Dana Gioia

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Dana Gioia in 2005

Michael Dana Gioia (born December 24, 1950) is an American poet and critic. He has been chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts since January 2003.





The Daily Horoscope (1986)

  • How many voices have escaped you until now,
    the venting furnace, the floorboards underfoot,
    the steady accusations of the clock
    numbering the minutes no one will mark.
    The terrible clarity this moment brings,
    the useless insight, the unbroken dark.

The Gods of Winter (1991)

  • Money. You don't know where it's been,
    but you put it where your mouth is.
    And it talks.
  • The music that of common speech
    but slanted so that each detail
    sounds unexpected as a sharp
    inserted in a simple scale.
  • Twisting through the thorn-thick underbrush,
    scratched and exhausted, one turns suddenly
    to find an unexpected waterfall,
    not half a mile from the nearest road,
    a spot so hard to reach that no one comes —
    a hiding place, a shrine for dragonflies
    and nesting jays, a sign that there is still
    one piece of property that won't be owned.

Interrogations at Noon (2001)

  • Yet the stones remain less real to those who cannot
    name them, or read the mute syllables graven in silica.
    To see a red stone is less than seeing it as jasper —
    metamorphic quartz, cousin to the flint the Kiowa
    carved as arrowheads. To name is to know and remember.
  • This is a prayer, inchoate and unfinished,
    for you, my love, my loss, my lesion,
    a rosary of words to count out time's
    illusions, all the minutes, hours, days
    the calendar compounds as if the past
    existed somewhere — like an inheritance
    still waiting to be claimed.
  • We are not as we were. Death has been our pentecost.
    • "Pentecost"
  • My blessed California, you are so wise.
    You render death abstract, efficient, clean.
    Your afterlife is only real estate,
    And in his kingdom Death must stay unseen.
    • "A California Requiem"
  • "We lived in places that we never knew.
    We could not name the birds perched on our sill,
    Or see the trees we cut down for our view.
    What we possessed we always chose to kill.

    "We claimed the earth but did not hear her claim,
    And when we died, they laid us on her breast,
    But she refuses us — until we earn
    Forgiveness from the lives we dispossessed."

    • "A California Requiem"
  • "Teach us the names of what we have destroyed."
    • "A California Requiem"
  • This is not work
    but a kind of workmanship.
    First out of paper, then from the body.
    To provoke thought into form,
    molded according to a measure.
    I think of a tailor
    who is his own fabric.
    • "Homage to Valerio Magrelli" (After the Italian of Valerio Magrelli), vi
  • What we conceal
    Is always more than what we dare confide.
    Think of the letters that we write our dead.


