Literary Criticism

Using Autobiographical Elements In Poetry

Poets have often used a gripping personal drama as an organizing structure within which to write poetry of great feeling and significance. Sometimes this poetry exceeds its status as a remarkable object in the currency of fine expression or the searing radiance of a cause célèbre, and goes to dwell within the classic space of enduring art, where the exquisiteness of the expression is equal to the striking content of the biographical moment. In contemporary poetry we see many such autobiographical works, e.g., a dramatic history of the illness of a young child (Naomi Guttman’s Wet Apples, White Blood), the final stages of the life of a cancer-afflicted parent (Meghan O’Rourke’s Once), the sudden death of a husband (Susan Howe’s That This), or the breakup of a long-established marriage (Sharon’s Olds’ Stag’s Leap). A book of poetry may virtually track the entire arc of a love relationship, with all of its ups and downs, as the basis for revelation and self-discovery (Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Casual Perfect), or it can serve as a means of revealing another side of a well-known tragic love story (Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters). Love, drugs, social acceptance, professional advancement, and money may be the obstacles that lead the poet to the brink of madness which becomes reflected in exciting and original forms of poetry (John Berryman’s Dream Songs and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel). Racial discrimination and social injustice may be pathetically rendered as an everyday tragedy (Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler and Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead).
Literary historians refer to Robert Lowell’s Life Studies as the post-modern breakthrough that led to “confessional poetry,” as his intensely autobiographical poems were subsequently called. These days the “confessional poetry” label is applied guardedly, because most poets use their life stories in some fashion; yet “confessions” are hardly made. The baring of the soul is a complicated matter, and even where verifiable autobiographical elements support poetic content and form, poets will admit that the people (including the poet’s own persona) and events portrayed, together with all attendant attitudes and emotions, are necessarily fictionalized by numerous means (e.g., hyperbole, caricature, sarcasm, irony, simile, and metaphor) in order to create the “art” that becomes the main raison d’etre for the work. Autobiographical elements, whether “true” or fictionalized, become vital to a disinterested, neutral reader when they are revealed by those poetic devices that work effectively within the given context of the poem.
It is important, though, for a reader to have a place in the poem, an emotional and intellectual vantage point that the reader shares with the poet. Without that place in the poem, the reader stands outside a fortress. Good writing is the act of giving the reader a unique place in the poem; good reading is finding the doorway in. Some might mistake this for accessibility. Accessibility is a fictional construct, a temporal notion of the naive reader that eventually yields to more informed readings. If the poet has made a place for the reader, no matter how difficult the poem seems, it will be accessible. That place may be something that is only felt, and not translatable in the same way that it is impossible to translate the precise feeling a painting conveys. Making a place for the reader is a matter of skill, not mental disposition. Without a place for the reader, the poem feels cold and dead.

