ENGL 310: Modern Poetry

Lecture 9

 - Ezra Pound


The lecture introduces the poetry of Ezra Pound. Tensions in Pound’s personality and career are considered, particularly in terms of his relationships with other poets and his fascism and anti-capitalism. The poem “The Seafarer” is examined as a quintessentially Poundian project in its treatment and translation of poetic forms. The first Canto of his epic project, The Cantos, is analyzed as a meditation on the process of expressing and engaging with history and literary tradition.

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Modern Poetry

ENGL 310 - Lecture 9 - Ezra Pound

Chapter 1. Introduction: Ezra Pound [00:00:00]

Professor Langdon Hammer: Let’s see. Pound. How many of you have ever read Pound before? Some? Yes. Unlike with Frost, you are unlikely to have read much Pound, I think, up to this point in your educations, and probably you are unlikely to have much of a view of him, in contrast to Frost or even Yeats, who cuts such a particular and remarkable public figure.

Pound can be hard to put together, he can be hard to get a picture of. What is Pound like? What was he like? Well, this is a hard question for some of the same reasons that the poems are hard; that is, Pound’s poetry projects no determinate identity, no determinate poetic voice, unlike those distinctive voices of Yeats and Frost. Instead, in Pound you encounter a multiplicity of identities, a multiplicity of voices. There’s an interesting contradiction in this. Pound is a kind of fierce individualist. He believes in, he wants to honor – as a political thinker and as a poet, as a reader – he wants to honor a heroic and sovereign idea of the individual. At the same time, in his writing, Pound repeatedly divests himself of identity, of particular identity, in order to enter or to be entered by other identities, other poets, other voices, creators, heroes. This is what he wants to give us access to as readers. Pound’s centrality in modern poetry repeats the kind of paradox I’m describing. That is, he is the one poet on the syllabus whom all the other poets knew, had some kind of relationship with, some kind of contact.

On the one hand, Pound was an individual of extraordinary personal charisma and force, someone who liked to, and who had the power to tell other people what to do, tell other people what to think and what to value. On the other hand, when you study Pound, you’re studying someone remarkably open to others, in friendship, as a reader, as a thinker. He’s someone who openly seeks alliance with others. He had, as we already talked about in our first lecture, an important relationship to Frost. You remember Frost speaking of his sometime friend Pound who wants to write, as he puts it, “caviare to the crowd”? Well, Pound is credited, as I also suggested, with in many ways modernizing Yeats, helping Yeats become the particular voice that he did in the teens and twenties.

In the Beinecke, there’s a little letter, a handwritten pencil letter from Pound to Hart Crane, which Hart Crane received when he was eighteen, I think, around your age, after he had sent his poems to The Little Review. And this is a letter from Pound which says about Crane’s poems: “It is all very egg. There is perhaps better egg. But you haven’t the ghost of a setting hen or an incubator about you.” I’m not sure what that means. But this was a rejection slip, and Crane kept it all his life, like a kind of diploma that in some way he was a member of modern poetry because he had gotten a rejection from Ezra Pound. In fact, Crane’s first book, if you go over to the Beinecke, and you turn it over, it has a picture. It has a portrait, not of Hart Crane but of Ezra Pound, because it has an ad for Pound and his book, Personae. And I like this fact because it’s representative, I think, of Pound’s importance and dominance and prominence in the poetic culture of the 1920s and ’30s. He was part of the world that a younger poet like Hart Crane had to get to know and make his place in. One of the famous books about modern poetry, one by Hugh Kenner, is called simply The Pound Era, as if modern poetry was all about Ezra Pound.