  • Audiences and critics acknowledge that a play or concerto gains force in great rendition. A good play may overcome bad staging. A great concerto may survive a poor soloist. But it is naturally assumed that a more accomplished performance intensifies the impact of the work. The play's text or concerto's score does not change, but the right actors and musicians help realize its full potential. Among contemporary literary critics, however, one never encounters this notion in regard to books and printing. To recognize the sensual contributions of the physical elements of a book is somehow assumed to demean the spiritual purity of the text. To notice the book itself smacks of philistinism, and to make distinctions based on paper, binding, and typography brings accusations of elitism or decadence.
  • What does an instinctively popular poet do in contemporary America, where serious poetry is no longer a popular art? The public whose values and sensibility he celebrates is unaware of his existence. Indeed, even if they were aware of his poetry, they would feel no need to approach it. Cut off from his proper audience, this poet feels little sympathy with the specialized minority readership that now sustains poetry either as a highly sophisticated verbal game or secular religion. His sensibility shows little similarity to theirs except for the common interest in poetry. And so the popular poet usually leads a marginal existence in literary life. His fellow poets look on him as an anomaly or an anachronism. Reviewers find him eminently unnewsworthy. Publishers see little prestige attached to printing his work. Critics, who have been trained to celebrate complexity, consider him an amiable simpleton.
  • Paradoxically, the simpler poetry is, the more difficult it becomes for a critic to discuss intelligently. Trained to explicate, the critic often loses the ability to evaluate literature outside the critical act. A work is good only in proportion to the richness and complexity of interpretations it provokes.
    • "The Anonymity of the Regional Poet: Ted Kooser," from Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture (1992)
  • The time has probably come to admit that the notion of an avant-garde is no longer useful in discussing contemporary literature. How can there be an avant-garde without a mainstream? Avant-garde de quoi? one must ask. Establishment institutions — universities, museums, foundations, commercial galleries, even the state — have embraced the idea of experimental art for so long that the avant-garde is now a safely domesticated concept, just another traditional style.
    • "Notes Toward a New Bohemia," transcript of a 1993 talk at the Poet's House, New York City, published in Poetry Flash (November/December 1993) and revised for publication in Grantmakers in the Arts (Spring 1994)
  • Like the intricately rational web of theology woven around the irrational mysteries of faith, the sober explanations of institutions for hoarding literary relics seem like elegant post-factum justifications for what is essentially a sense of sacred awe. An institution of learning seeks significant manuscripts because they possess qualities that scholarship cannot entirely reproduce — an authentic, holistic connection with the great writers of the past. It is not the intellectual content of the manuscript that is important but its material presence — ink spots, tobacco stains, pinworm holes, and foxing included.
    • "The Magical Value of Manuscripts," The Hudson Review (Spring 1996); later published as an introduction to The Hand of the Poet: Poems and Papers in Manuscript, ed. Rodney Phillips (1997)
  • In America, the term younger poet is applied with chivalric liberality. It can be used to describe anyone not yet collecting a Social Security pension.
  • America's first great surrealist artists were named Walt Disney, Max Fleischer, and Tex Avery. Their artistic medium was cartoon animation, though we must remember that cartoons of this era were seen not only by children but by a mixed audience, consisting mainly of adults. These men took — quite literally — the principles of surrealism and turned them into mass entertainment. As Fleischer's scantily clad Betty Boop ran through a phantasmagoric underground landscape to the driving beat of Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher," moviegoers of the Thirties saw surrealist dream-logic unfold more powerfully than in any experimental poem created in Greenwich Village. To this day the greatest moment of North American surrealism is probably Dumbo's drunken nightmare choreographed to the demonic oom-pah-pah of "Pink Elephants on Parade" from Walt Disney's 1941 movie. When the surrealist style was so quickly assimilated into mass-media comedy, what avant-garde poet could consider it sufficiently chic?
    • "James Tate and American Surrealism," BBC Radio 3, published in Denver Quarterly (Fall 1998)
  • Raw artistic talent is abundant. What is truly rare are the cultural circumstances, attitudes, and institutions to develop and perfect it. Few American cities have ever managed to foster a vibrant literary milieu of international significance — perhaps only Boston, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. American literature has most often been an affair of isolated genius or small coterie.
  • In an age of global standardization, regional voices also remind both writer and reader that no life is lived generically. If the purpose of literature is truly, as the ancients insisted, to instruct and delight, then what better to understand and enjoy than the here and the now?
    • "Fallen Western Star," Denver Quarterly (Fall 1998)
  • To speak from a particular place and time is not provincialism but part of a writer’s identity.
  • Old empires always appeal to modern poets more than new ones.
  • Like gladiator games and pyramid building, opera has always been a gloriously money-losing proposition. It is the most extravagant of arts, requiring the constant support of kings, dictators, plutocrats, and town councils. Box-office success is no solution. San Francisco Opera loses money at every sold-out performance. Sane business practices simply don’t suffice. Composer Richard Wagner’s patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, was the ideal operatic angel — very rich and certifiably insane. Mel Brooks’ shyster producer Max Bialystock need not have mounted Springtime for Hitler to score a surefire loss. Aida would have done just fine.
  • I can’t think of better ways to learn than through pleasure and curiosity. I guess the reason these two qualities play so small a role in formal education is that they are so subjective and individual. Curiosity and delight can’t be institutionalized.

    Childhood and adolescence form our sensibilities. By the time I arrived in college, I had already developed a deep suspicion of all theories of art that did not originate in pleasure.