I
Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (1867) might justly be called the first “modern” poem for the way it uses a rhyming form of free verse steeped in historical and literary references to reflect the existential crisis wrought by modernity. According to accepted biographical sources the action of the poem took place in June 1851 while Arnold was honeymooning in Dover with Frances Lucy (“Flu”) Wightman. This domestic setting, however, takes on a much broader significance where the couples’ commitment to be “true” is made the bulwark of resistance against a cultural heritage of war, social upheaval and moral relativity.
When I first read “Dover Beach” I was baffled by its reputation as one of the great poems of English literature. The development of the poem seemed uneven, the groom, by turns, morose and fervid, and his plea (to be “true”) presumptive. The ending was especially difficult as it failed to provide an adequate resolution; the poem was left hanging in midair, with the bride unresponsive and the reader wanting more. The prosody of the poem was flawless, but that was all. Hence, my connection to the poem went begging. Why did Arnold want to memorialize his honeymoon with a declaration that this life “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/ Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain”? Why marry if life was like this? To address these questions, we need to understand the Victorian age and Arnold’s place in it.
Life in Victorian England was marked by radical social changes wrought by the industrial revolution, whose economy was gradually replacing the one that ran on war and colonization. The mercantile class rose and with it the modern metropolis. Despite this, Arnold (1822-1888) remained very much a part of the old world economy. Arnold’s family was not wealthy and his education was earned on scholarship. He was schooled at Rugby, where his father was a very prominent head master, and at Balliol College in Oxford. Neither soldier, lawyer, doctor, nor businessman, Arnold’s whole professional life was spent in the educational field, initially as an examiner in charge of evaluating schools and their teaching staff, then as a teacher himself, retracing his steps at Rugby and at Oxford, where in relatively short order he was named Professor of Poetry in 1857.
Arnold lived the first part of his life largely relying upon the good will of his benefactors. His marriage to Flu Wightman, the daughter of a Judge of the Queens Court, was delayed by her father until Arnold had secured a position that would enable him to support a family. When he eventually married at the age of 29 the event represented the apparent end of a long road to self-sufficiency. Yet nothing was assured; world order hung in a precarious balance in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1848 and social unrest was everywhere, particularly in England.
Although Arnold was indoctrinated in the Christian faith by his liberal Anglican father, a Broad Churchman, he was both witness and participant in the ferment of many competing religious, philosophical and scientific movements. Among these were the dogmatic Oxford Movement that attempted to steer the Anglican Church back to Roman Catholicism; the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill; the British Empiricism of David Hume; the arguments of Charles Darwin in favor of evolutionary versus biblical accounts of the origins of life; and the challenging readings of the bible by the atheist Charles Bradlaugh. The combination of these influences became the white noise of a constant assault against the clarity of his father’s earlier teachings. Consequently, Arnold came to read the bible as mere metaphor and question the very foundations of his faith. This transformation bled into his poetry, which is characteristically moody and disconsolate, often mourning the loss of faith while at the same time explicitly or implicitly admitting that faith was largely a false promise, as he wrote in “Stanzas of the Grand Chartreuse”:

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born . . .

In the opening lines of “Dover Beach” the poet invites his bride to the window to enjoy the felicitous moonlight and surface calm of the English Channel. The white cliffs of Dover and the lights off Calais are visible by varying degrees, the air is sweet, and the scene is invested with a tender quality wholly befitting a wedding night. For Arnold, however, the Channel tacitly raised the specter of England’s historical conflicts with France and other European nations that by extension implicated the recent revolutions of 1848. While these events are not named in the poem, the poet’s anxiety cannot be wholly attributed to the brief textual references to Christianity’s retreat and Sophoclean drama. We are forced to go beyond the text for other plausible reasons that underlie the desperation in his bleak characterization of the world in the poem’s final stanza. We must assume, therefore, that the poem, having been written against a backdrop of war, social unrest and religion’s decline, reflects the poet’s sublimated fear, and accordingly accounts for how a calm sea is soon transformed to one with a “grating roar” that sounds an “eternal note of sadness.”[1] In contrast to the “pathetic fallacy” of nineteenth century Romantic literature, where nature was factually portrayed as reflecting the emotions of its main characters (e.g., a character in emotional turmoil was depicted in the midst of a thunderstorm) , Arnold’s subjective feelings in “Dover Beach” are clearly psychological projections and not intended to describe the actual sounds of the sea. Psychological projection was frequently used by the French symbolists, and later adopted by modern poets like T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane, as a way of describing the poet’s sensibility in the thrall of modernity. However, Arnold was among the first English poets to employ this modern technique.
Arnold’s allusions to the Aegean Sea and the work of Sophocles are shorthand for a historical and literary heritage that would, if cited in full, flesh out his discourse on the downward spiral of Western Civilization. The reference to Sophocles, Arnold’s favorite Greek poet, is especially revealing, for Ajax, Antigone, The Women of Trachis and the Oedipus plays constitute a fictional saga of domestic tragedies that had political ramifications in the realms in which they were set. Although Sophocles’s fictional representations of the “ebb and flow of human misery” lack the authority of recorded historical fact, we willingly suspend belief because human tragedies and family feuds are well-known features of life in any age. Indeed, the thrust of the poem’s argument is largely sustained by its allusive and emotional nature. The temporal movement of the poem, from Victorian England back to the Greeks, creates the illusion of broad historical evidence for its argument; its spatial movement, from the honeymoon suite to the larger world of discord, seeks to expand its significance in the same way that reference to the work of Sophocles does.
The initial figurations of the Channel’s troubled waters are overlayed upon the third stanza’s corresponding reference to the “Sea of Faith,” whose own “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” indicts the world’s widening spiritual void. The “Sea of Faith” is described as having once encircled the earth as “the folds of a bright gold girdle furled” — a metonym for Christianity that trades on the definition of “girdle” as a piece of liturgical attire worn by certain Christian sects.[2] Christianity’s primary instruction is to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and this rule served salutary purposes by fostering (1) the common cause of brotherhood through all forms of social organization and (2) the personal bonds of marriage and family. The spiritual component of social life began to erode with the gradual dominance of science and rationalism. As man’s fear of divine retribution faded, moral restraint came undone (as the “girdle” in the poem). Therefore, Arnold’s train of thought is self-evident: Our tragic continuity with ancient history is only progressing for the worse and the trouble is now everywhere.
As a last recourse, Arnold pleads with his new wife,

