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A Little Book on Form: An Exploration Into the Formal Imagination of Poetry

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An acute and deeply insightful book of essays exploring poetic form and the role of instinct and imagination within form—from former poet laureate, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning author Robert Hass. Robert Hass—former poet laureate, winner of the National Book Award, and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize—illuminates the formal impulses that underlie great poet An acute and deeply insightful book of essays exploring poetic form and the role of instinct and imagination within form—from former poet laureate, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning author Robert Hass. Robert Hass—former poet laureate, winner of the National Book Award, and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize—illuminates the formal impulses that underlie great poetry in this sophisticated, graceful, and accessible volume of essays drawn from a series of lectures he delivered at the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A Little Book on Form brilliantly synthesizes Hass’s formidable gifts as both a poet and a critic and reflects his profound education in the art of poetry. Starting with the exploration of a single line as the basic gesture of a poem, and moving into an examination of the essential expressive gestures that exist inside forms, Hass goes beyond approaching form as a set of traditional rules that precede composition, and instead offers penetrating insight into the true openness and instinctiveness of formal creation. A Little Book on Form is a rousing reexamination of our longest lasting mode of literature from one of our greatest living poets.


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An acute and deeply insightful book of essays exploring poetic form and the role of instinct and imagination within form—from former poet laureate, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning author Robert Hass. Robert Hass—former poet laureate, winner of the National Book Award, and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize—illuminates the formal impulses that underlie great poet An acute and deeply insightful book of essays exploring poetic form and the role of instinct and imagination within form—from former poet laureate, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winning author Robert Hass. Robert Hass—former poet laureate, winner of the National Book Award, and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize—illuminates the formal impulses that underlie great poetry in this sophisticated, graceful, and accessible volume of essays drawn from a series of lectures he delivered at the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A Little Book on Form brilliantly synthesizes Hass’s formidable gifts as both a poet and a critic and reflects his profound education in the art of poetry. Starting with the exploration of a single line as the basic gesture of a poem, and moving into an examination of the essential expressive gestures that exist inside forms, Hass goes beyond approaching form as a set of traditional rules that precede composition, and instead offers penetrating insight into the true openness and instinctiveness of formal creation. A Little Book on Form is a rousing reexamination of our longest lasting mode of literature from one of our greatest living poets.

30 review for A Little Book on Form: An Exploration Into the Formal Imagination of Poetry

  1. 4 out of 5

    Ken

    Do I put this in essays? Do I put this in poetry? Both. And certainly in "Finished-in-2017," as it will be the last. This book was a bit of a struggle. It's big, for one thing. Damn near 500 pages. And it's not the same as essays on poetry I've read by, say, Tony Hoagland or Jane Hirshfield, both accomplished in the field. No, as the introduction warns us, this book is based on Robert Hass's lecture notes from teaching at university. It reads it, too. You get definition of terms. You get a little Do I put this in essays? Do I put this in poetry? Both. And certainly in "Finished-in-2017," as it will be the last. This book was a bit of a struggle. It's big, for one thing. Damn near 500 pages. And it's not the same as essays on poetry I've read by, say, Tony Hoagland or Jane Hirshfield, both accomplished in the field. No, as the introduction warns us, this book is based on Robert Hass's lecture notes from teaching at university. It reads it, too. You get definition of terms. You get a little historical background. You get snippets of poems and occasionally a full poem as examples. And you get Hass's opinions of same. The first five chapters are on stanzas: "One," "Two," "Three," "Four," and "A Note on Numbers." After that, the chapters treat on subjects such as Blank Verse, Sonnets, Sestinas, Villanelles, Odes, Elegies, Satires, Georgics, Difficult Forms, Collages and Abstractions and Oulipos and Procedural Poetics (Oh, My!), Prose Poems, and Free Verse. Meaning, it's more a reference book hybrid essay book than the type thing Hoagland and Hirshfield, Inc., excel at. Hass is a learned man and all, a guy who might teach you how to scan poetry properly, if that's your thing, but it was all a bit too academic for my tastes. 2.5 stars, rounded up for kindness.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Robert Wechsler

