music, these Q’s are relevant to poets. They’ll push us beyond our myth, beyond our comfortable smallness.

      And for ways in which poetry DOES reach people – (the unlikeliest of people!) – please see the links in #6 (political, social, therapeutic). These are just a few significant scenarios in which poetry’s kicking ass.
      It can; it does! :)

      Poetry won’t be “Titanium,” but it can be much more than it is.
      But we have to work at it.
      And we have to throw out the excuses that keep us small, safe, nestled.

      In an earlier comment, I said:

      “I would caution any of my readers to note the difference between learning from pop music and *becoming* it… While positing that poetry can learn quite a lot from pop music, I’m not suggesting that poetry should become pop music, try to “compete” with it, or attempt to more thoroughly imitate it down to its last nasty attribute. (god help us!)”

      I don’t want poetry to Katy Perry itself; :) …I want poetry to LEARN: from pop music’s appreciation of the public, its work ethic, its innovation, its self-trust… the numbered list above.

      Thanks so much Murphy! And thank you for the work you do as a teacher –
      Here’s to the continued hearing/seeing/absorbing/loving of poetry in your classrooms.
      Take care!

  15. Pingback: This Week's Top Ten Poetic Picks | Tweetspeak PoetryTweetspeak Poetry

  16. Fleur says:

    Thank you for this blog and all the comments. I give a great sigh of relief as I realise I am not alone! I am in south africa and oh boy is it hard to ‘get out’ there. All the great intiatives I hear about are mostly overseas from me. I have started doing voicenotes of my poetry when my cousin told me my voice is soothing and when listening she said she feels like she is there with me in my poem. I distribute my poems via voicenotes on my blackberry. I attend churches and get invited by pastors or evangelists to recite a poem before the sermon or at motivational talks. I must encourage poets all over the world, I was scared at first as when someone heard a poet would be there they automatically yawned. But once they heard, they couldn’t get enough! We are the ones that need to kick the stigma attached to poetry out the window and reach the public. I send emails too with my poetry. I really want to record an album with backtrack music for my poetry and I will. I am getting there. Goodluck everyone! Keep poetry alive!

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Hi Fleur,
      Thanks for reading & commenting!

      I love this:

      “But once they heard, they couldn’t get enough! ”

      – This gets at the heart of what I think is possible for poetry: that if we put it where people can find it, it just might resonate.

      Thanks for sharing your story Fleur; keep us updated!

  17. Andy Kalan says:

    For far too long the poetry community has kept its eyes merely on itself. I think with all forms of expression there must be a certain level of accessibility from which a general audience can connect with it, otherwise, what is really the point of creating it in the first place? It is like a tree falling in a forest. It happened but no one was there to experience it, rendering the action meaningless. I think poetry attempts to concoct a sort of elitism that comes across as pretentious as if you need a doctorate in English to decipher and understand the nuances of a work. But the truth is nobody wants to hang out with the snobby, tweed-patched pseudo-intellectual of some ivory tower. They want someone who is like them. Now I realize that poetry as “popular” will never come to be merely because of this stereotype but we can at least do ourselves a favor and appear to be real.

    http://andykalan.wordpress.com/

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Hi Andy,
      Some great thoughts – Thx for reading & sharing!

      Your thoughts re: elitism are shared by many, so it’s encouraging & interesting to see a lot of younger poets working to get their words beyond expected/charted/predetermined channels.

      On the other hand, as my new Twitter friend Matthew has articulated, poets shouldn’t feel that they have to write super-clear, accessible poetry as a means of finding a readership!
      (FYI I don’t think this is what you’re saying, but in case it’s useful to the conversation as a whole…) :)

      For example, I think there IS a place for poetry whose work/purpose is to defy expectations rather than create pleasure in the listener. Unfortunately, this is often the most isolated/elitist type of poetry, because it’s not “easily accessible,” and thus finds a readership only within itself. BUT! I’m crazy enough to think that even conceptual, obscure, and experimental poetry can have a wider readership, if these poets are willing to share their work beyond each other… And if perhaps they’re willing to offer some direction (in non-poetry venues) as to how their work’s intended to be “read,” the immersive experience of it, the political implications of it, etc.
      (We often forget that we had to be taught to see/feel/recognize/allow these reading possibilities, so it may be a bit unfair to withhold them from the public.)

