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Burt Kimmelman

George Oppen and Martin Heidegger:

The Philosophy and Poetry of Gelassenheit, and the Language of Faith

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George Oppen’s rendezvous with the work of Martin Heidegger in about 1950 (Nicholls 30)[1] and his progressively deepening relationship with this philosopher’s ideas and language nurtured his development as a poet, allowing Oppen to establish working principles that honored his fellow Objectivist poets yet set him apart from them, thus freeing him to lend definition to the rather nebulous concept of Objectivist poetics. Oppen’s third collection of poems, This In Which, fully establishes him not only as an Objectivist but also as a Heideggerian, and ushers in his subsequent prize-winning volume, Of Being Numerous. The great stature of this book notwithstanding, I would like to claim that This In Which is Oppen’s landmark book, or if not that then it is at least a rosetta stone that allows us to grasp his entire project, and accounting for Oppen’s reading of Heidegger allows for a deep understanding of what Oppen was up to at this point in his career and especially in this volume.


Oppen thought of This In Which (1965) as the middle book within a triadic statement[2] made up of The Materials (1962) and the later volume, Of Being Numerous (1968) (Nicholls 65). Most commentary sees Of Being Numerous as Oppen’s masterpiece,[3] and the worth of his subsequent poetry has been widely celebrated. Yet I would also bestow the mantle of greatness on the prior book and claim it as emblematic of Oppen’s work; it made the later collections possible, moreover, insofar as Oppen came to understand what poetry could be. I believe Heidegger was the crucial influence in this evolution — and I think Oppen believed this.


In this regard it is worth observing, in passing, that Oppen’s politics could not have been more diametrically opposed to Heidegger’s. At least for a period in his life (when he first read Heidegger’s work, during a politically enforced exile from the United States in Mexico), Oppen, a Jew, was what in America would have been called at that time a radical leftist,[4] while Heidegger, at least from the moment of Hitler’s ascendancy and throughout World War Two (and arguably thereafter), was an unapologetic Nazi.[5]


I think it is possible to understand Oppen as being capable of holding as separate questions of art, poetry, and aesthetics on the one hand, and questions of politics on the other hand, and one might find some significance in the fact that the period of Oppen’s deepest and most engaged political activity coincides with his silence as a poet after having published his first volume of poetry, Discrete Series, in 1934. I recall a quite tongue-in-cheek quip by Alfred Kazin who told of being asked why he had written so often about certain American authors who were deemed to have been anti-semites; Kazin replied, “If I were to refrain from writing about anti-semitic writers then I would be out of a job as a literary critic” (“Talk”). Moreover, what is now known of Heidegger’s life, especially as concerns his participation in the Nazi program, was likely not known to Oppen when he began to read Heidegger’s writings and thereafter.[6]


In Heidegger Oppen found a rich working-out of his instinctive ideas, proclivities, and perhaps even vocabulary. Oppen even proclaimed his life and Heidegger’s as being parallel, in a 1969 interview with L.S. Dembo, remarking that “[i]deas like Heidegger’s have been important to me for a long time, as early as the first poem in Discrete Series [1934]” (169), which Oppen suggests derives “from Heidegger’s Acceptance Speech [i.e., his speech accepting the Chair of Philosophy at Freiburg University] made in 1929, the year I was writing the poem [i.e., the first poem of the collection, which was written in 1929]. […] So I feel I have a natural sympathy with Heidegger […].” To be sure, Oppen says that the two men’s “statements are identical” (“George Oppen” 169). In effect, since he had not read Heidegger until much later, Oppen is being somewhat mystical about what he sees as their lives’ sympathetic trajectories. And, make no mistake about it, Heidegger was a poet, and a kind of theologian, and his writing does comport with Oppen’s endeavor — Oppen, who was the quintessential poet and who was able to articulate a poetics, mostly implied in his poetry, which understood the world in spiritual terms. What is extraordinary is that Oppen, an Objectivist, shows us how the empirical, specific and precise (such as was epitomized in Discrete Series), invites into his poems the depth and grandeur of the religious.


Let us consider the title poem of This in Which, “Psalm,” which communicates a sense of astonishment, awe, and perhaps a gratitude that Heidegger shares:


Veritas sequitur . . .