Ezra Pound, born in Hailey, Idaho in 1908. I like it that this wildly cosmopolitan expatriate intelligence was born in Idaho. He left the United States. Oh, he wasn’t born in 1908. When was Pound born? He left the United States in 1908. Look in your – yes, he was born in 1885, thank you. He left the U.S. in 1908 and lived mostly in London where at that point he acted as the foreign editor of Poetry magazine and The Little Review, two Little Magazines that I’ve shown you pictures of and that were important in bringing modern poetry to the United States. Pound is the central figure in that process. He goes out and finds and interprets and explains and even, in the case of Imagism, names the poetry that he is bringing to American readers. He is the entrepreneur, if you like, behind Imagism and then when Amy Lowell takes over Imagism. Vorticism becomes his thing and the magazine Blast becomes, for a while, his organ. He writes manifestos, he organizes groups, all the time abandoning them, too. His poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, composed in 1920, looks back on this whole period in London and is a kind of summary of the poetry of this period and his involvement in it. And it is itself a kind of early model for another great poem, The Waste Land, which Eliot would, as he composed it, bring to Pound to edit. And we’ll talk about that process in a bit.

In 1924 Pound moved to Italy. There, he became urgently concerned with economic reform, in the United States and in the West generally. He is in this period working on his great poem, his long poem which I’ll be discussing today, The Cantos. He became increasingly involved in Italian Fascism, which he found a powerful vehicle of his own economic ideas, in particular. He made broadcasts in support of Mussolini’s government, on Fascist radio in the 1940s, and in 1945 at the conclusion of the War was arrested for treason by the United States Army. The charge of treason was dropped when he was found to be insane and hospitalized at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he would in a very peculiar way hold court, a great man of letters at the center of the American capitol, entertaining Elizabeth Bishop and other figures whom we will read.

At the time of Pound’s institutionalization, his poem The Pisan Cantos, a late stage of The Cantos, was selected as the first winner of the Bollingen Prize, an award initially given by the Library of Congress. When Pound, traitor to the nation, was awarded this prize for the best American poetry, an enormous literary and cultural controversy sprang up, which people go on arguing about. Well, here is a poet who by his own declaration and example seems to be a Fascist sympathizer, an anti-Semite. Could he write great poetry, even great poetry that expressed Fascistic and anti-Semitical views? If he could write great poetry of that kind, should we honor it? If he was mad, is there some way in which his poetry might not be mad? Well, these are questions that have persisted and as I say people go on arguing about them. The controversy created so much trouble the Library of Congress didn’t want anything to do with the award anymore and it moved to Yale, and the Beinecke Library has been administrating this, arguably the most prestigious of poetry prizes ever since. And in fact, the judging for this year’s award is going strong at the moment and there will be a new winner at the end of the week.

Well, Pound’s anti-capitalism, his economic ideas, I think, are in some ways the intellectual origin of both his interest in Fascism and the anti-Semitic views that he expresses, both in poetry and often in prose. Anti-capitalism: for Pound this derives from really a specific cultural setting; that is, late nineteenth-century American culture, a culture where, as Pound experienced it and saw it, art was conceived as a decorative art, subject to the editorial tastes of popular magazines like The Atlantic, Harper’s; a culture in which poetry was a kind of commodity, which status destroyed the potential for originality and which subordinated art to money.

When Pound expatriates, when he leaves the United States, he’s fleeing not only America but he’s, as he understands it, he’s fleeing American money. And what he is entering, what he’s going to, he conceives as a particular kind of tradition, a kind of historical community, which he describes in that first quotation on your handout; a quotation in which Pound replies in a wonderfully haughty way to the motto of Poetry magazine, a motto that comes from the great American poet Whitman: “To have great poetry, there must be great audiences, too.” To which Pound says, “It is true that the great artist always has a great audience, even in his lifetime; but it is not the vulgo [that’s us] but rather the spirits of irony and of destiny and of humor, the great authors of the past, sitting beside him.” Pound, I think, in an almost literal sense conceived of his audience as a kind of distinguished community of readers and writers existing across time, a kind of trans-historical community of artists; ideas that we’ll want to compare with Eliot’s ideas of tradition, which are related but a little different, next week.

Let me move to the second quotation, also from the same period, 1914. Pound says, “There’s no use in a strong impulse [in poetry; “strong impulse”; I think he means strong feeling, strong motive, emotion] if it is nearly all lost in bungling transmission and technique. This obnoxious word that I’m always brandishing about [technique] means nothing but a transmission of the impulse intact.” In Pound, there is an emphasis, as we saw last time in looking at his rules for writing Imagist poetry, there is an emphasis on the priority of poetic technique and the importance of technical knowledge. But, as this quotation suggests, and it’s important to keep in mind, technique in Pound is always in the service of intensity, immediacy, or what he calls “the impulse.”