      Okay, so there was that.
      Had to give props to my experimental/conceptual poet friends.
      It happened in the middle of my reply to you.
      Darn — Apologies ! :)

      But back to your comment – I too think we can poke at the stereotype. Here’s to works that are heard and seen.

      Thanks again Andy!

      –tg

  18. Gary Norris says:

    I am so sick of the notion that poetry needs to find a market in order to survive, in order to be justified, needs to become popular in the sense that pop music is popular, in the sense that it sells. Poetry persists because it’s amoral–not-directed–regarding market productions and represents the work of a poet in discourse with poetry, prosody, poets, and readers. Readers are not consumers who have been market disciplined. Recall Olson’s discussion about the physics of the voice, the visceral relation between poet and reader, in Projective Verse. Think of Waldman’s vow to poetry. Poetry must be undisciplined. We do not need a capitalist aesthetics for poetry. “I LIKE POP MUSIC” is meaningless. “I LIKE POETRY” doesn’t mean on purchases it. Readers participate in poetry, which is not a market mechanism. Poetry is not distributable merely via sales of books as commodities. Poetry distributes its self and via other means. (We could have the same discussion about the elitist notion that academia protects poetry because it’s related to the fetishization of the book that, in capitalist culture debases the work of the poet as merely labor for the production of a commodity and the persistence of the work is whether or not it’s on a library shelf or store shelf.)

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Hi Gary,
      You make some fine points here, and I think your response is a common one for poets who’ve encountered this post. So it’s important to clarify a few things!

      1. Wanting poetry to have an audience is not the same thing has needing an audience to *validate* poetry.
      It is precisely because I believe in poetry’s *existing* value and validity that I find working for an audience worthwhile.

      2. Wanting poetry to have an audience is not the same as wanting poetry to be sold or consumed. Arcing the conversation into the realm of capitalism and consumption is an easy way to avoid the true point of this post and its conversation, which is the question: Where all can poetry go? What all can it do that we haven’t explored yet? Making money via poetry isn’t going to happen for any of us, so “business” and “consumption” are neither one on the table here… unless “reading a poem” = “consuming it.”

      3. Learning from pop music does not require one to mimic it, compete with it, or aspire to its (often low) level of (“)artistic(“) quality. Learning from it just means learning from it. Take what it does well, and appropriate it at will.

      4. I caution against a simplistic idea of pop music. While applying all kinds of lofty/noble notions to poetry (as if our craft is the most noble), poets often assert that all pop musicians follow formulas and capitalist mandates in order to sell songs. This is quite often true, but it is far from *always* true. Some of what we hear even on Top 40 radio is actually the result of innovation and risk-taking…of doing what was right for a musician as an artisan, with NO CLUE as to whether it would sell. That it sold is a fortunate bonus: the musician’s ideal. (I’m not saying this is the usual for Top 40! just that it should be acknowledged.)

      This is why disarming The Myth is so important to me: We cannot keep insisting that public reception = suspect artistry. Such a supposition is offensive to the many artists who are successful as a result of pursuing personal craft & taking great risks. It’s also embarrassing to poets, who are often protecting our egos. (If we can’t achieve a readership, we’d rather say it’s because we “have too much artistic integrity to sell out” than admit to ourselves that it’s because we’re not as innovative, driven, talented, and/or disciplined as the poets who DO get read.)

      More below! Thanks Gary! :)

  19. Gary Norris says:

    Really, for a writer who claims to be interested in the market, you’re incredibly uncritical about the production of popular pop music and have completely ignored a useful (I’d say necessary) critique of labor. Most importantly, you ignore that pop music isn’t successful merely because it wants to be. It’s produced and exploited in a way you would never insist poetry be. I don’t know if this argument is supposed to be twee, funny, cute, appealing, a joke, representing a fanciful whim that will ultimately go nowhere, but I do know that it’s highly abstracted from the realities of poetry and its active and innovative discourse communities that are, in fact, thriving and successful. Nothing is, though, when compared to how many singles One Direction or Ke$ha can sell. So, you have a point there.

    Poetry doesn’t need a business model. Poetry isn’t capitalist–an economic model that presents an opportunity for entrepreneur poets to distribute verse within a market populated by consumers hungry to exchange cash for engaging products (poems). It’s poetry’s universality that is its barrier to pop music style market success. Pop music is not universal. It’s a replicable form without substance that permits it to be whatever it must be to be exchangeable for cash. Your pleasure in it is not comparable to the pleasure in poetry.