In the small beauty of the forest
The wild deer bedding down —
That they are there!

Their eyes
Effortless, the soft lips
Nuzzle and the alien small teeth
Tear at the grass

The roots of it
Dangle from their mouths
Scattering earth in the strange woods.
They who are there.

Their paths
Nibbled thru the fields, the leaves that shade them
Hang in the distances
Of sun

The small nouns
Crying faith
In this in which the wild deer
Startle, and stare out.
(NCP 99)


Astonishment is not a word that comes up in Oppen’s poetry, but the meaning of this word pervades it (cf. Nicholls 68-69). Oppen could easily have encountered it in Heidegger’s book What Is Philosophy, which Oppen read by 1963 (Nicholls 194-95), in which philosophy is conceived of as follows. “In astonishment we restrain ourselves (être en arrêt). We step back, as it were, from being, from the fact that it is as it is and not otherwise. And astonishment is not used up in this retreating from the Being of being, but, as this retreating and self-restraining, it is at the same time forcibly drawn to and, as it were, held fast by that from which it retreats. Thus astonishment is [a] disposition in which and for which the Being of being unfolds” (85).


What has to be understood is that the way in which Heidegger philosophized, the way in which he did philosophy, is not unlike the way in which Oppen did poetry. Looking back on his own method, Oppen comments in that 1969 interview, “I set myself again and again . . . just to record the fact, to saying that I enjoy life very much and defining my feeling by the word ‘curious’ or, as at the end of [the poem] ‘The Narrative’ [from This In Which], ‘joy’, joy in the fact that one confronts a thing so large, that one is a part of it. The sense of awe, I suppose [… ] (“George Oppen” 172-73; Chilton 102).


Quoting this passage, Randolph Chilton (probably the first person critically to link Oppen to Heidegger) writes that “[a]we in the face of the real and a willingness merely to confront the pure, absolute, inexplicable sense of realized existence without moving beyond to any philosophical conception of its meaning tie Oppen directly to the Heidegger who pursues [Being]” (102; my emphasis). Now, what Chilton says is quite right, but it needs some qualification. While Oppen acknowledges mystery in the world, it is not an inexplicability — as if the world should be deciphered; rather, before it, he experiences the sheer sense of wonder, one might even say the impulse to worship (cf. Nicholls 67). He engages the depth of the world’s authenticity, and beauty — which take the form of a tension between concealment and disclosure. The marvelous play of this tension installs Oppen as the philosophical poet and Heidegger as the poetic philosopher.


Oppen does not have to confront or explain experience, or for that matter philosophy, specifically the philosophy of Dasein or Being; instead, he practices poetry in the Heideggerian sense of that act, not unlike the way in which Heidegger practices philosophy, so that what Heidegger calls gelassenheit or releasement takes place, a condition explained succinctly in the acceptance speech when Heidegger maintains that “Releasement toward things and openness to the mystery belong together. They grant us the possibility of dwelling in the world in a totally different way. They promise us a new ground and foundation upon which we can stand and endure in the world of technology without being imperiled by it” (Discourse on Thinking 55).


Reading this passage, the ultimate lines from This In Which spring to mind, in the poem titled “World, World”: “The self is no mystery, the mystery is / That there is something for us to stand on. // We want to be here. // The act of being, the act of being / More than oneself” (NCP 159). In What Is Philosophy Heidegger says, “When we ask, ‘What is philosophy?’ then we are speaking about philosophy. By asking in this way we are obviously taking a stand above and, therefore, outside of philosophy. But the aim of our question is to enter into philosophy, to tarry in it, to conduct ourselves in a manner, that is, to ‘philosophize’. [… .] Philosophy seeks what being is, insofar as it is. Philosophy is en route to the Being of being” (21, 55). Heidegger, in other words, wants to stand within philosophy and within being.