    A good rehash for me of a college course, Versification, that I took with Robert Fitzgerald many years ago in college. It contains a lot of examples, goes beyond the set forms and meters, and provides an excellent history of each.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Inkspill

    Having read Schmidt’s book that covers the work of 50 modern poets my thoughts posted here , I now wanted to read a book to help me understand the art of poetry, so I chose this. This book is divided into two parts, the first is like an intro of the mechanics of poetry. Hass, in using examples of poetry and extracts of one to four lines, gets you comfortable about thinking about rhymes and sequences before he launches into the second part - the form. As I kept reading, I understood this to mean Having read Schmidt’s book that covers the work of 50 modern poets my thoughts posted here , I now wanted to read a book to help me understand the art of poetry, so I chose this. This book is divided into two parts, the first is like an intro of the mechanics of poetry. Hass, in using examples of poetry and extracts of one to four lines, gets you comfortable about thinking about rhymes and sequences before he launches into the second part - the form. As I kept reading, I understood this to mean a template, where there are different kinds and have names like: Blank Verse, Sonnet and Ode, I give the complete list below. Some parts were harder to grasp than others but I realised how big this subject is and liked how Hass not just tried to explain each form with examples but for some he showed how it developed through the ages to modern times. I also found it helpful how through the book he listed further reading sections to help me continue my journey and further my understanding of this art. It’s the kind of book that invites you to re-read parts of it again and again, which I would not hesitate to do as it had a vast example of poets and poetry, some from the East. I also found the end chapters helpful; detailed examples of prosody, demonstrating how stresses and metering work with a quick run-down of some poetry tech-terms. Overall, I thought it was a good book to start with as a beginner who is interested in this subject. Forms included: Blank Verse Sonnet Sestina Villanelle Ode Elegy Satire Georgic Prose forms Also, variable stanzas, difficult forms and mixed forms have a chapter each and discussed in depth.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Don Hackett

    I liked this book, especially the concept that form in poetry is about time, not space. A four-line stanza with breaks makes an interesting pattern on a page but the form is in the short pause after each line, and the longer pauses between stanzas. It reads easily, if you like poetry; if you don't you probably won't read it unless someone makes you. The book is based on notes for a class he taught for people who want to write poetry but don't expect too esoteric an approach. He starts with the b I liked this book, especially the concept that form in poetry is about time, not space. A four-line stanza with breaks makes an interesting pattern on a page but the form is in the short pause after each line, and the longer pauses between stanzas. It reads easily, if you like poetry; if you don't you probably won't read it unless someone makes you. The book is based on notes for a class he taught for people who want to write poetry but don't expect too esoteric an approach. He starts with the basics of form, 1, 2, 3, and 4-line poetry, or stanzas. One line? He thinks haiku could be a one-line form that is conventionally presented as three lines in English translation. He devotes long chapters to popular forms in English poetry, sonnet, ode, and elegy. I don't much like sonnets, so this chapter dragged a little for me. The chapter on odes is beautiful, with the high point being a care full reading of an ode by Keats ("Already with you tender is the night.") He makes a case that the Four Quartets by Eliot is a series of odes, in part, and that The Wasteland is an elegy without a body. In summary, the book presents a lot of information and some wisdom, gracefully and vividly. It may be that he does not get too far from the hands-on craft that he is a master of.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Dale Boyer

    Not quite a little book, and not quite the font of revelation I'd hoped it would be, either. Hass is always interesting, readable and entertaining, and his knowledge of poetry is encyclopedic. However, if you're looking for a book that will give you insight into why certain poets break their lines or stanzas the way they do, you're not really going to find that here, because each poem is kind of an ideogram of itself. If you're strictly looking for examples of forms, this is a useful handbook. B Not quite a little book, and not quite the font of revelation I'd hoped it would be, either. Hass is always interesting, readable and entertaining, and his knowledge of poetry is encyclopedic. However, if you're looking for a book that will give you insight into why certain poets break their lines or stanzas the way they do, you're not really going to find that here, because each poem is kind of an ideogram of itself. If you're strictly looking for examples of forms, this is a useful handbook. But if you're looking for greater insight into lineation and form itself, and what makes a poet decide to move his or her poem a certain way, I didn't find much help here. In Hass' defense, perhaps that can ONLY be discovered in each particular poet.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Tucker