    Popular pop music must cater to an conspicuous consumer base. It must appear universal, though, as a product every one must have because it is THE NEW THING. But it’s always the old thing. It borrows, samples, and steals to be common. Poetry is always already common. Anybody can do it. The myth of pop music is that only the producer can do it.

    Perhaps the critique you’re going for is one that examines the futile academic aesthete wallowing in elite privilege about their lonely perch. And I respect that. Bataille wrote about alienated solitude as inauthentic. And I agree. The sad plight of the ignored academic MFA and PhD is rather pathetic and illustrates an alienated isolation of the kind you describe in this post: from the popular composition of the masses as consumers. In other words, nobody is buying the books and there aren’t enough teaching jobs for all the creative writing graduates. The books aren’t even stocked in stores; they’ve become CV stuffers. There’s no demand.

    This is alienation the result of looking for recognition in all the wrong places. To be solitary is not to be alienated. (Though I’d be lying if I claimed to always enjoy being alone. However, there are plenty of lonely, rich, popular, pop stars. Back to alienation, then.) Unless you are a composed consumer without a place to buy a thing you want. And then, I guess, I could see the argument from the poet as producer of books perspective. Nevertheless, I’d argue we should reject the market specifically because it’s ignores the thing we so carefully attend to, Poetry, for attention to a business model.

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Hello again,
      I’m glad you’ve posted your concerns here; thanks!
      I’m not sure what all you’re looking for from a critique of labor, but had that been the point of this blog post, I could have hit you a home run. Perhaps soon? :)

      You seem to oppose the suggestion that poetry be a market success or be treated as a business… but that’s a suggestion no one has made here. You seem to have made my post state that poetry should compete with pop music, sell like pop music, make itself into a business or commodity like pop music… But if you read it, the blog actually states (and implies) none of these things.
      In fact, the post is very clear about the few things I believe poets can learn from pop music (#1-7). None of these things is in opposition to the points you’ve made in your comments.

      Here are a few things re: your concerns!

      1. The critique you mention in your 4th paragraph IS the target audience for this post… In my previous blog posts, I’ve addressed the need for poetry to reach more creatively beyond academia. Books as CV stuffers: Yes! YES! – I think you and I could share a fabulous vent fest about this. Perhaps we should. ;)

      2. You mention that pop music HAS to cater to a conspicuous customer base, but this is unfortunately an over-simplification which considers only top-40 radio (top 40 generally does cater to this base!) and other easily-demonize-able examples of production & exploitation. Such over-simplification fails to recognize the enormous swath of what is considered “pop music” (“pop” doesn’t always = “Top 40″ or “team-manufactured”)…
      For ex, there are plenty of artists who take great artistic risks – who do completely new/Other work that quite unpredictably ends up resonating with the wide world. (Recent examples: Bon Iver, Iron & Wine, Gotye’s single).

      More importantly, there are TONS of pop artists whose work is successful enough to earn them a good living, but you won’t hear them on Top 40. They’re making their art and working their asses off to put it where you might find it… Folks like Over the Rhine, Great Lake Swimmers, Vienna Teng, Josh Ritter, Peter Bradley Adams… the list goes on.
      In other words, pop music encompasses a wide range of deeply devoted, deeply literate, deeply artistic songwriters. It’s an offense to their hard work to chalk up the public’s reception to it as the inevitable result of a consumer-driven/marketed/formulated process.
      We can learn from these artists – crafts(wo)men who aren’t ashamed to want an audience, or to work for one. They’re not scared that obtaining an audience will affect their artistic integrity. They’ve never bought that myth.

      3. You mention poetry’s barriers to market-style success, but I never mentioned or implied this type of success. Many poets read the words “pop music” and immediately conjure images of capitalism, consumerism, commodity, etc… Oh the horrors!
      But really, we can all take my post at face value. I’m truly only saying what I’m saying: Poets can learn Things 1-7 from pop music.
      Those 7 things.