If we were to perform a liberal reading of “Psalm,” which can be understood as an implicit statement of poetics, we would find what we may need to know about Oppen’s comprehension and practice. I take it as a poem about poetry, or at least about Oppen’s poetry, and I think it is the central text in his oeuvre. That the poem is an act of worship of the natural world is significant. It is no accident that the first poem in This In Which, titled “Technologies,” follows immediately upon the book’s opening epigraphs — the last one of which is from Heidegger who writes of “the arduous path of appearance.” Oppen ends the poem with the cleverly sweet epithet “Twig technologies” —


From a hawk’s
Nest as they say
The nest of such a bird

Must be, and continue
Therefore to talk about
Twig technologies”
(NCP 94)


 — as if the world could be united in its natural impulse that incorporates humanity’s drive toward technological knowledge containing the idea that humanity imposes its will upon the environment. The epigraph comes from An Introduction to Metaphysics (a book Oppen read carefully) where Heidegger explains the phrase as meaning “to take upon oneself being-there as a de-cision between being, nonbeing, and appearance” (113; Nicholls 64). In this book, and elsewhere too, Heidegger draws a basic distinction between the shaped world and the world simply before us, and thereby between knowledge and Knowledge. In the opening of his late essay “The Thing,” which Oppen owned (Nicholls 182, 190-93), Heidegger talks about how technologies (he mentions the radio, time-lapse photography in film, and jet planes) have collapsed all distances, and yet humankind may be further from the possibility of living life genuinely. “Man puts the longest distances behind him in the shortest time,” Heidegger notes.


He puts the greatest distances behind himself and thus puts everything before himself at the shortest range.


Yet the frantic abolition of all distances brings no nearness; for nearness does not consist in shortness of distance. (165).


Making reference to the atomic bomb Heidegger then asks, “[i]s not this merging of everything into the distanceless more unearthly than everything bursting apart?” (166). It is as if, for Heidegger, there might no longer be the possibility of dimension. In his essay “The Origin of the Work of Art” (which was bound with “The Thing”) there is a clear distinction being made between a piece of “equipment” (i.e., a tool) and a “work” of art, the former determined by a sense of usefulness, the latter free of such a restriction (29, 39-40, 46) and holding the promise of a world of dimensions and thus the fullness of being.


In his introduction to Heidegger’s book Existence and Being (which Oppen had to have read [cf. Nicholls 194]), Werner Brock summarizes and analyzes Heidegger’s 1927 book Being and Time. He explains how “Heidegger realized that ‘Dasein’ […] differed ontologically from all the things which are not ‘Dasein’ in essential respects. These things, when they are there by nature, are termed ‘vorhanden’ (‘existent’ in the usual sense of the word, literally: before one’s hand, at hand, present); and when they are made by men, such as utensils, they are termed ‘zuhanden’ close at hand, in readiness, at one’s disposal) […]” (14)[7]. The essence of the ancient Greek term technē, which could signify technology, craft or art, resides within the image of the tool in the hand, or basically the environment being shaped by the human hand, and Heidegger acknowledges this fact in a number of his works, thereby joining tool and artwork.[8]


Here we can see the problem of technology for Heidegger, which can be seen as emblematic of our larger alienation, even if out of necessity, from the world in which we live. In a poem like “Psalm” Oppen seeks to restore a sense of nearness in the world. The poem’s scene is one in which there is no technological intervention. The natural world is “vorhanden” (before one’s hand), which is made possible by the sponsorship of Being or Dasein and is disclosed to the poem’s speaker by his ability to suspend his will, to refrain from turning the scene in his mind into a technological artifact, into a perception that is “zuhanden” (in readiness, such as a tool), as if the deer, leaves, and sun detailed in the poem might exist for some purpose.


For all their analytical prowess, Heidegger’s works are inconclusive as they actively search for nearness and being. One way to translate Heidegger’s basic term Dasein is as “there-being,” and it is this sense of the world before us, the world “there,” in which we are capable of investing “faith” — a key word in “Psalm” — that poetry inherits for Oppen its basic gesture or impulse. Paul Naylor has noted that Oppen’s modus operandi in Of Being Numerous is the deictic pronoun (100-01 ff.). The world is there before one (cf. Nicholls 74).