    A mix of poetry quotations from a particular (white, male) canon and dense, academic analyses of their style. If that's your jam, this is your book. I got a couple knowledge-items out of it but, after struggling for months to finish it, I quit halfway through. The Kindle Unlimited page count is misnumbered; it counts to nearly 500 pages at the halfway point (where I stopped) and the second half is unnumbered. A minor formatting error, I suppose, since eBooks don't really have "pages" anyway, but A mix of poetry quotations from a particular (white, male) canon and dense, academic analyses of their style. If that's your jam, this is your book. I got a couple knowledge-items out of it but, after struggling for months to finish it, I quit halfway through. The Kindle Unlimited page count is misnumbered; it counts to nearly 500 pages at the halfway point (where I stopped) and the second half is unnumbered. A minor formatting error, I suppose, since eBooks don't really have "pages" anyway, but it affected my reading experience especially given that the book is not a "page-turner." Being told that I am reading 500+infinity pages deeply undermines the title of "little book."

  7. 5 out of 5

    Benjamin Kass

    I need a physical version of this, so I can just page through. It's a good book. It does a great job of taking you through examples of the form, tracing lineage, and showing the vastly different things poets can do. Admittedly I skipped over a lot of the "further reading" material, but I would like to go back to it some afternoon. This is the book that helped get me into haiku, and finally make me like Keats. (view spoiler)[Wordsworth still sucks though (hide spoiler)] I need a physical version of this, so I can just page through. It's a good book. It does a great job of taking you through examples of the form, tracing lineage, and showing the vastly different things poets can do. Admittedly I skipped over a lot of the "further reading" material, but I would like to go back to it some afternoon. This is the book that helped get me into haiku, and finally make me like Keats. (view spoiler)[Wordsworth still sucks though (hide spoiler)]

  8. 5 out of 5

    Lucas Bishop

    This book was adapted from a class that Hass taught. As such, it felt like a bit of a slog at times. Even so, I was able to read a lot of poetry (which was incredible) through this large and sometimes boring book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kenton Yee

    Consider the opening quatrain of Emily Dickinson’s I cannot live with You: I cannot live with You – It would be Life – And Life is over there – Behind the Shelf Its lines alternate between iambic trimeter and iambic bimeter, a shortening of Dickinson's usual alternating iambic tetra- and trimeters hymn form. There are no end rhymes (unless you consider Life and Shelf to be off rhymes). Its subject (Life) is abstract, and there is no imagery or movement until "over there / Behind the shelf.” Each of t Consider the opening quatrain of Emily Dickinson’s I cannot live with You: I cannot live with You – It would be Life – And Life is over there – Behind the Shelf Its lines alternate between iambic trimeter and iambic bimeter, a shortening of Dickinson's usual alternating iambic tetra- and trimeters hymn form. There are no end rhymes (unless you consider Life and Shelf to be off rhymes). Its subject (Life) is abstract, and there is no imagery or movement until "over there / Behind the shelf.” Each of the four lines contains a reference to Life: live, Life, Life, and Shelf. And its ending couplet lends itself to two diametric interpretations: 1) Life there behind the Shelf is over; or 2) Life is over there, there behind the Shelf. Formally, this quatrain resembles the opening of a poetic argument of a Shakespearean sonnet, but with its lines containing fewer feet, plainer vocabulary, and a destitution of romantic decor, metaphor, and end rhymes. (End rhymes would evoke unity or synchronicity whereas the subject here is conflict and separation.) In this way, Dickinson’s poetic form performs restraint for us, and it launches into an argument for restraint and separation. Using dozens of examples like the one just described, Robert Hass' A Little Book on Form sheds light on how poetic form combines with syntax, prosody, vocabulary, juxtaposition, imagery, rhetoric, metaphors, paradox etc etc to make (or break) a poem. When I first ordered A Little Book on Form, I expected to receive a “little” book. However, at 447 pages, the book is big, not little. It takes the reader on a journey of forms, from one- and two-line poems to haikus, Victorian medievalism, modernism, blank and free verse, collage, prose poetry and procedural poetics, among others. The book is “little” only in relation to the vast expanse of its subject matter. The volume succeeds by being high level and methodical without skimping on specificity and plenty of interesting examples. Besides being a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Hass is a scholar and this book brings you into his master classroom. I felt like I was attending his Iowa workshop (where I understand Hass once taught this material). It seems to be the real deal, and I expect that I will be coming back to this little book again and again. 📓

