Better Than The Movies: Whitman and O’Hara Both Wrote Poems, And Other Similarities

This is the first bit of my paper, as it stands. Much work is to be done, yet (including adding the citation for the Eberly article). But I thought it might be worthwhile to post these first few paragraphs.

Five days after Frank O’Hara’s death, Allen Ginsberg wrote an elegy to him, who he calls “The gaudy poet …, chattering Frank” whose bones are now “under squares of grass” (Ginsberg 3-10).  It is largely (in the tradition of elegies, to be sure) a sufficiently tender tribute put in competition with a living poet’s sense of superiority.  After all, what successes O’Hara—the “Curator of funny emotions” of Ginsberg’s “City Midnight Junk Strains” elegy—may have seen wither in comparison to Ginsberg himself, a towering and true Prophet in the tradition of Blake and especially of Whitman (Ginsberg 84).  And certainly O’Hara makes no bones of his lack of Bardic intent: “But how can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them,” he asks in his mock-manifesto, “Personism: A Manifesto,” “Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along?” (O’Hara 498).  Surely O’Hara’s is a kind of poetry in direct opposition to the kind of poetry represented by Whitman (and, by extension, Ginsberg), who “spring[s] from the pages into your arms,” who shouts “Remember my words … / I love you” (Whitman 611-612).

What are we to make of it, then, when O’Hara places Whitman among only three American poets who are “better than the movies” (the other two being Williams and Crane, arguably the two poets holding the biggest influence on his poetry) (O’Hara 498)? In truth, there is much of Whitman in O’Hara, but it’s made strange by O’Hara’s flippant nature and distrust of sincerity.  In an article pitting O’Hara and Whitman against each other, David Eberly points to the fact that O’Hara is “as likely to deprecate Whitman as to praise him” (??).  O’Hara’s “Ave Maria,” to take one of Eberly’s examples, pokes fun at Whitman’s emphatic patriotic songs, entreating the “Mothers of America” to “let your kids go to the movies!” (O’Hara 371).  The poem gradually raises the stakes, asserting first that, being “out of the house,” the kids “won’t know what you’re up to,” then that the movies are necessary for “the soul / that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images,” and then that “they may even be grateful to you / for their first sexual experience” (O’Hara 371-372).  The last lines take this to a comic extreme: “so don’t blame me if you won’t take this advice / and the family breaks up / and your children grow old and blind in front of a TV set / seeing / movies you wouldn’t let them see when they were young” (O’Hara 372).

We see a similar progression of intensity in much of Whitman—take specifically “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which begins in only seeing the “flood-tide” and the “clouds of the west” “face to face,” and makes its way gradually to commanding the river to “Flow on, … flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!” (Whitman 307-312).  If O’Hara is parodying Whitman here, he is doing so in a way that proves Whitman’s effectiveness and value.  O’Hara may trivialize the subject matter, but he uses Whitman’s rhetorical setup to create a poem that is at once tongue-in-cheek and imminently sincere.

And here’s a poem by O’Hara. I can almost make sense of the French. The German is hopeless. But it has Whitman’s name in the title.

A Whitman’s Birthday Broadcast With Static

Pas la jeunesse à moi,
ni delicacy, ich kann nicht, ich kann nicht, keines Vorsprechen!
Ugly on the patio, silly on the floor, unkempt,
dans la vieux parc je m’asseois, et je ne vois pas à droite ni à gauche.
Personne! mais des bruits, des vagues particulières, und ich have Kummer, es könnte ihm ein Schaden zustossen, lacht der Kundschafter.
And then someone comes along who’s sick and I say “Tiens, ça! c’est las de l’amour, c’est okay!” and fall.
Da, ich bin der Komponist, und ich bin komponiert.