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seem
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

(emphasis added). This surprising, dramatic plea to be “true” – a quality that Arnold implicitly distinguishes from customary proclamations of love – coupled with the bleakest portrait of the world one could imagine, makes Arnold unlike any groom in the history of poetry. What has brought the couple to the brink is found in the concluding lines:

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

In the traditional reading, these lines not only marshal the lessons of history and literature referenced in the poem, but also tacitly invoke the explosive events of the time, when Victorian England was beset by religious conflict and social unrest and the whole of Europe seemed on the verge of complete upheaval in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1848.[3] Accordingly, given the many battlefronts on which mankind was besieged, Arnold pleads for his bride to be “true.” What this true-ness might be is not clear. It could be a condition which amounts to a resistance to lust, avarice, pride and the rest of the seven deadly sins that compose the tragic flaws of Western Civilization. But only Arnold–and presumably his bride–know for sure.
The traditional commentary, thus, seems too facile and wholly unequal to the intensity of Arnold’s emotions. After all, Arnold could have made these observations at any time and occasion, but we are given to understand that he chose his honeymoon suite as the setting in which to dramatically unburden himself. One cannot ignore the oddity of this intimate disclosure, “And we are here as on a darkling plain. . . .” Something more personal is at stake, where the honeymoon suite has become a “darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight.” The battle metaphor is too particular and conclusive here to merely serve as a reflection on general world unrest. If there is indeed, “neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude,” our wayward drift toward the abyss is assured and its consequences attach to even the most intimate of relationships, tainting them insidiously and so wreaking a form of corruption from which there is no return. There, on his honeymoon, Arnold saw that most vital connection between human beings itself embattled. Yet, it is his urgent plea–“Ah, love, let us be true/ To one another!–that sets the poem’s course on a higher plane, as if any doubts or misgivings about the couples’ choices will be purged with a vow that is spiritually superior to the ceremonial one that rote tradition affords. Arnold’s poem strikes a dramatic balance, with the joyless, loveless and faithless world on one side, and the “true” lovers on the other. We really don’t have to know what this true-ness is, just as we don’t have to know precisely how “beauty is truth, truth beauty” (in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), for it is the multiple levels of conflict that are the key to the poem’s exquisite pathos. It is there that the reader finds a special place in the poem from which to appreciate the reasons why Arnold invoked the misery of family tragedy, world discord and the loss of faith and took his stand at the last bastion, which is, ironically, a conflicted sense of what it truly means to be in a committed relationship in the modern world. If being “true” were a sure thing, his plea would have been unnecessary. Instead, this central irony explains why the poem swells to a dramatic crescendo that notably lacks the resolving chord of his bride’s response, as if it is something we are also asked to take on fragile faith.
Arnold has made his “honeymoon poem” much more than one would expect for the occasion. “Dover Beach” has lyric beauty, passion, drama, historical reference, spiritual and social comment, as well as formal originality (as the first major free verse poem composed in the language),[4] all of which explains its special place of honor in English poetry.