  10. 5 out of 5

    Therese Broderick

    I agree wholeheartedly with those reviewers, critics, and Goodreads subscribers who have lavished their praise upon this thrilling book. Perhaps every compliment within possibility has already been bestowed. I will offer only this idiosyncratic observation: the book's subtitle irks me. I want to substitute the phrase "imagining of" for "imagination of," because it is we writers, we poets, we human beings who activate the mental imagining of poetry and its vivifying forms. From the perspective of I agree wholeheartedly with those reviewers, critics, and Goodreads subscribers who have lavished their praise upon this thrilling book. Perhaps every compliment within possibility has already been bestowed. I will offer only this idiosyncratic observation: the book's subtitle irks me. I want to substitute the phrase "imagining of" for "imagination of," because it is we writers, we poets, we human beings who activate the mental imagining of poetry and its vivifying forms. From the perspective of Mr. Hass, "form" is an expressive and dynamic force,"The way the poem embodies the energy of the gesture of its making." (page 3, hardcover edition). A poet must nourish his/her formal imagination, "the intuitions that shape a work of art" (ibid), by listening attentively to the complex rhythms and pulses of language. "Mostly they [poets] listen and record what they are just hearing or have just heard" (page 113, hardcover edition). Accordingly, I will task myself with listening--with listening reverently to the many exemplary poems chosen by Mr. Hass for publication within these pages. I will read these poems aloud, record my voice, then listen to the recordings. In this way, I can transform the immensely significant notes of Mr. Hass into my own personal how-to-write-poetry guide, an essential handbook for training my own intuitive imaginings.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Ray Zimmerman

    The chapter on satire taught me that some of my poems are satires, particularly those written in heroic couplets. Apparently, the use of forms is common in satire. This was only one of many revelations found within A Little Book on Form, which is not so little at over 400 pages, yet still not exhaustive on the subject. The chapter on "Reading the Sonnet" goes on for 50 pages, packed with examples. The author begins with one line in his first chapter, appropriately titled "One," stating that it is The chapter on satire taught me that some of my poems are satires, particularly those written in heroic couplets. Apparently, the use of forms is common in satire. This was only one of many revelations found within A Little Book on Form, which is not so little at over 400 pages, yet still not exhaustive on the subject. The chapter on "Reading the Sonnet" goes on for 50 pages, packed with examples. The author begins with one line in his first chapter, appropriately titled "One," stating that it is more difficult to write a good line than a good poem. He moves on to couplets and the Ghazal with their two-line stanzas. He then explores terza rima, tercet, triplet and haiku, followed by the quatrain. Chapters are devoted given to blank verse, free verse, elegy, and ode. The pantoum is not neglected, nor is the villanelle. These words may be unfamiliar in our contemporary world where much of the published poetry is unrhymed free verse and form seems to be forgotten, but familiarity with them will greatly add to the enjoyment of poetry, and even to that of free verse. The author has much to say about how form: rhyme, rhythm, stanza patterns and unrhymed lines complement and enhance the content of a poem. This is not a book to be read in one stretch, but readers will find that it adds to their reading, writing and enjoyment of poetry.