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Whitman and Ginsberg Paper Topic

Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg are two poets that have comparable poetic tendencies despite living almost a century apart from one another. Many critics argue that Ginsberg could perhaps have been inspired by Whitman. Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Ginsberg’s “Howl” share many obvious and subtle similarities that are examined by a number of different critics. Interestingly, each poet, though separated by almost a century, has similar thoughts and interests despite two very different cultural atmospheres. In particular, “Song of Myself” and “Howl” seem to be in spiritual conversation with one another. When reading “Howl”, I can’t help but to imagine Ginsberg writing where Whitman left off. Each poet seems to have a profound interest in transcendence and nature and the spiritual tendencies in the different poems almost mirror one another. Poet Galway Kinnell has said, “I feel that Ginsberg is the only one to understand Whitman and to bring into the poetry of our time a comparable music”. One of the most prevalent themes in both “Song of Myself” and “Howl” is a reaction to the political and cultural tendencies of each poet’s time. Both Whitman and Ginsberg lived during times of extreme cultural and political change in America and each poet represented their thoughts, views, and opinions of their America in their poetry. Whitman and Ginsberg respond to the changing of the times in a similar fashion in “Song of Myself” and “Howl” through the poets reactions to the culture of their America, the poets thoughts and opinions of political events, as well as each poets reaction to their own homosexuality.

Whitman and Ginsberg share a similar vision and it may be interesting to question how each poet speaks to America not only through the words of their poetry, but through the way each poem is written. Not only are “Song of Myself” and “Howl” similar thematically, each poem contains similar poetic techniques.

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The Broken Body Politic

My paper topic has proved quite perplexing. While relating Whitman and Ginsberg in class didn’t seem so hard, there is surprisingly little literary criticism is done comparing the two men. Whitman’s legacy is complex and multifaceted to say the least; so far in my research the Whitman we know today seems equal parts man and myth. This convoluted legacy seems to also be a source of frustration for some of the writers who have looked back to Whitman as a literary forefather. Especially true for modern queer poets, it can be difficult to reconcile Whitman’s ecstatic love of America and all it entails with the America we live in today. Whitman’s concept of the body politic linked the political body with the intimate body in an inextricable way; what message does that send to the marginalized homosexuals of today? Those who have been forbidden by the state to marry and until recently were diagnosed by the state as mentally ill.

Walt Whitman envisioned an America we are only just beginning to work toward over a hundred years later. Often considered a visionary poet of his time, Whitman recognized the interconnectedness of the world around him and realized that this vision must be recognized in order to save the country. But Whitman could not save the country, not from the civil war and not from the conformity, consensus, conservatism that culminated in the tranqulized 50’s.When Whitman wrote, homophobia was just beginning to become an issue of public angst and debate; within only a few years after his death homosexuality was listed as a certifiable mental disorder; by the 50’s homosexuality was considered not only a mental but moral flaw of the worst kind, grounds for alienation and marginalization.

However, Whitman’s vision was never abanonded and ultimately his ideas have been carried into the current era by poets such as Ginsberg who asked in anger, whatever happened to the Whitmanian ideal? Whatever happened to that America? By exploring the ways the country had abandoned its old ideals and created useless division and fear, poets like Allen Ginsberg revived and revised Whitman’s vision of a unified America and carried it into the future, into the arms of a much more open and accepting generation who was willing to try once more to restore the body politic.

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Michael Cunningham’s “Specimen Days” (a quick review so far)

I’m taking a break from allowing my life to be consumed by papers. I have managed to convince myself that I’m reading Michael Cunninghman’s “Specimen Days” for pleasure instead of because it is required. This convinces turned out to be rather easy though, as I quickly forgot that we were going to have a quiz on the book and sort of found myself absorbed in what was going to happen next.

To be honest, I haven’t made it all the way through the second portion of the book (it is broken up into thirds – and each third is a different version with different versions of the original characters). The first portion of the book, In the Machine, is a bizarre sort of ghost story. A young boy, Lucas, must support his immigrant family after his older brother, Simon, does in a machine at “the works”. Lucas finds himself working at the exact same machine as his brother has and chasing after the exact same woman, Catherine, as his brother had. Lucas takes on the responsibility of looking after his parents (who are not dealing well with the loss of Simon) and protecting Catherine. As the book carries on the reader learns that Simon, and the rest of the dead, are communicating through various machines, including the machine that Lucas is working at. Lucas realizes that Simon will want to make Catherine his bride in death and in order to do that the machines must take Catherine too. Lucas sacrifices his hand, and eventually his life, in order to save Catherine from dead Simon. As Catherine watches her place of employment burn to the ground, and all of her colleagues and friends jump to their deaths she clings to a dying Lucas at her side. Lucas’ heart explodes (it was never that strong and the loss of blood has overworked it) and he dies in Catherine’s arms, reciting the book in his head and finally understanding what he was meant for. Lucas’ death is something beautiful and Cunningham writes that, “An unspeakable beauty announced itself” (pg 93).