      To understand this better, check out the questions at the end of the post. These are the culmination of the blog post, but they’ve been largely ignored by commenters! (Or — Perhaps we have less imagination than I thought? Can we only imagine obscurity & isolation VS. business-models & capitalism?! Oh no!) :)

      I’m talking about something much more organic. Here’s a good example:
      If I write a poem that in some way mentions or implies domestic violence, perhaps I could try to publish that poem in, say, The Southern Review – where only other poets will ever read it (because those are typically the only people who read poetry journals).
      OR… I could ask myself, “Where all could this poem go?” and then get innovative. I could think for myself, for my own art, for my own times, for my own potential. In that case:

      Perhaps that poem could go in a newsletter from a women’s shelter. Maybe it could go in an editorial. Maybe it could be posted on an organization website that raises awareness for domestic violence, or be read at a local fundraiser. These are just ideas off the top of my head late at night in a blog comment, so don’t hold me to them! :) But seriously – any of these could be significant, mutually productive ways for art to intersect with public life. Would these get me CV cred? money? No. But (and you and I agree on this) – that’s not the point!

      The point is to put poems where people will find them: People who aren’t already looking for them, expecting them. The point is to WORK to allow poetry to enter a (any!) public conversation.
      Pop music works to insert itself into public conversation; we can do it too – in our own way, however we determine is best.
      No capitalism required. No business required.
      Just a will to see poetry connect, a will to imagine and innovate, and a will to work for it.

      It sounds like you HAVE this will, which is inspiring! It also sounds like you’ve seen the fruits of it… and that you know of others like yourself. THIS ROCKS.
      Unfortunately, poets in academia-land aren’t well-enough acquainted with poets such as yourself, or with their efforts. So if you don’t mind, please link us to your works, & to relevant others’!

      As you can see in the comments on my 1st blog, lots of poets are SO ready for poetry to get beyond universities (and CVs) and into the public sphere.
      http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/why-are-readings-so-awkward/

      Thanks again Gary! Take care!

  20. Stuart Strum says:

    These are certainly valid points about insularity and self-absorption endemic among poets. But there are two great obstacles that also limit poetry’s vitality and accessibility. Many of the finest writers in the medium these days are academic poets who produce accessible yet stimulating work (Alan Shapiro and Rodney Jones come to mind). But the outlet for their work is mainly university presses and boutique literary journals, certainly not venues for expansive audiences. Worse, literary academia is caught in a corrosive dynamic encouraged by the spreading rot of administrative hierarchies hellbent on copying the worst aspects of corporate management (including bloated executive compensation). Deans provide funding based on head counts and degrees granted. So even the best writers produce newly minted MFAs far beyond the demand. Acquiring the degree in poetry is like buying a lottery ticket that costs $40,000 and takes two years to purchase. The hapless “winner” in this game of chance gets a part time job as an adjunct with no job security and an income that merely supplements whatever one can come by as a bartender or house painter.

    At the other end of the spectrum are the amateur poets. Aside from being innumerable, a vast majority of them are not in the least bit dissuaded by lack of talent, ignorance of language, pedestrian subject matter, or a sense of rhythm reminiscent of an overloaded electric motor. At hermetically sealed rooms in public libraries and rec centers across the country, small bands meet to read and encourage each other. Typically there is a ringleader, a kindly, deluded sort who functions as master of ceremonies and group facilitator. This individual often has a self-given title such as “Tom the Poet” or “Tom the World Poet” (among the males, the name Tom seems to predominate). I don’t think I need to go any further into the prospects that this faction has for reaching a broader public, regardless of tactics they may be willing to consider.

    I will close by noting the exception to this sad state of affairs is the poetry scene in New Orleans. There, most readings are held in bars, invited performers are carefully selected by knowledgeable and insightful organizers, and the crowd is more than willing to turn its attention elsewhere (the nearest beverage or acquaintance) if the work doesn’t warrant their consideration.

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Hi Stuart!
      Thanks for reading & participating –
      Your comment is hilarious, and articulate –
      I’m imagining many heads nodding.

      (I also imagine that while we all think we know of a “Poet Tom,” none of us thinks we’re him!) lol

      Note: I’m currently fighting the urge to turn parts of your 1st paragraph into a rant poem.
      #doit

      Also:
      Jealous of New Orleans – !
      Any specific poets, orgs, or series we should check out?

      You may be interested in my 1st blog post, which addressed the abysmal state of most Poetry Readings…
      http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/why-are-readings-so-awkward/

      Thanks again Stuart; take care!

      • Stuart Strum says:

        Tasha,

        You’re quite welcome. My favorite readings in New Orleans are 17 Poets at the Goldmine Saloon in the French Quarter on Thursday evenings and the Everette Maddox reading at the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street Sunday afternoons. Both take breaks for various festivals, heat waves, and Saints games.

        Luminaries who may appear include Andrei Codrescu or Julie Kane.