II
Among their many accomplishments, the American poets of the 20th century can be said to have nearly perfected the autobiographical poem. One of my favorites is the “The Portrait” by Stanley Kunitz, a former U.S. poet laureate. In Kunitz’s work one often finds the bottom of the deepest well in the human psyche. Shortly after his death in 2006 at the age of 100, poet Robert Pinsky wrote a tribute to Kunitz in Slate Magazine, quoting “The Portrait,” an excellent example of the deceptive simplicity and penetrating intelligence of Kunitz’s masterful style.

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.
She locked his name
in her deepest cabinet
and would not let him out,
though I could hear him thumping.
When I came down from the attic
with the pastel portrait in my hand
of a long-lipped stranger
with a brave moustache
and deep brown level eyes,
she ripped it into shreds
without a single word
and slapped me hard.
In my sixty-fourth year
I can feel my cheek
still burning.

The poet, now in late middle-age, is reporting the most significant events of his childhood. With the passage of time and the opportunity to deliberate, Kunitz has been able to distill the story to its essential particulars so that they may be dispassionately, even clinically examined from different perspectives. Indeed, with its highly organized structure and unsentimental tone, ironic, witty and urbane, the poem seems more like the kind of reportage one does in the company of a therapist, where the poet seeks some comforting resolution to the psychological violence that remains “still burning.”
Although a parent’s suicide is among the most willful and brutal rejections of life, love and family, more important for the poet is his mother’s failure to forgive his father for the act (the poem begins, “My mother never forgave my father”). We hear ample reasons for this. The suicide was committed in a “public park” — adding public humiliation to the mix — and occurred during “spring,” a time usually associated with the excited anticipation of seasonal and spiritual rebirth, and here, more significantly, the birth of a child, to wit, the poet himself. The poet as expectant humonculus, “waiting to be born,” displays all the whimsy of a 64-year old wit telling the story, as if his embryonic self was already endowed with a consciousness of his place in the world. In these first few lines, one phrase sticks out, “especially at such an awkward time.” This was, in fact, the worst possible time, and thus the ironic use of “awkward,” freighted with sarcasm, gains emotional distance from the shadow that the tragedy casts over the poem. In this introduction, the poet signals the first degree of separation between mother and son’s respective viewpoints, as we realize that the poem is not interested in the reasons underlying the suicide, but rather in an examination of its impact upon the relationship between mother and son.
The mother’s silence about the father is figuratively set forth: “She locked his name/in her deepest cabinet/ and would not let him out.” But the father is nevertheless an audible ghostly presence, almost mischievously portrayed in the words, “though I could hear him thumping.” This humorous aside suggests the poet’s sympathy for the father, as if the latter were an unwitting captive in the “deepest cabinet” of the woman’s heart. Our own empathic response expands as Kunitz recounts the facts surrounding the discovery of his father’s portrait in the attic. The painting is a “pastel” (i.e., with soft colors), and the father’s figure is “a long-lipped stranger / with a brave moustache / and deep brown level eyes.” The words, “brave,” “deep” and “level” are not the kind of traits we associate with someone who committed suicide in the fashion depicted. We ask: Who painted this portrait; could it have been the mother or the father himself? Was the figure in the portrait a flattering illusion that masked a weak and troubled character underneath, or, if accurate, were there ameliorating facts that would serve as a basis to forgive the father for drastically taking his own life? Is the poet’s description of the father “thumping” a way of figuratively redeeming the father from the mother’s control? These provocative questions, implicit in the poem, are deliberately left unanswered.
Instead, the mother violently reacts to the painting’s discovery. While most of the events are relayed with the gloss of the poet’s witty intelligence, we feel real drama in the nakedness of these three lines: “she ripped it into shreds / without a single word / and slapped me hard.” Her gesture is the only time she “speaks” to the reader without the poet’s varnish, and it serves here as passion’s response to the instinctive urge to conceal and forget the violences of life, which in the end cannot be smothered and so are unleashed in the form of another violence, which is the slap that he remembers “still burning” all his life. Is the poet naive about life, as the mother’s rebuke would suggest, her rage so hot that she tears the portrait “into shreds,” or is forgiveness in order? Most psychological research on crime victims (as the family of suicides are) endorses forgiveness as a necessary means of overcoming trauma and moving on with one’s life. This prevailing view (which I distinguish from the right of the government to punish wrong) argues against a life of bitterness and a desire for vengeance that invariably raises the specter of the perpetrator and the crime, which is suffered more grievously and many more times in the mind. The poet is, thus, confronted with two questions: whether he can forgive his father for the initial trauma — and there are many suggestions in the poem that he has — and whether he can forgive his mother for the secondary pain inflicted upon him for failing to find peace after his father’s suicide. We can say that the son has also become a captive in his mother’s “deepest cabinet,” the place of her secrets. The “slap” has a lasting impression, a reminder of the mother’s harbored bitterness, which causes a lingering psychological pain in the poet. It is significant that Kunitz wrote from the perspective of his 64-year old self, much older than his mother was at the time of the incident, so that the bones of the psychological dilemma could be unearthed in a balanced manner, allowing the reader – who is hearing it all for the first time – to experience the persisting unease and conflict felt by the poet since childhood.
The poem does everything a great autobiographical poem should do, combining vivid storytelling laden with psychological overtones and lingering questions about the way we should live our lives. All this compressed into such a short poem is astonishing. This is the kind of dilemma that was Robert Frost’s bread and butter, and Kunitz is his equal here.