Can Poetry Matter? (1991)

First published in The Atlantic Monthly (May 1991) and later in Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture (1992) Source text here

  • The engines that have driven poetry's institutional success — the explosion of academic writing programs, the proliferation of subsidized magazines and presses, the emergence of a creative-writing career track, and the migration of American literary culture to the university — have unwittingly contributed to its disappearance from public view.
  • Most editors run poems and poetry reviews the way a prosperous Montana rancher might keep a few buffalo around — not to eat the endangered creatures but to display them for tradition's sake.
  • Even if great poetry continues to be written, it has retreated from the center of literary life. Though supported by a loyal coterie, poetry has lost the confidence that it speaks to and for the general culture.
  • Forty years ago, when Dylan Thomas read, he spent half the program reciting other poets' work. Hardly a self-effacing man, he was nevertheless humble before his art. Today most readings are celebrations less of poetry than of the author's ego. No wonder the audience for such events usually consists entirely of poets, would-be poets, and friends of the author.
  • Several dozen journals now exist that print only verse. They don't publish literary reviews, just page after page of freshly minted poems. The heart sinks to see so many poems crammed so tightly together, like downcast immigrants in steerage. One can easily miss a radiant poem amid the many lackluster ones. It takes tremendous effort to read these small magazines with openness and attention. Few people bother, generally not even the magazines' contributors. The indifference to poetry in the mass media has created a monster of the opposite kind — journals that love poetry not wisely but too well.
  • Poets serious about making careers in institutions understand that the criteria for success are primarily quantitative. They must publish as much as possible as quickly as possible. The slow maturation of genuine creativity looks like laziness to a committee. Wallace Stevens was forty-three when his first book appeared. Robert Frost was thirty-nine. Today these sluggards would be unemployable.
  • As long as poets belonged to a broader class of artists and intellectuals, they centered their lives in urban bohemias, where they maintained a distrustful independence from institutions. Once poets began moving into universities, they abandoned the working-class heterogeneity of Greenwich Village and North Beach for the professional homogeneity of academia.
  • In social terms the identification of poet with teacher is now complete. The first question one poet now asks another upon being introduced is "Where do you teach?" The problem is not that poets teach. The campus is not a bad place for a poet to work. It's just a bad place for all poets to work. Society suffers by losing the imagination and vitality that poets brought to public culture. Poetry suffers when literary standards are forced to conform with institutional ones.
  • The reviewers of fifty years ago knew that their primary loyalty must lie not with their fellow poets or publishers but with the reader. Consequently they reported their reactions with scrupulous honesty even when their opinions might lose them literary allies and writing assignments. In discussing new poetry they addressed a wide community of educated readers. Without talking down to their audience, they cultivated a public idiom. Prizing clarity and accessibility they avoided specialist jargon and pedantic displays of scholarship. They also tried, as serious intellectuals should but specialists often do not, to relate what was happening in poetry to social, political, and artistic trends. They charged modern poetry with cultural importance and made it the focal point of their intellectual discourse.
  • Poetry is the art of using words charged with their utmost meaning. A society whose intellectual leaders lose the skill to shape, appreciate, and understand the power of language will become the slaves of those who retain it — be they politicians, preachers, copywriters, or newscasters.
  • Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed. The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized. The pleasure of performance is what first attracts children to poetry, the sensual excitement of speaking and hearing the words of the poem. Performance was also the teaching technique that kept poetry vital for centuries. Maybe it also holds the key to poetry's future.
  • Society has already told us that poetry is dead. Let's build a funeral pyre out of the desiccated conventions piled around us and watch the ancient, spangle-feathered, unkillable phoenix rise from the ashes.
The Catholic Writer Today (2013)

First published in First Things (December 2013) text here and available in an expanded collector's edition from "Wiseblood Essays in Contemporary Culture" by Wiseblood Books (2014), which is also the source text.