        Enjoy!

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  22. As the medium changes, so do the poets who wish to harness certain aspects of it, in a positive, creative way. I would argue that for haiku, specifically, Twitter has been a rejuvenating force – perhaps it is the brevity imposed by the 140 char limit… but I think it is more than that. There is also the connection to “haiga,” traditionally, line ink drawings that give context to haiku. There are a few main thread that have emerged, including neoclassical forms and more specific, topical ones, such as Peyton Price’s “Suburban Haiku” (@Suburbanhaiku). Yes, there are many poets that don’t think outside the box, and limit themselves to self-referential glad-handing (where their tweets contain little original content in lieu of re-tweeting others in an attempt to be congratulated for supporting others – it’s an endless loop). Then there is hope most evident in poets that create original content and network well outside of their art-form, and outside of their comfort zones as well.
    The aspect of building a community should go hand in hand with creating meaningful poetry, but shouldn’t supersede it, lest the writing, as seen in Twitter haiku, becomes simply self-serving journal entries (crowd-sourced therapy). Most poets on Twitter don’t expect to be published, or even strive towards providing a wider audience for their work. It is primarily, in the words of a wise man, “the sound of one hand clapping.”

    - John in Canada,
    @haiku_tweeting

  23. M. Kei says:

    Your observations about pop music are useful, but I can’t help thinking you’re describing academic poetry. (Tenure!? you have a job that lets you do poetry while getting paid!?) There’s lots of poetries out there that aren’t academic, whether they be spoken word, tanka, cowboy poetry, or whatever. They’re written, read, and performed by people who aren’t part of the academy.

    I’m a tanka poet and editor myself, and I find that literate people generally like tanka once they’ve read some good stuff. As the editor of one of the major journals in my field, I made the change from obscure to well-known in my field by posting back issues free online. Only a small number of people will actually pay for poetry, but thousands of them read the free issues. What does the poet want? Sales, or readership? The answer to this question will determine how s/he goes about marketing their poetry.

    My next piece of technology to master is ebooks. I’ve seen how well ebooks are selling for niche markets and small presses, and I think the ebook will provide an affordable way to deliver poetry books that people might actually pay for. They’ll be a lot cheaper than print books. On the other hand, there’s resistance to ebooks because they don’t give the physical sensation that the printed book does. The gorgeous covers and complex internal layout of the journal I publish won’t translate to ebook, but there’s no reason why anthologies and collections can’t move to ebook. Ebook readers are ravenous readers — I dearly love hooking an ebook reader as a fan because they will buy absolutely everything I’ve published.

    When talking about performance, don’t forget the audible book. Some ebook readers will convert text to speech, and this has been a boon not just for the blind but for hipsters like my daughter who like to listen to books while doing other things. She downloads audible books to her phone and listens while working on web design or studying for school. My blind colleagues are eating up ebooks at a rate of more than 100 a year because finally they get to pick what books to read instead of waiting for a tiny number to come out on tape or in Braille.

    So when you think about audience, it’s out there. There’s a voracious readership consuming all sorts of printed things. The question is how to put poetry in front of them that they might like to read — and I’m not sure (as you point out) — that many poets actually know, or even care, how to speak to an audience. Does the average poet think they have anything to say to the average person? If not, then no, they don’t! (Why do they even bother with poetry then?) The thing pop musicians have mastered is how to provide poems that the audience can relate to.

    • Tasha Golden says:

      Hello M.,
      You’ve offered great insights –
      Fabulous for poets to be thinking about ebooks, as well as other means of allowing their texts to engage with an online public. Kevin (another commenter, above) has just released a work with video & etc, strictly online I believe. Excellent ideas –
      And yes, the audio book! This reminds me of comments on my initial blog (re: awkward poetry readings), in which some poets described having actors read their works FOR them at public readings, and the amazing results of this effort. A similar thing for audiobooks is worth more conversation!

      And you nailed it – my primary audience for this blog was academia: poets who teach (or who have taught) or are in grad school (or have been). To be clear, I’ve met some of the best poets, including very open-minded, brilliantly-respectful-of-the-public poets,via my poetic intersections with academia. But my experience has also been that it can be very closed off…
      In this community, The Myth often reigns, and unfortunately, the types of poetry you describe (as well as slam poetry and spoken word) are often ignored or disdained – which strikes me as an immense missed opportunity. (The last question in the blog hints at the possibilities inherent in paying more (and more respectful) attention to these forms, to the reasons they’re resonating, to how they’re “getting out,” etc etc).
      In answer to your parenthetical question, I don’t personally get paid for writing poetry, and I’m not on my way to tenure! I’ve made my living as a songwriter, which may be as near as one can get? So I count myself quite lucky. Although, I won’t hesitate to say that pop music has plenty to learn from poetry. #preachit

      Thanks for reading & commenting, M – Take care!