There are further quotations from Pound describing his technical aims. As I suggested a few minutes ago, Pound moves on from Imagism to what he calls Vorticism. Now, instead of wanting to get at a poetry that is centered on the image, he imagines a poetry centered on now “the vortex,” as he calls it; and there’s a kind of definition of the vortex there in the third quotation. Not so much later he would replace the idea of the vortex with another related image, which is the ideogram. We talked about some of Pound’s translations from the Chinese and Japanese last time. Pound was interested in Chinese writing systems as – Well, you can imagine how the ideogram appealed to a poet who wanted to imagine the poem as an image of a thing. Here, as Pound understood it, not always with superb scholarly precision, the Chinese word was, in fact, an image of a thing, and this is very much a kind of aesthetic ideal for Pound who wanted language to give us a kind of immediate access to the things of the world.

Chapter 2. Ezra Pound Poem: “The Seafarer” [00:18:50]

Well, I asked you to read for class today one of Pound’s poems from the teens, one of his famous poems, a poem called “The Seafarer,” identified in your RIS packet as “From the Anglo-Saxon.” I’ll read just the beginning of it for you.

May I, for my own self, song’s truth reckon,
Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care’s hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head
While she tossed close to cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
My feet were by frost benumbed.
Chill its chains are; chafing sighs
Hew my heart round and hunger begot
Mere-weary mood. Lest man know not
That he on dry land loveliest liveth,
List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,
Weathered the winter, wretched outcast
Deprived of my kinsman;

And so on. Iambic pentameter? You’ve been working on it. No, it’s not. What you’re listening to is something very different. The sound is rough, like Frost. And too, like Frost, in this poetry Pound is writing against the beautiful, sonorous forms of late nineteenth-century poetry. But Pound’s poem, unlike Frost, is the very furthest from the vernacular that we could possibly get. What we have here is Pound translating from the Anglo-Saxon and providing a contemporary equivalent of Old English alliterative verse, a particular verse form; a dead poetic form you could say, although Pound revives it and, in fact, brings it into usage in twentieth-century poetry. This verse form – I’ve given you John Hollander’s helpful self-descriptive definition at the bottom of your handout where Hollander says:

The oldest English accented meter
Of four, unfailing, fairly audible
Strongly struck stresses seldom
Attended to anything other than
Definite downbeats…

In other words, in Old English verse you don’t count syllables. You just count strong stresses. And there are, as a rule, four per line, and the lines, like Hollander’s here, like Pound’s that I just read, tend to divide in the middle. There’s a caesura that breaks the line in two, and Hollander goes on describing it. In addition to these strong stresses, the line is held together by alliterative links that join the words strongly and audibly across the caesura.

Pound is an avant-garde poet. He’s an experimentalist. Here we have the strange and very interesting spectacle of the self-consciously modernist, avant-gardist artist writing in an archaic, dead poetic form. In the teens, Pound is writing a kind of experimental poetry that in many different ways seeks alternatives to nineteenth-century norms of poetic practice, seeks alternatives to romantic sentiment, poetic diction, smooth musicality, all of the virtues and vices that you find in early Yeats. What he does is open poetry to a range of styles and forms, many of them archaic, many of them from languages outside of English. You see Pound writing his version of the Provençal troubadour song and canzone. We talked last time about Pound’s version of Chinese or Japanese poems. He writes his own versions of Roman poetry or here Old English. Through technical means, through Pound’s technique, he gains access to cultures and voices. He revives past voices, like the seafarer poet’s; revives and implicitly identifies with them.

Here is an expatriate poet writing in the voice of the Anglo-Saxon wanderer, a figure deprived of his kinsmen, who is out in the elements, far from land, far from his nation and home. Writing in the voice of the seafarer, Pound allies himself with what is historically prior, and, in fact, in English he allies himself with what is historically primary, with the oldest English poetry. Here, he claims it for himself, carries it forward or, as he would put it, transmits the impulse in an act of translation. Pound’s slogan, “make it new,” a kind of motto for modernism; it’s important to hear that injunction, to “make it new,” as a specifically historical mission to revive and transmit the past in a living way. The phrase itself, “make it new,” was translated from the ancient Chinese and is itself in that sense an instance of what it describes. Pound’s conception of the poet is as one who brings the impulse, as he calls it, forward, across time; does so in a kind of imaginative act of seafaring, if you like, leaving home, going out, crossing over.