The explosion of Lucas’ heart carries over into the next book, The Children’s Crusade. The helpless, degraded Catherine of the first book is now a strong, independent, African American cop. Simon is her boyfriend who seems to trade stocks, or as Cat explains he “trade[s] futures”. Cat receives a call from a young boy who tells her that he is going to blow someone up. He tells her that he has no name and that he is now part of the family. At this point the reader has no idea who the family is and neither does Cat who muses that it could be the mafia or a similar group.

I’ll be updating this post as I read more of this book. A few days ago I had never experienced the writing of Michael Cunningham but now I’m quite glad that I’ve had to read this for ENGL 360. I’m going to have to check out some of his other works.

(You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.)

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Oppen and Whitman

Henry David Thoreau, in a letter to Harrison Blake, discusses the latest edition of Leaves of Grass and reveals after a mostly congratulatory review: “To be sure I sometimes feel a little imposed on” (Walt Whitman, P. 156). Thoreau expands upon this imposition by describing the effect of Whitman’s work as taking him to uncomfortable places that would normally be either unavailable to him or uncomfortable.

This charge, although not scathing, illuminates the very themes I wish to explore with Whitman, namely in his poem Song of Myself. I too feel as Thoreau; at times I am moved to places of acceptance I would not normally adventure. At other times, heavily imposed upon. This imposition seems, for me, to appear in Whitman when, by expanding the boundaries of his body, he attempts to subsume America and at times, the world, in order to solve multifarious crises. As a result, the detail of the specific loses its potency, and becomes washed in the miasma of Whitman’s ever-expanding body.

Oppen, in his long poem, Of Being Numerous, as well as in other poems of his selected works, maintains the precision of boundaries while engendering love and connection. In being patient with his subject, by concentrating on describing its most illuminating details, he reveals his care.

My overall project would be to examine the Whitmanian intrusion of boundaries through an attempt to create a unified humanity. Then, to contrast this with Oppen’s long poem, Of Being Numerous. What I hope to find is that in many ways, Oppen is successful in creating a sense of a connected humanity without transgressing the boundaries of its constituents. Moreover, in a similar analysis of Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, a poem where Whitman does not cross the boundaries of touch in the reader, I will argue that when a poet keeps the boundaries of a subject through respect and precise observation, the level of transcendence is actually increased.

So, as if the poems were on a continuum, Song of Myself would be most solipsistic, and least transcendent, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, transcendent, less solipsistic, and Of Being Numerous, as most transcendent, and most careful of object’s boundaries.

Annotated Bibliography:

Nathanson, Tenney. Whitman’s Presence: Body, Voice, and Writing in ‘Leaves of Grass’. New York: New York University, 1992. Print.

A large critical monograph about the presence and affect of Body, Voice, etc, and writing in Whitman. Nathanson provides a largely favorable diagnosis of the immediacy of Whitman’s voice, describing it as ‘preternatural’, ‘magical’, ‘mythical’. Yet, an undercurrent of unease exists when he approaches the most intimate moments of Whitman, with words like: ‘unnerving’, ‘unsettling’, ‘overflowing boundaries’, ‘omnivorous’, etc. Boundaries are a consistent theme in this larger work.

Nicholls, Peter. “Of Being Ethical.” The Objectivist Nexus. Ed. Rachel Blau Duplessis and Peter Quartermain. Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 1999. 240-253.