III
I especially admire the autobiographical poems of Seamus Heaney. “Singing School” (in North), particularly the second section, “A Constable Calls,” relates an episode in Heaney’s young life where a British tax agent had come to audit the financial records of his father, a farmer. Heaney, as a child , enters the scene in medias res, outside the house, as if returning from school, where the first thing we see is the agent’s ominously described bicycle poised with “the cowl of a mud-splasher” like a symbol of the Grim Reaper, exploiting the contrast with his father’s profession, another kind of reaper

His bicycle stood at the window-sill,
the rubber cowl of a mud-splasher
Skirting the front mudguard,
Its fat black handlegrips

Heating in sunlight, the “spud”
Of the dynamo gleaming and cocked back
The pedal treads hanging relieved
Of the boot of the law.”

And then Heaney follows with this description of the agent, who is already at work:

His cap was upside down
On the floor, next his chair.
The line of its pressure ran like a bevel
In his slightly sweating hair.

He had unstrapped
The heavy ledger, and my father
Was making tillage returns
In acres, roods, and perches.

Arithmetic and fear.
I sat staring at the polished holster
With its buttoned flap, the braid cord
Looped into the revolver butt.

The power of the law becomes synthesized, by way of synecdoche and metonymy, into “the boot of the law,” the cap’s “line of pressure,” a “heavy ledger,” a “polished holster” and the “braid cord” fixed on the “revolver butt.” These symbols of punishment terrify the boy, as much as the confounding thought that arithmetic, that genial school subject, could be associated with fear. The agent questions the father (“Any other root crops?/Mangolds? Marrowstems? Anything like that?), and when the father answers “No”, we hear Heaney’s guilty conscience whispering (“But was there not a line/Of turnips where the seed ran out.//In the potato field?”), as he imagines the repercussions of his father’s lie in visions of imprisonment in “the black hole in the barracks,” an analogue to the eternal punishment of Hell. When the agent departs:

He stood up, shifted the baton-case

Further round on his belt,
Closed the doomsday book,
Fitted his cap back with two hands,
And looked at me as he said goodbye.

A shadow bobbed in the window.
He was snapping the carrier spring
Over the ledger. His boot pushed off
And the bicycle ticked, ticked, ticked.