Pound is a distinctive and, in a sense, quite peculiar thing. He is a kind of visionary scholar. He is an epic poet of the library. There’s a certain kind of contradiction in this; that is, a contradiction or tension at any rate between Pound’s drive towards immediacy, towards his wish to convey an emotional impulse and the highly mediated nature of his vision. Pound’s poetry is full of learned and abstruse reference. Unlike in The Norton Anthology, if you pick up a volume of Pound you’ll find no footnotes. He just gives you the thing. He gives you no help with it because, I think, there is an intention in the poetry to somehow give you a kind of unmediated access to the materials that Pound is drawing on. He wants us to feel the excitement he feels when he sits down in the library and opens a book. Directness, intensity, purity, immediacy: these are all Pound’s aims, and he achieves them through an intensely mediated display of technique. Well, you might contrast, again, Frost. Frost is always concealing, as it were, his expertise, his technical knowledge, whereas Pound is always showing it. In the case of “The Seafarer,” Pound has used Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader, his college textbook, to write this poem. It’s one he’s taken to Europe with him.

Now, there are several consequences for all this. One: in Pound, there is the idea that there are no dead forms, there are no dead languages. There are only derivations, variations, translations, through which the past is continuously being made present. Two: that is, the past is continuously available for those who can recognize it and seize it, specifically through technical powers – technical powers which yet in the process must be transcended in order to achieve the kind of immediacy and power that he seeks. In effect, Pound makes technique a form of inspiration. This is an interesting turn in literary history. The visionary poet in Pound is a scholar poet. Literary technique is in Pound a secular means of evoking literary inspiration – literary inspiration in the form of prior literature, prior literature seen and felt as sacred; as sacred, not as in Milton, a divine authority but rather an authority to be recognized and felt and seized in books. The footnote, the scholarly index, the library archive: these are the muses that Pound appeals to. And the used bookstore: these are the places that his poems come from. The result is a body of work that is always returning us, its readers, to its sources.

Chapter 3. Ezra Pound Poem: “The Cantos” [00:31:13]

In the very first lecture I referred to what I see as two very general and different, competing drives or forces in modern poetry: one centripetal, the other centrifugal – one a kind of will on the part of modern poets to order poetry itself; on the other hand, a will to order the world, order society. The artist must be concerned with art’s own problems, on the one hand. On the other hand, in Pound and in others, the artist is a kind of legislator, to use Shelley’s image. He has a truth that he wants to promulgate that will order society properly. Pound embodies these two drives, as I’m calling them, more clearly, better than anybody, and they’re part of his interest and power, and some of the challenge that he gives us, both aesthetic challenges and moral and political ones, as we think about his career.

On the one hand, in Pound there’s a kind of drive to identify that which is most essential to literature and to tell Pound’s readers how to write poems. This is the Pound who wrote those remarks about Imagism that we talked about last time. On the other hand, there is the Pound who wants to extend the reach of literature, who wants to – who writes letters to statesmen, who goes on Fascist radio to tell the world how things should be. This is also the poet who in his poem The Cantos wished to create a poem that would, as he calls it, include history. What an ambition, right? Extraordinary. So, on the one hand, you have the poet of “In a Station of the Metro,” the shortest poem in modern poetry, and then you have the poet of The Cantos, the longest poem in modern poetry. Pound is both of these things. And these impulses that we see in that poem, in that short poem and in that long poem, they don’t just compete in him, they exist, I think, in some kind of collaboration.