  • "There is a special irony that this disappearance [of Catholic artists visibility despite Catholics constituting one-quarter of the US population] has occurred during a period when celebrating cultural diversity has become an explicit goal across the American arts. Some kinds of diversity are evidently more equal than others."
  • "Catholic writers tend to see humanity struggling in a fallen world. They combine a longing for grace and redemption with a deep sense of human imperfection and sin. Evil exists, but the physical world is not evil. Nature is sacramental, shimmering with signs of sacred things....Catholicism is also intrinsically communal, a notion that goes far beyond sitting at Mass with the local congregation, extending to a mystical sense of continuity between the living and the dead. Finally, there is a habit of spiritual self-scrutiny and moral examination of conscience" (10).
  • "If Catholic literature has a central theme, it is the difficult journey of the sinner toward redemption" (14).
  • "Sixty years ago Catholics played a prominent, prestigious, and irreplaceable part in American literary culture...They included established fiction writers--Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Walker Percy, J.F. Powers, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Horgan, Jack Kerouac, Julien Green, Pietro di Donato, Hisaye Yamamoto, Edwin O'Connor, Henry Morton Robinson, and Caroline Gordon. (Sociologist Father Andrew Greeley had yet to try his formidable hand at fiction.)...also science fiction and detective writers such as Anthony Boucher, Donald Westlake, August Delerth, and Walter Miller, Jr."...in American poetry...Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, Robert Fitzgerald, Kenneth Rexroth, John Berryman, Isabella Gardner, Phyllis McGinley, Claude McKay, Dunstan Thompson, John Frederick Nims, Brother Antoninus (William Everson), Thomas Merton, Josephine Jacobsen, and the Berrigan brothers, Ted and Daniel....There were even Catholic haiku poets, notably Raymond Roseliep and Nick Virgilio" (15-16).
  • "Between 1945 and 1965 Catholic novelists and poets received 11 Pulitzer Prizes and 5 National Book Awards (6 NBAs if one counts O'Connor's posthumously published Complete Stories in 1972)" (18).
  • "A New York leftist and an Alabama Pentecostal may not agree on much, but too often they share a dislike of Catholics" (22).
  • "If the soul of Roman Catholicism is to be found in partisan politics, then it's probably time to shutter up the chapel" (24).
  • “If Catholic Christianity does not offer a vision of existence that transcends the election cycle, if our redemption is social and our resurrection economic, then it’s time render everything up to Caesar.”
  • "The schism between Christianity and the arts has had two profound consequences, two vast impoverishments--one for the arts world, the other for the Church. First, for the arts world, the loss of a transcendent religious vision, a refined and rigorous sense of the sacred, the breaking and discarding of the two thousand years of Christian mythos, symbolism, and tradition has left contemporary American art spiritually diminished. The shallow novelty, the low-cost nihilism, and the vague and sentimental spiritual pretensions of so much contemporary art—in every medium—are the legacy of this schism, as well as the cynicism that pervades the arts world” (26).
  • "The great and present danger to American literature is the growing homogeneity of our writers, especially the younger generation. Often raised in several places in no specific cultural or religious community, educated with no deep connection to a region, history, or tradition, and now employed mostly in academia, the American writer is becoming as standardized as the American car--functional, streamlined, and increasingly interchangeable" (27).
  • "The retreat of the nation's largest cultural minority from literary discourse does not make art healthier. Instead, it weakens the dialectic of cultural development. It makes American literature less diverse, less vital, and less representative" (28).
  • “Dante and Hopkins, Mozart and Palestrina, Michelangelo and El Greco, Bramante and Gaudi, have brought more souls to God than all the preachers of Texas” (29).
  • “We necessarily bring the whole of our hairy and heavy humanity to worship” (29).
  • “Current Catholic worship often ignores the essential connection between truth and beauty, body and soul, at the center of the Catholic worldview. The Church requires that we be faithful, but must we also be deaf, dumb, and blind? I deserve to suffer for my sins, but must so much of that punishment take place in church?” (30).
  • “Two great poets are stronger than two thousand mediocrities” (31).
  • "The Catholic writer really needs only three things to succeed: faith, hope and ingenuity" (31).
  • "The Catholic writer understands the necessary relationship between truth and beauty, which is not mere social convention or cultural accident but an essential form of human knowledge--intuitive, holistic, and experiential. Art is a form of knowing--distinct and legitimate--rooted in feeling and delight--that discovers, in the words of Jacques Maritain, "The splendor of the secrets of being radiating into intelligence." (34).
  • “The writer needs good works—good literary ones” (33).
  • "It is time to renovate and reoccupy our own tradition" (35).
Poetry as Enchantment (2015)