I would add to what Naylor is saying that Oppen and Heidegger depend on tautological thinking, literally the contemplation of what is self-evident, and so for Oppen the things within the realized world become supremely relevant. As Oppen tells Dembo, “I’m really concerned with the substantive, with the subject of the sentence, with what we are talking about, and not rushing over the subject-matter in order to make a comment about it. It is still the principle with me, of more than poetry, to notice, to state, to lay down the substantive for its own sake” (“George Oppen” 161).


When Dembo asks Oppen about “Psalm” — quoting lines that end with the exclamation “That they are there!” — Dembo suggests that the poem’s persona is not responding to the manifest world “intellectually or discursively, but only to the physical tangibility or reality of the object he views” (162). Oppen replies with an important and subtle distinction: “Yes, if one knows what ‘physical’ means or what it contrasts with. But responds by faith, as I admitted somewhere, and to his own experience” (162). And when Dembo asks him, “What exactly is the faith?” Oppen replies, “Well, that the nouns do refer to something; that it’s there, that it’s true, the whole implication of these nouns; that appearances represent reality, whether or not they misrepresent it: that this in which the thing takes place, this thing is here, and that these things do take place” (163).[9]


Oppen is not being coy when he highlights the notion of physicality. The concept of the Greek term physis is taken up at length by Heidegger in Introduction to Metaphysics. Oppen’s copy of this book contains the handwritten note “’This in which’ all truth is contained — the universe contains all truth — [illegible]” (in Nicholls 64). Introduction to Metaphysics begins with the most fundamental philosophical question: “Why are there essents [i.e., ‘existents, things that are’] rather than nothing?” (1). As Oppen must have been well aware, the term physis for Heidegger comprehended much more than it does now in our normal parlance: For the ancient Greeks, Heidegger writes, “the essent was called physics” (13).


Yet, Heidegger continues, “The realm of being as such and as a whole is physis — i.e. its essence and character are defined as that which emerges and endures” (16). Ultimately physis “signifies the being of the essent” (17). Heidegger then equates physis with the idea of shining light and by implication appearance. Following his discussion of physis in Introduction to Metaphysics Heidegger equates being and appearing: “for the Greeks standing-in-itself was nothing other than standing-there, standing-in-the-light. Being means appearing. Appearing is not something subsequent that sometimes happens to being. Appearing is the very essence of being” (101).


Heidegger then returns to this question of physis when he argues that


[t]he essence of being is physis. Appearing is the power that emerges. Appearing makes manifest. Already we know then that being, appearing, causes to emerge from concealment. Since the essent as such is, it places itself in and stands in unconcealment, alētheia. We translate, and at the same time thoughtlessly misinterpret, this word as ‘truth’. [… .] For the Greek essence of truth is possible only in one with the Greek essence of being as physis. On the strength of the unique and essential relationship between physis and alētheia the Greeks would have said: The essent is true insofar as it is. (102)[10]


Likewise in “Psalm,” and in a reprise of this poem published in 1978, titled “If It All Went Up in Smoke,” light serves a key dramatic function. It is the light that allows the poem’s persona to realize the “beauty” of the deer, leaves, and so on:


If It All Went Up in Smoke

that smoke
would remain

the forever
savage country poem’s light borrowed

light of the landscape and one’s footprints praise

from distance
in the close
crowd all

that is strange the sources

the wells the poem begins

neither in word
nor meaning but the small
selves haunting

us in stones and is less

always than that help me I am
of that people the grass

blades touch

and touch in their small

distances the poem
(NCP 274)


What Heidegger has set out for Oppen is the basis for an Objectivist poetry that presumes the physical world the poet details is anything but inert, and so the tension in Oppen’s poetry between concealment and disclosure is palpable.


Both Heidegger and Oppen left behind them their respective testaments of their strivings in their writing to be authentic and to invoke a world of authenticity. In this sense neither body of work explains anything. Rather, in their respective works they imagine a redolent world, one that coalesces, gathering itself in a fulfillment. It is art, poetry, that makes this possible. And their writings are aware of themselves as such. In a letter to a student, which is appended to his essay “The Thing,” Heidegger writes in part as follows. “In thinking of Being, it is never the case that only something actual is represented in our minds and then given out as that which alone is true. To think ‘Being’ means: to respond to the appeal of its presencing. The response stems from the appeal and releases itself toward that appeal” (183).