“In a Station of the Metro” identifies the image as the primary unit of poetry, and in Pound’s practice it becomes a kind of building block for larger forms and for the epic itself. He says here, on your handout, in a letter to Joyce: “I have begun an endless poem, of no known category. [True.] Phanopoeia or something or other, all about everything… [True.] I wonder what you [Joyce] will make of it.” Well “phanopoeia” means specifically image-making, and you can understand The Cantos as they unfold as a kind of series of Imagist poems, as the image becomes this fertile principle that produces and generates more and more images, more and more voices. The Cantos are, he says, “of no known category.” It’s true, it’s hard to identify the genre of The Cantos, although I’ve been calling it an epic so far. There’s a sense in which in each canto Pound is inventing the form of the poem anew, inventing it in response to the demands of new materials. The way to understand this great and maddening and somewhat mad poem, which is one of the great works of modern poetry, from which we’re reading just the smallest fragment – one way to understand it is as the record of one man’s reading, one man’s encounter with many voices and his incorporation of them and engagement and conversation with them.

The title of the poem is worth perhaps dwelling on for a moment: The Cantos – “the songs,” really. That’s what it means. The title foregrounds literary activity itself, foregrounds acts of singing, which are here, as Pound imagines it, a kind of renewable practice or process that can’t be reduced to a particular image or symbol. So, in that sense, this poem is unlike The Waste Land or The Bridge, which produced these specific, central symbols around which all of the poem’s ideas and images are organized. Pound instead gives us something more like a process. Pound, as I say, spoke of it as a poem including history. Well, this makes it sound as if the poem were larger than history, somehow a kind of frame for history that would help us understand and order it. Well, maybe Pound wished this but that’s not what he produced. The poem lacks an organizing view of history, such as you find in Milton or Virgil or Homer or Dante. It would be, therefore, much more accurate to call it a poem that is in some sense continuous with history, that’s like history. In that sense, a poem that is structurally unbounded. This is, I think, the view of history it projects: history not as a story of progress or Yeatsian apocalypse and cycles, but history rather as something like the poem itself, something that accumulates and repeats itself, with variations and without a definite aim in view. History, in this sense, is something that can be entered but not begun, and it can’t ever be completed either. And this is true of this poem:

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us onward with bellying canvas,
Circe’s this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.
Then sat we amidships, wind jamming the tiller,
Thus with stretched sail, we went over sea till day’s end.
Sun to his slumber, shadows o’er all the ocean,
Came we then to the bounds of deepest water,
To the Kimmerian lands, and peopled cities
Covered with close-webbed mist, unpierced ever
With glitter of sun-rays
Nor with stars stretched, nor looking back from heaven
Swartest night stretched over wretched men there.
The ocean flowing backward, came we then to the place
Aforesaid by Circe.

When I was a student I said to my teacher, “I don’t really get Pound and it’s not very beautiful either.” And he said, “Well, take a look at this” and produced those lines I just read, which are magnificent heroic poetry. They begin with that word, “and.” They begin with the conjunction “and.” They begin with the conjunction and without a grammatical subject. “And then went down to the ship.” Who went down to the ship? Pound doesn’t say. He introduces the poem with an action, an action that is itself part of a series.

The action that we are being introduced to here is Odysseus’ journey to hell in search of Tiresias, the prophet, among the souls of the dead. He wants to learn – Odysseus wants to learn his future course and decide how to act. Odysseus, we learn, as the poem unfolds, is the first speaker Pound accesses and gives to us, which is to say that we’re reading a translation, again. And how does Odysseus speak? Not like Tennyson’s Ulysses in sonorous blank verse, but rather, as I think you could hear readily enough, in the Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse form of “The Seafarer.”

Pound is doing something very interesting and exhilarating. He is translating what he conceives of as the oldest passage in The Odyssey, that most archaic of poetry in the West, and translating it using that poetry most archaic in English, the language and rhythms and patterning of “The Seafarer.” This is a kind of overlay in technique, again, of Old English alliterative verse and Homer’s Greek. These linguistic forms in the poem are merged as if by a kind of parataxis, which I talked about last time, to produce what Pound calls – when he’s writing about the image – a complex, a complex of elements that are held together in an instant; an instant that, as he understood it, transcends space and time limits. This is all set out again in the doctrine of the image. And we talked about another instance of that kind of cultural overlay of materials in the little poem “In a Station of the Metro.”