First published in The Dark Horse (Summer 2015). Full text is available here

  • "When poetry loses its ability to enchant, it shrinks into what is just an elaborate form of argumentation. When verse casts its particular spell, it becomes the most evocative form of language".
  • "The second observation is that poetry is a universal human art. Despite post-modern theories of cultural relativism that assert there are no human universals, there exists a massive and compelling body of empirical data, collected and documented by anthropologists, linguists, and archeologists that demonstrates there is no human society, however isolated, that has not developed and employed poetry as a cultural practice. Most of this poetry, of course, has been oral poetry. Many of these cultures never developed writing. But the fact remains—and it is a demonstrable fact, not mere opinion—that every society has developed a special class of speech, shaped by apprehensible patterns of sound, namely, poetry" (9-10).
  • "Third and finally, poetry originated as a form of vocal music. It began as a performative and auditory medium, linked to music and dance and associated with civic ceremony, religious ritual, and magic. (The earliest poetry almost certainly served a shamanistic function.) Most aboriginal cultures did not distinguish poetry from song because the arts were so interrelated as to be porous. Nor did the classical Greek or Chinese cultures two or three millennia ago differentiate poetry from song" (10).
  • "In oral culture, there is no separation between the poet and the poem. The author is a performer who vocalizes the words. Creation and performance are inseparably linked. Without writing, a ‘text’ has no existence outside the auditory performance" (10).
  • "Pop music provides useful perspective on Plato’s association of poetry with madness. There was something dangerously irrational in poetry that worried the philosopher. It wasn’t the semantic content but the visceral power of the sound and rhythm. Poetry compellingly communicates feelings that lie beyond or beneath rational discourse. The physicality of poetic speech separates it from the conceptual language of philosophy" (12).
  • "But the amateur who reads poetry from love or curiosity does have at least one advantage over the trained specialist who reads it from professional obligation. Amateurs have not learned to shut off parts of their consciousness to focus on only the appropriate elements of a literary text. They respond to poems in the sloppy fullness of their humanity" (19).
  • "Life is experienced holistically with sensations pouring in through every physical and mental organ of perception. Art exists embodied in physical elements—especially meticulously calibrated aspects of sight and sound—which scholarly explication can illuminate but never fully replace. However conceptually incoherent and subjectively emotional, the amateur response to poetry comes closer to the larger human purposes of the art—which is to awaken, amplify, and refine the sense of being alive—than does critical commentary" (19).
  • "Literature has many uses, not all of which occur in a classroom" (20).
  • "The aim of poetry—in this primal and primary sense as enchantment—is to awaken us to a fuller sense of our own humanity in both its social and individual aspects. Poetry offers a way of understanding and expressing existence that is fundamentally different from conceptual thought" (22).
  • "Until quite recently poetry was taught badly—at least according to current academic standards. Poetry was used to teach grammar, elocution, and rhetoric. It was employed to convey history, both secular and sacred, often to instill patriotic sentiment and religious morality. Poetry was chanted in chorus at female academies. It was copied to teach cursive handwriting and calligraphy. It was memorized by wayward schoolboys as punishment. It was recited by children at public events and family gatherings. Being able to write verse was considered a social grace in both domestic and public life. Going to school meant becoming well versed." (24).
  • "For thousands of years, poetry was taught badly, and consequently it was immensely popular" (24).
  • "Teachers and writers share a responsibility to create the next generation of readers. We need to create and cultivate in our classrooms a dialectic of intellect and intuition, of mental attention and sensory engagement. In poetry, intellectual-ity without physicality becomes dull and barren, just as intuition untethered by intellect quickly becomes sloppy and subjective. We need to augment methodology with magic." (36).