One of the ways I hope to discover the effect of Whitman and Oppen’s poetry is through their disparate uses of language. In this particular article, Nicholls explores how language constitutes a integral facet of representing an object ‘ethically’, and that ‘Objectivist’ poetry, focused on sincerity and clarity of vision through a rigorous attention to the form of the poem, attempts this fair treament. Their langauge, therefore, is a crucial element; being precise, clear, and sufficient in respect to the object’s depiction/exploration.
This provides a useful counter-weight to Whitman’s use of language, which, much like his omnivorous poetic appetite, flows off the page. This article will provide a nice contrast to Nathanson’s discussions on writing in the book mentioned above.

Oppen, George. Personal Interview with L.S. Dembo. Contemporary Literature 2.10 (1969): 159-177. JSTOR. Web. 11.17.10

Most interesting are the clarifications to the misconception that Oppen sees in the contemporary conception of the Objectivist poetry, described as, “psychologically objective in attitude”. Oppen disagrees and states that Objectivist poetry is the process of forming the poem as an object. The implications of creating a poem as object are crucial to the discussion of boundaries in relation to the actual object of the poem. Not only, according to the Objectivist essay by Zukofsky, does the lens, or the perceiver, or, most specifically, the poet, dial into focus the way of an object’s being in the world by taking careful consideration of its particular physical existence in relation to its surroundings, the form of the poem becomes object as well, creating a set of boundaries that are in themselves aspects that the poet must take into careful consideration.

Oppen’s further discussion on this topic creates a further apprehension of his poetic tendencies when he mentions his book of poetry, Discrete Series. The title has important implications. As described by Oppen, the title is a mathematical term, defining: “a series of terms each of which is empirically derived, each of which is empirically true”. The purpose of the poem remains tied to: the object it address, the creation of the object out of or in the poem itself, and, within the boundaries of the poem, certain ‘truths’ from experience. Oppen later clarifies the ‘truth’ of a poem may actually be a ‘sincerity’: in a certain moment, one felt something was true.

And, after this long winded annotation, the crucial aspect of this interview arrives: through a temperament of ‘sincerity’, Oppen means to create the poem as an object (with intense considerations to the form and display of this object), while finding the ‘objective perfection’ of the object within the moment of the poem’s perception. When the object becomes, as in Of Being Numerous, the human condition of existence, startling realizations are made under an astringent lens of focus and respect.

Zukofsky, Louis. “Program: ‘Objectivists’” Poetry 5.37 (1931): 354-365. JSTOR. Web. 11.17.10

The essay introducing the debut of Objectivist poetry. Zukofsky provides a useful explanation of Objectivist tenants by defining ‘objective’ in reference to the field of ‘optics’, ‘military’, and ‘poetry’. What arises contextualizes Oppen’s own foundations and further clarifications that will take place over his career. By valuing the object’s perception, Zukofsky elevates the importance of an object to the ultimate purpose of the poem. In doing so, the illumination of an object, including its boundaries, retains respect in the focus of the poetic lens.

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Ginsberg, Whitman and the Human Body

So the whole Bukowski plan of action fell through, new topic!!!

In my paper I will be discussing the connection the importance of the body in the works of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg. I want to depict the important influence that Whitman had on the works of Ginsberg in refection of the human body and the many connotations that it holds for both poets. There are several ways the body peers into each of the poets works. There is how it appears in a sexual context, the subjective body, and views on the body as a sanctuary.

Whitman opened the door for many homosexual poets to explore the realm of homosexual sensuality, something that Ginsberg runs with and illustrates very openly. In his poems, such as “Love Poem on a Theme by Whitman” and “Please Master”, he approaches sex in an almost pornographically explicit way. He feels this exposure is necessary for liberating inter fantasies and exposing the readers mind I will discuss how this is an extension of Whitman’s work and also how it contrasts it.

There is also the role in which the body take on a more political and metaphoric role. Whitman’s body seems to transcend itself and represent a certain sense of democracy. He believes we are all connected and all belong to the body of America, which is stressed in “Song of Myself”, who title hints to personal refection but the content is largely revolved around other people. The body also provided for Whitman a chance to critic the civil war, largely by portraying a physical form that it wounded or sick as we see in several of his “Drum Tap” poems. Ginsberg also carries with him varied array of political messages through his descriptions of the physical form which I will discuss more thoroughly in my paper.