Works Cited

Brock, Werner. “Introduction.” Martin Heidegger. Existence and Being. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1949.

Chilton, Randolph. “The Place of Being in the Poetry of George Oppen.” George Oppen: Man and Poet. Ed. Burton Hatlen. Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, 1981. 89-112.

Farias, Victor. Heidegger and Nazism. Eds. and For. Joseph Margolis and Tom Rockmore. Trs. Paul Burrell and Dominic Di Bernardi, and Gabriel R. Ricci. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1989.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trs. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1962.

 —  —  — . “Building Dwelling Thinking.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Intr. and Tr. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. 143-62.

 —  —  — . Discourse on Thinking [a Translation of Gelassehheit]. Trs. John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund. Intr. John M. Anderson. New York: Harper & Row, 1966.

 —  —  — . Existence and Being. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1949.

 —  —  — . An Introduction to Metaphysics. Tr. Ralph Manheim. New Haven, Yale UP, 1959.

 —  —  — . “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Poetry, Language, Thought. Intr. and Tr. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. 15-88.

 —  —  — . “The Question Concerning Technology.” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Intr. and Tr. William Lovitt. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. 3-35.

 —  —  — . “The Thing,” Poetry, Language, Thought. Intr. and Tr. Albert Hofstadter. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. 163-86.

 —  —  — . What Is Philosophy? Trs. and Intr. Jean T. Wilde and William Kluback. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1956.

Hoffman, Eric. “A Poetry of Action: George Oppen and Communism.” American Communist History 6.1 (June 2007): 1-28.

Kazin, Alred. “Talk at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.” New York City. October 1986.

Naylor, Paul. “The Pre-Position ‘Of’: Being, Seeing and Knowing in George Oppen’s Poetry.” Contemporary Literature 32.1 (1991): 100-15.

Nicholls, Peter. George Oppen and the Fate of Modernism. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 2007.

Oppen, George. “A Conversation with George Oppen [conducted by Charles Amirkhanian and David Gitlin].” Ironwood 5 (1975): 21-24.

 —  —  — . Discrete Series. Intr. Ezra Pound. New York: Objectivist P, 1934.

 —  —  — . “George Oppen [Interiew with George Oppen conducted by L. S. Dembo on 25 April 1968]” in “The ‘Objectivist’ Poet: Four Interviews.” Contemporary Literature 10 (1969): 159-77.

 —  —  — . “If It All Went Up in Smoke.” Primitive. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow P, 1978. New Collected Poems. Ed. Michael Davidson. Pref. Eliot Weinberger. New York: New Directions, 2002. 274.

 —  —  — . The Materials. New York: New Directions, 1962.

 —  —  — . New Collected Poems. Ed. Michael Davidson. Pref. Eliot Weinberger. New York: New Directions, 2002.

 —  —  — . Of Being Numerous. New York: New Directions, 1968.

 —  —  — . This in Which. New York: New Directions, 1965.

Steiner, Alex. “The Case of Martin Heidegger, Philosopher and Nazi.” (3 April 2000). World Socialist Website. 19 March 2009.

Stephens, Anthony. “Cutting Poets to Size — Heidegger, Hölderlin, Rilke.” Jacket 32 (April 2007). Accessed 19 March 2009.

Weinfield, Henry. The Music of Thought in the Poetry of George Oppen and William Bronk. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2009.


[1] Peter Nicholls reports that “Oppen told Charles Tomlinson that he ‘was startled on encountering Heidegger some time ago, 1950’ (UCSD [Oppen Papers at the University of California San Diego] 16, 34, 4) and whether or not this date is precise we might conclude that he had read the first of Heidegger’s volumes to be translated, Existence and Being (1949), at some point during the Mexico years” (30). A number of works cover George and Mary Oppen’s sojourn in Mexico, not least among them Nicholls’ recent book (20-29).

[2] Nicholls cites “Conversation with George Oppen,” conducted by Amirkhanian and Gitlin, 24.

[3] Henry Weinfield, in his new book The Music of Thought in the Poetry of George Oppen and William Bronk, is the latest critic to do so, though he uses the term “masterpiece” to refer specifically to the volume’s title poem “Of Being Numerous” (6).