      –tg

      • Bryan says:

        This is an incredibly simple question to answer. In order for poetry to be successful (on it’s own terms) it has to do what poetry does best. Each version of poetry has to play to it’s strengths, and graciously decline each invitation to a losing -battle with other forms of expression that are “at the top of their game,” and always will be. Identify the how, when, and where of each type of poetry format. Then champion those unique virtues to demographics that are likely to respond. Forget about the rabbit versus turtle race. (Music/poetry race.) Just focus on what makes the best turtle, the best turtle. :)

        • Tasha Golden says:

          Hello Bryan,
          This is great advice! I’ve said this several times in the above comments, but the goal of this post was never for poetry to compete with music, but rather to learn from it. Pop music has been very good at “championing its unique virtues to demographics that are likely to respond.” Since this is exactly what too few poets do, I want poets to glean what we can from a genre that’s connecting well. Not so that we can steal some of its ground, but so that we can fully own (and enjoy, and share) our own.

          Thanks so much Bryan; take care!

          –tg

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  25. J.D. Smith says:

    Listening to popular music as a child led me to poetry.

    Much poetry has lost of the classical advice that poetry (and any art) should delight as well as instruct. The sundering of the sublime and the the beautiful in the last couple of centuries has proven highly problematic.

    Easier said than done, of course.

    I will close with a link to one of my own efforts to bring the two imperatives together:
    http://www.reduxlitjournal.com/2013/02/70-requiem-by-jd-smith.html

  26. Ellyn Maybe says:

    I loved your piece in Ploughshares! Sooo wise and wonderful. I am in a duet poetry/music project and we are trying to get what we do out there to an eclectic variety of places! ellynandrobbie.com
    Here’s an example of what we’re doing!
    http://ellynrobbie.bandcamp.com/track/kingdoms-in-a-city-lost-to-time
    We’re recording a full length album at Jackson Browne’s studio beginning Monday!

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  28. Marc Zegans says:

    Tasha,

    what an incredible contribution to the question of poetry and audience. I can’t remember the last time I’ve read such a stimulating piece and discussion on the topic, and the questions you raise are wonderful. I had the good fortune to have deeper roots in the blues than in the academy, so when I became a working poet, it simply made sense for me to work in bars, to work with musicans, to organize vaudevilles and burlesques, to perform in experimental spaces, to release albums and to distribute via social media and audience mailing lists, and also to work with the fine folks at the Poetry Brothel, as fine a piece of immersive poetic theatre as ever there was.

    In my other life as a creative development advisor who’s extensively with folks on both sides of the pop-art divide, and with folks who straddle it brilliantly, I’ve come to the clear view that writers, artists, pop musicians, poets have two simple obligations: 1) to create work with integrity, and 2) to help the work find its natural audience, whether that be one person or millions. Pandering is as unattractive in popular music as it is in poetry, and great popular music, enduring popular music, works on its own terms, as does great poetry. Fearfully avoiding the task of promoting one’s work and discovering, is what I recently termed “dysfunctional diffidence.” Hewing to these two principles provides a fruitful middle path between these extremes. I recently wrote a short e-book that poets interested in growing audience without selling out might find appealing, http://www.amazon.com/Intentional-Practice-Finding-Audience-ebook/dp/B008MQANA6 Give it a look and let me know what you think. Thanks again for a wonderful piece and for stimulating such rich discussion.

  29. Elizabeth says:

    I have been thinking about the same thing. All writers want to be read and poets are no different.

  30. Elizabeth says:

    I am writing “humourous” poems that are relevant to our culture. I’ve gotten a lot more responses to these poems and this chapbook. One editor called the poems quirky and poignant and funny. People who don’t usually read poetry have liked them. It is tough. You write to share your experience of the human condition with yourself and others but if what you write doesn’t resonate to another person, well than what? Do you stay in a small almost invisible niche? I think it is about voice and if your voice doesn’t resonate to readers there is not much you can do. My two cents.

    wonder

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