Both poets feel strongly about the physical body being a spiritual thing. Ginsberg’s feelings of nakedness seem like an almost religious and sublime cleansing process. He felt the frankness and honesty in a naked body helped purify the mind and soul. This openness and extreme honesty is seen again and again in his works. Whitman’s feelings on the physical body as being a sacred and deeply religious thing that he celebrates. He also felt that the hygiene and the health were very important, for if your cathedral is not healthy, your soul will not be healthy—so there is a great stress on hygiene and fitness in his works.

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Whitman’s Feminine Guises

In our class, we have discussed Walt Whitman in several aspects and interpretations; he assumes many different forms, and yet many of them seem to operate in the guise of the masculine.  You see Whitman as the patriot, the prophet, the nationalist, as well as the war hero in a sense — even his poetry which echoes his homosexual tendencies is a celebration of men.

However, it is apparent in many of Whitman’s works that he is a huge supporter and admirer of women, relating to their emotional tendencies and appreciating their uniqueness in humanity.  Whitman maintained many close friendships with different women throughout his life and even tended to be a proponent for women’s rights before the suffrage movement took hold in America.  For my final paper, I am interested in pursuing the feminine characteristics of Whitman and his reinvention of gender roles as seen in his poetry, delving into the way that later female writers follow in his footsteps, assume his voice, and feminize his poetry as a way to relate to him on a level which others may not.  I am particularly interested in Sharon Olds’ poem “Nurse Whitman,” in which Olds takes the ideas of Whitman as a healer and caregiver (as seen in his experiences in the Civil War) and uses these qualities to reinvent him simultaneously into a nurse, daughter, mother, and lover.  She is able to connect with him on these levels of caring and sensuality, and cause them to blossom into something much more complex.  Much attention will be paid to this poem, with hope that some other contemporary examples can be found.  Whitman poems to be examined will include his Calamus poems (pertaining to sexuality), “I Sing the Body Electric,” certain stanzas from Leaves of Grass (denoting compassion, interconnectedness, caring, sensuality), and perhaps a few of his Drum-Taps.  Ultimately, this paper will explore Whitman’s reinvention as a pseudo-feminist icon by his later female admirers. 

After all, Whitman himself once said to Horace Traubel, “Leaves of Grass is essentially a woman’s book:  the women do not know it, but every now and then a woman shows that she knows it:  it speaks out of the necessities, its cry is the cry of the right and the wrong of the woman sex — of the woman first of all, of the facts of creation first of all — of the feminine:  speaks out loud, warns, encourages, persuades, points the way.”

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Whitman and Lorca Paper Proposal

I know this is pretty specific but I feel that I can write the full paper on just relating Federico Garcia Lorca to Whitman. I plan to broadly focus on the poetic relationship with nature that both these figures profoundly share. In one of my sources, an article by Frank Wood, he explains Lorca’s work as primarily, “rooted in a sense of earth, with a central concern to uncover buried bonds between humanity and the clay we have sprung from. “ I think this is very interesting in context with Whitman. I want to also include Lorca’s essays concerning the Duende, and how those concepts relate to his Whitmanian relationship with nature.
Lorca seems to have a very Whitmanian vision, but due to the historical difference, his version seems very revised. I want to specifically explore how Lorca used America to portray his vision, it appears he used it to display an over the top picture of industrialization, using New York to symbolize the whole nation. As a guiding research question, I want explore the reasons which induced Lorca to choose Whitman as a major theme in his poetry. I also want to explore both poets relationship, to Utopia, Elegy, apocalypse, crisis and recovery.
Lorca seems to evoke a number of different Whitman personas discussed in class, such as the homosexual Whitman, the socialist/worker Whitman, the natural Whitman discussed with the Native American poets, and the Civil War Whitman, as Lorca was very involved in his own country’s civil war, which he lost his life in. I plan to focus on the poems, “Ode to Walt Whitman,” as well as poems from a collection, “Poet in New York,” by Lorca, as well as some Whitman poems.