  • I personally regret the shift in literary study from reading primary texts to reading critical and theoretical texts. The major problem today among students is that they simply have not read enough literature. Consequently they do not have the necessary background to take a critical attitude towards literary theory. One needs to test every abstraction against experience.
  • Poetry is not a branch of analytical philosophy. It is a primal, holistic kind of human communication. A poet needs innocence as much as knowledge, emotion as much as intelligence, vulnerability as much as rigor. A poet can become too smart for his or her own good and forget the childlike pleasures of sound and story, sense, and sensuality that poetry should provide. The challenge for a writer is to master the medium of poetry without losing that inner innocence.
    • "Paradigms Lost," interview with Gloria Brame, ELF: Eclectic Literary Forum (Spring 1995)
  • Tradition is not, as post-modernists maintain, a library or museum the artist plunders. It is the endless conversation between the living and the dead. Young artists enter into this conversation passionately — not merely intellectually, though study and analysis play a part. They live and breathe it. Tradition is not a public building. It is a love affair.
    • "Paradigms Lost," interview with Gloria Brame, ELF: Eclectic Literary Forum (Spring 1995)
  • Poetry is an art form that demands heightened attention and retention. It both invites and rewards more intense involvement than we normally give to other kinds of speech. Poetic technique, therefore, is never esoteric but eminently practical. It serves at least two purposes. First, it announces that a poem differs from other kinds of speech, that it requires the audience's special attention. A poem begins by attracting our attention through its sound, shape, typography, syntax, texture, or tone. Second, the technique maintains the audience's involvement. All poetic form is a way of keeping the audience's attention beyond what ordinary language requires. Meter, for example, creates a gentle trance state in the auditor. Since poetry is more intense, condensed, and expressive than ordinary language, it needs these techniques to carry the burden of its message.
    • "Paradigms Lost," interview with Gloria Brame, ELF: Eclectic Literary Forum (Spring 1995)
  • I want a poetry that can learn as much from popular culture as from serious culture. A poetry that seeks the pleasure and emotionality of the popular arts without losing the precision, concentration, and depth that characterize high art. I want a literature that addresses a diverse audience distinguished for its intelligence, curiosity, and imagination rather than its professional credentials. I want a poetry that risks speaking to the fullness of our humanity, to our emotions as well as to our intellect, to our senses as well as our imagination and intuition. Finally I hope for a more sensual and physical art — closer to music, film, and painting than to philosophy or literary theory. Contemporary American literary culture has privileged the mind over the body. The soul has become embarrassed by the senses. Responding to poetry has become an exercise mainly in interpretation and analysis. Although poetry contains some of the most complex and sophisticated perceptions ever written down, it remains an essentially physical art tied to our senses of sound and sight. Yet, contemporary literary criticism consistently ignores the sheer sensuality of poetry and devotes its considerable energy to abstracting it into pure intellectualization. Intelligence is an irreplaceable element of poetry, but it needs to be vividly embodied in the physicality of language. We must — as artists, critics, and teachers — reclaim the essential sensuality of poetry. The art does not belong to apes or angels, but to us. We deserve art that speaks to us as complete human beings. Why settle for anything less?
    • "Paradigms Lost," interview with Gloria Brame, ELF: Eclectic Literary Forum (Spring 1995)
  • I did not want my son remembered by uncontrolled howls of pain. My wife and I suffered more than I can express, but to make poems merely out of the agony would have been self-pitying and dishonest. My son had been my greatest joy. His birth had left me awe-struck and humble before life. He turned me from a son into a father — and allowed me to understand my own father clearly for the first time. If I mourned him, I also wanted to preserve the joyful mystery of his existence. The sorrow could not be adequately appreciated without also expressing the joy and wonder.
    • "Paradigms Lost," interview with Gloria Brame, ELF: Eclectic Literary Forum (Spring 1995)
  • Once an author finishes a poem, he becomes merely another reader. I may remember what I intended to put into a text, but what matters is what a reader actually finds there — which is usually something both more and less than the poet planned.
    • "Paradigms Lost," interview with Gloria Brame, ELF: Eclectic Literary Forum (Spring 1995)

Speeches and lectures

  • The marketplace does only one thing — it puts a price on everything.

    The role of culture, however, must go beyond economics. It is not focused on the price of things, but on their value. And, above all, culture should tell us what is beyond price, including what does not belong in the marketplace. A culture should also provide some cogent view of the good life beyond mass accumulation. In this respect, our culture is failing us.

  • The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a byproduct. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society.
    • Commencement speech, Stanford University (2007-06-17)
  • What is the defining difference between passive and active citizens? Curiously, it isn't income, geography, or even education. It depends on whether or not they read for pleasure and participate in the arts. These cultural activities seem to awaken a heightened sense of individual awareness and social responsibility.
    • Commencement speech, Stanford University (2007-06-17)
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