[4] A recent, well documented article by Eric Hoffman makes the question of Oppen’s participation in espionage activities in behalf of the Soviet Union plausible (see Works Cited).

[5] Cf. Anthony Stephens’ quite unflattering portrait of Heidegger as the good Nazi and Stephens’ speculation as concerns Heidegger’s efforts to reconcile his philosophy with the received Nazi dogma, which includes, among other things, strikingly, a reproduction of an address by Heidegger to students (inserted in par. 2), in which he advances the Nazi agenda in 1933, thus speaking of “the present and future German reality and law” (trans. Stephens; see citation in Works Cited). But of course there are a number of publications about and lots of documentation of Heidegger’s extreme right-wing politics.

[6] Cf. among many sources Alex Steiner (see Works Cited) who reports that Heidegger never really made public his Nazi past or attempted to repudiate it and who speaks of a general “myopia” among intellectuals until recent times about Heidegger’s Nazism. The breakthrough book on Heidegger’s Nazi past, Victor Farias’ Heidegger and Nazism, appeared in 1989, five years after Oppen’s death.

[7] Consider in this context Heidegger’s grouping of equipment and the work of art as having “an affinity […] insofar as it [i.e., the artwork] is something produced by the human hand” (“The Origin of the Work of Art” 29). All the same, the artwork possesses a “self-sufficient presence” (29).

[8] For example in the definitive essay “The Question Concerning Technology” Heidegger writes that “[w]e must observe two things with respect to the meaning of this word [i.e., technē]. One is that technē is the name not only for the activities and skills of the craftsman, but also for the arts of the mind and the fine arts” (12-13).

[9] As Nicholls writes, Oppen had a “fondness,” for instance in a poem like “‘Psalm’, […] for the ‘small nouns’ [NCP 99], which seem to register a simple ‘faith’ in the world’s existence rather than a desire to act upon it in any way. Here […] Oppen is close to Heidegger who saw it as the essential task of the philosopher to ‘preserve the force of the most elemental words in which Dasein expresses itself’” (Nicholls 65; Heidegger Being and Time 262, emphases in the original).

[10] Cf., in “The Origin of the Work of Art,” The word technē denotes […] a mode of knowing. To know means to have seen, in the widest sense of seeing, which means to apprehend what is present, as such. For Greek thought the nature of knowing consists in aletheia, that is, in the uncovering of beings. It supports and guides all comportment toward beings. Technē, as knowledge experienced in the Greek manner, is a bringing forth of beings out of concealedness and specifically into the unconcealedness of their appearance; Technē never signifies the action of making” (59). In his later essay “Building Dwelling Thinking” Heidegger explains that “[t]he Greek for ‘to bring forth or to produce’ is tikto. The word technē, technique, belongs to the verb’s root tec. To the Greeks technē means neither art nor handicraft but rather: to make something appear, within what is present, as this or that, in this way or that way. The Greeks conceive of technē, producing, in terms of letting appear” (159).

Burt Kimmelman, photo Jane Kimmelman

Burt Kimmelman
photo Jane Kimmelman

Burt Kimmelman has published five collections of poetry – Musaics (Sputyen Duyvil Press, 1992), First Life (Jensen/Daniels Publishing, 2000), The Pond at Cape May Point (Marsh Hawk Press, 2002), a collaboration with the painter Fred Caruso, Somehow (Marsh Hawk Press, 2005), and There Are Words (Dos Madres Press, 2007); his volume of poems titled As If Free is forthcoming in 2009 (from Talisman House, Publishers). For over a decade he was Senior Editor of Poetry New York: A Journal of Poetry and Translation. He is a professor of English at New Jersey Institute of Technology and the author of two book-length literary studies: The "Winter Mind": William Bronk and American Letters (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998); and, The Poetics of Authorship in the Later Middle Ages: The Emergence of the Modern Literary Persona (Peter Lang Publishing, 1996; paperback 1999). He also edited The Facts on File Companion to 20th-Century American Poetry (Facts on File, 2005) and co- edited The Facts on File Companion to American Poetry (2007).

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