Edgar Meyer, Mary. “Walt Whitman’s Popularity Among Latin American Poets.” Americas 9.1 (1952): 3 15. Web. 16 Nov 2010.

Nandorfy, Martha. “Duende and Apocalypse in Lorca’s Theory and Poetics.” Revista Canadiensede Estudios Hispánicos 26.1 (2002): 255-270. Web. 16 Nov 2010.

Wood, Frank. “Three Poems On Whitman.” Comparative Literature 4.1 (1952): 44-53. Web. 16 Nov 2010

Garcia Lorca, Federico. In Search of The Duende. 3rd ed. New York, NY: New Directions, 1998. Print.

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The repetition of Cunningham and Whitman

Michael Cunningham emphasizes television’s compulsion to repeat.  Walt Whitman emphasizes his own compulsion to repeat. Whitman’s listing, or cataloging, and use of repetition draw the reader in to try and discover the true meaning behind his words.

Cunningham’s angle may be to point out the link between the trauma that has occurred and the repetitive coverage through the technology of television, which emphasizes the trauma repeatedly for the masses, especially in the case of the 9/11 attacks. The first image that comes to mind for most, when visualizing the 9/11 attacks, is the people falling and jumping from the towers. This image is frozen in the television viewers’ minds as the main association with the attacks on the World Trade Center Towers on 9/11. How much of this tendency for repetition from Cunningham was actually a result of Whitman’s influence?

The use of repetition in poetry and prose is more than just a mechanical (like mathematical) repetition. It changes the meaning of the repeated item simply by its use of and stressed elements through repetition. There is a new relationship suggested through repetition. In Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” he uses repetition, which helps to develop a certain type of magical rhythm to accentuate the ideas stated in the poem. He uses repetition not only in his words, but also in the sounds of the words in his poetry. Through this usage of repetition, the reader finds an unpredictability in the relationship of the repeated words, and it is this union of the words that makes it possible to find the parallelism between the lines of poetry and the mechanics of a mathematical equation using recursion.

Krystyna Mazur suggests in her book entitled, “Poetry and Repetition,” that it is not the sameness of the repeated words, but the difference that is noted by using the repetition that is the most unique element to literary repetition. When repetition is used heavily, “as we continue repeating, we begin to discover the strangeness of our own words. Repetition makes them sound foreign or like the words of a stranger. We begin to hear in our own words echoes of some other presence, something not our own, something not of our making” (Mazur 2005, p. xxi).

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Spahr N’ Whitman Proposal

I intend to write a paper that explores how Whitman’s “Passage to India” and Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs  place each poet’s voice in relationship to technological advances, primarily advances in electronic media,  occurring in the world around them.  I found this topic interesting, because as I read Sphar’s This Connection I was struck with the feeling that electronic communication was the invisible, but not silent, presence in her poem that seems to connect everyone and everything in the world together; for instance, media seems to saturate the later half of her poem when even the birds seem to be eerily singing  or repeating news broadcasts.  

So, I felt this idea—that electronic media seems to be the glue that holds everything in the world together disheartening, yet also intriguing at the same time.   I also feel that Whitman was certainly hitting on a similar theme of telecommunication connecting the world together in “Passage to India,” yet it seems that Walt was embracing technological progress in this poem, and maybe saw advances in the telegraph as a way for the poet’s voice to become disembodied and hence more representative of a “natural” or “primordial” state of human existence that could lead to global reconciliation.  Hence, Spahr’s poem seems to challenge Whitman’s view (at least in “Passage to India”) that engineering advances would be the great reconciler for all of humanity, but her poem simultaneously seems to assert Whitman’s view that communicating electronically would be the link that binds people together globally.

I’m still waffling on a final thesis, but I’ve found some really good sources that gel together nicely with my overall topic. So I feel pretty confortable with the research aspect of my paper.  However, my primary concern right now is probably the lack of critical commentary on Spahr, especially in the “electronic media” corner that it seems I’ve painted myself into.  So if anyone has stumbled upon This Connection commentary, I’d be more than glad to hear about it.

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