Contrast what Pound is doing here with what Joyce does in Ulysses. In Ulysses Joyce is, in a sense, carrying Homer’s text into contemporary Dublin. He’s naturalizing it and modernizing it. Pound, in a sense, is doing just the opposite. He is going back, and indeed here the sea flows backward and it takes us back to, again, primary terms: archaic Greek, archaic English. He is seeking to re-appropriate the heroic mode through translation in yet a contemporary idiom. This is a kind of raising of the dead, a kind of journey to the literary and cultural underworld that brings Pound’s adventure as a poet into line with Odysseus’. And you can see, in other words, what Odysseus is doing now as he goes to the underworld and seeks prophetic speech from Tiresias as a version of what Pound is doing as he seeks to translate the Greek at the inception of his epic. Pound’s own display of technique you could understand as a kind of version of the ceremony to honor and pay tribute, through blood sacrifice, that Odysseus practices here in the passages that follow as he induces Tiresias to appear and speak.

Literary tradition here has itself taken the place of the transcendental source of authority that was the classical or the Christian muse. Here Pound, in a sense, turns back upon poetry itself as a sacred source; here, at a moment in the epic where invocation would ordinarily stand, at that point of inception. Here, technique is imagined as a kind of process of translation through which speech from elsewhere is brought forward in time and in some sense carried across the waters. Again there’s a sense of contradiction, however, or tension. Pound wants to elicit speech from the dead to make the tradition’s language new. He wants to transmit the impulse. He also insists, however, cannily and provocatively on the mediated quality of his words. Tiresias speaks at the top of page 370, towards the end of the poem. He says to Odysseus when he sees him:

“A second time? why? man of ill star,
“Facing the sunless dead and this joyless region?
“Stand from the fosse [that is, the ditch], leave me my bloody bever
“For soothsay.”
And I stepped back [and that “I” there is the “I” of Odysseus],
And he strong with the blood, said then: “Odysseus
“Shalt return through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas,
“Lose all companions.” And then Anticlea [Odysseus’ mother] came.
And then a remarkable thing happens. Someone says: Lie quiet Divus. I mean [and now the “I” is the “I” of Pound, the narrator,
the speaker, not Odysseus], that is Andreas Divus,
In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.

This is Pound stepping into the poem saying, “I have been translating all of this from Homer, and I have been using the Latin translation of Andreas Divus that I bought in a Paris bookstand. And this has been my source for this text, and it is Divus that I have, the translator, that has been my muse and who has been speaking here through Tiresias, if you like. And it’s his soul that is laid back and to rest.” And at this moment Pound continues, now speaking of Odysseus in the third person, and he says: “And he sailed, by Sirens and thence outward and away / and unto Circe.” Finally, the journey continues. Here, again, Odysseus’ journey being analogized implicitly to the journey that the translator is affecting as he brings the text forward in time, across from oral culture to print, from Greek to Latin and Latin to English and Old English. And then in a remarkable efflorescence that ends this First Canto, with a macronic display of languages, Pound says:

In the Cretan’s phrase…

Again, he’s opened his book, and at the back of Divus’s translation he’s found the Homeric hymns and now he’s going to give them to us:

…with the golden crown, Aphrodite,
Cypri munimenta sortita est, mirthful, orichalchi, with golden
Girdles and breast bands, thou with dark eyelids
Bearing the golden bough of Argicida. So that:

Colon. The poem ends here with a prayer to the goddess of beauty, Aphrodite, who is invoked in Greek and Latin; who is brought forward and who is named Argicida, “killer of the Greeks, slayer of the Greeks,” presumably because she has had her hand in the abduction of Helen and the war in Troy. Here, Pound has invoked the goddess in these ways and then concluded his Canto with the interesting grammatical form, “So that,” and the interesting punctuation, a colon. In effect, if the poem began with “and,” it now ends with “so that,” where the colon is a kind of gateway through which the rest of the poem, and implicitly following Homer, the rest of history will pass. And here Pound has established his poem and established his own role as, in some sense, a mediator, conducting a process by which the sources of the past are brought forward into the future, relaying what he calls “the impulse,” and in the process “making it new.” Well, let’s stop and we will go on to, as I say, the related and different poetry of T. S. Eliot next week.

[end of transcript]

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