For the poet, this was not just an ordinary tax audit, but one that prefigured death and the final accounting. The ledger is a “doomsday book,” not just a real estate record, and here it is the means by which the agent assumes the role of the Grim Reaper, whose “shadow” is seen “ in the window” while the departing bicycle sounds like the terminal ticking clock of mortality. The poem’s mortal focus is not on the father (even as it might prefigure his death), but on Heaney himself, as the agent “looked at me as he said goodbye.”
Though autobiographical elements may seem particularly interesting to you because they are about your life, in poetry the magic is always in the telling. Saying something sincerely about your lover, your child, or your parent may make the Hallmark card kind of poetry we all know, but original expression, wit, daring and a little depth go a long way to attract the serious reader who is looking for a place in your poem.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Footnote

[1] In these lines, Matthew Arnold clearly recalls William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798”:
For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.

But Arnold sees the world has sadly progressed beyond Wordsworth philosophical liberalism and become harsh and “grating,” devoid of the qualities that once were the cherished treasure of humanity.

[2] Arnold’s Christian liberalism was initially guided by his father, a liberal Protestant, and later by Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose religious views trekked from High Anglican to Tractarian (as part of the Oxford Movement) to Roman Catholic. Arnold himself became increasingly less tolerant of Church dogma, but his writing is imbued with Christian principles that were besieged be the progress of modernity and rationalism. Even with the faith, Victorian England’s Anglican community was confronted with much factionalism, be it Low Church, Liberal, Tractarian, High Church or Utilitarian. Arnold’s reflected his personal disaffection with religion in poems like “Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse,” “Empedocles on Etna,” “The Buried Life” and “Lines Written in Kensington Gardens.”

[3] Historical research discloses that “Dover Beach” was not composed on Arnold’s wedding night in 1851, and that initial drafts of the poem were made as early as 1849. The poem was completed and published much later, in 1867.

[4] Stefan Collini, Matthew Arnold, A Critical Portrait (Clarendon Press 1994), p.41. Collini makes this claim for “Dover Beach,” presumably based upon its composition date, notwithstanding the fact that Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1955) is generally credited as the first published work of free verse poetry in the English language.

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5 comments on “Using Autobiographical Elements In Poetry

  1. I often find it surprising that I feel a connection with poems about lives or events which seem very different to mine. I agree with your suggestion that this is because some poets are able to write truthfully, in a profound and startling way, about deeply rooted feelings shared by many of us. Thanks for an interesting post.

    • Josephine, in my essay, “Using Autobiographical Elements in Poetry,” I’ve expanded upon the idea I have that a reader must have a special place in the poem from which to appreciate the subtleties of the poet’s work. I believe great writing makes this special place for the reader, whereas confused or unfocused writing makes it difficult for the reader. Sometimes the idea is to keep the reader off balance. But finally, at some point, the writer must make a place where the reader can experience both the conflict and harmony of the poem. Some people might mistake this for accessibility. Accessibility is really a fantasy, a temporal notion of the naive reader that often yields to more informed readings. If the poet has made a place for the reader, no matter how difficult the poem seems, it will be accessible. Making a place for the reader is a matter of skill, not mental disposition. Without a place, the poem feels dead or dying. Does this resonate with you?

      • mmm, yes, it does, and I love your idea of the poet making a space for the reader but what about the reader as an active, creator and owner of meaning? You seem to imply (I might be misinterpreting you) that there can only be one ‘correct’ reading of a poem. Also, the reader you have in mind seems passive and compliant. I’ll need to read your essay again but, apologies, too tired just now. – J

  2. Just the opposite. Making space for the reader is the way the writer assures that the reader can interact with the poem. My essay on Michael Robbins goes into an extended discussion of how the reader is a necessary component of adding content to the poem. Even the essay above relates that it is not representational “meaning” that needs to be fixed [Against Interpretation is all about a rejection of specific meaning and all about seeking the emotional nexus with a work of art], but that a place in the poem for the reader is a way for the reader to access the full emotional and intellectual freight of the poem.

  3. goooooooooooooooooooddddddddddddddddd

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