  12. 5 out of 5

    John

    I only skimmed the book over the course a few hours, so this is less a review than notes to myself for when I read it again. But read again I most certainly shall, because there is a lot to learn here. I originally saw it on a bookstore shelf and picked it up because, while I read and enjoy poetry, I've never actually studied it, so I thought this might help make up for my lack of college lit classes; I was not wrong. The book sprang from the author's notes for a seminar for aspiring poets, and p I only skimmed the book over the course a few hours, so this is less a review than notes to myself for when I read it again. But read again I most certainly shall, because there is a lot to learn here. I originally saw it on a bookstore shelf and picked it up because, while I read and enjoy poetry, I've never actually studied it, so I thought this might help make up for my lack of college lit classes; I was not wrong. The book sprang from the author's notes for a seminar for aspiring poets, and parts retain the feeling of notes, while other sections are fully written out. It covers the entire breadth of poetry in the English language, from medieval song through the 21st century. It brings in poetry of other languages where it has influenced or inspired poetry in English (the odes of Horace, Persian ghazals, Petrarchan sonnets and more), but it's definitely not about the poetry of the world. It includes poems and fragments from nearly 70 different poets, and suggests reading of many, many more. I'd break the book down into four parts, each of which is several chapters, not always adjacent. One part considers lines of poetry, either alone or in groups of two to four, with observations about the relationships between grammatical structures and poetic ones, how stanzas of varying sizes have different effects, and some related forms, including haiku, couplets, blues, terza rima, and the ballad. A second part discusses structures such as the sonnet, ghazal, villanelle, as well as blank verse, what the author calls "difficult" forms, constructed or generated poetry, and that apparent contradiction, prose poetry. Another part explores poetic "genres", including odes, elegies, satires, etc., none of which are constrained either by meter of stanza structure. The final part comprises a few chapters about rhythm, stress, and scanning a poem, and "how free verse works". I think when I come back to this I'll plan to spend a leisurely year with it, reading a chapter with pencil in hand, then going off to spend time with the suggested readings (or at least some of them). I know there are other books on poetic form out there (the author recommends a couple in his introduction), and I'll probably look them up too. What I got out of this first pass tells me that there's a lot more to get, and that it will give me the tools to deepen my understanding of, and appreciation for, both the poetry I've already read, and the poems I've yet to discover.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Luis Borjas

    Probably the best, and most thorough, exploration of the formal mindset in poetry: its motivations, its expressions throughout history, its evolution, its nigh-equivalence to the poetic impulse and the creative endeavor. Hass presents a cogent, well researched and supplemented approach to understanding the many forms that English poetry has taken, presenting compelling arguments to explore and converse with them. This well-reasoned tome is the first time I've managed to grok the elusive characte Probably the best, and most thorough, exploration of the formal mindset in poetry: its motivations, its expressions throughout history, its evolution, its nigh-equivalence to the poetic impulse and the creative endeavor. Hass presents a cogent, well researched and supplemented approach to understanding the many forms that English poetry has taken, presenting compelling arguments to explore and converse with them. This well-reasoned tome is the first time I've managed to grok the elusive characteristic of less constrained forms like the ode and elegy, and have appreciated the impetus behind meter and rhyme. Highly recommended for readers and writers of poetry who'd like to survey its meanderings through anglophone history.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    As someone with scant formal training in the structural and technical aspects of poetry, I found this book both fascinating and frustrating. It wasn't until the very end that I finally accepted that Hass was offering a richly annotated reference work and not a true introductory guide to the subject of poetic form. Now that I'm over my disappointment, I'm.excited to go back and dip into those sections that intrigued me most, mining Hass' lists of exemplars and perhaps even taking up his challenge As someone with scant formal training in the structural and technical aspects of poetry, I found this book both fascinating and frustrating. It wasn't until the very end that I finally accepted that Hass was offering a richly annotated reference work and not a true introductory guide to the subject of poetic form. Now that I'm over my disappointment, I'm.excited to go back and dip into those sections that intrigued me most, mining Hass' lists of exemplars and perhaps even taking up his challenge to diagram some poems. All of that newfound enthusiasm aside, as a reference work his book is missing some important components, namely an index (!) and a good glossary. The presence of those two items would have bumped my review up one star.

  15. 4 out of 5

    David C Ward

    An interesting book that does make you wonder what publishers have in mind - is there a market for essentially the very detailed lecture/class notes of a fine poet who also teaches? Interesting and instructive in parts, especially in the beginnings when Hass riffs on numbers, it also gets bogged down in lists, extensive quotations, assignments etc that keep this from being something less than a handbook or instruction manual let alone an argument about form. Lots of interesting bits though. Now An interesting book that does make you wonder what publishers have in mind - is there a market for essentially the very detailed lecture/class notes of a fine poet who also teaches? Interesting and instructive in parts, especially in the beginnings when Hass riffs on numbers, it also gets bogged down in lists, extensive quotations, assignments etc that keep this from being something less than a handbook or instruction manual let alone an argument about form. Lots of interesting bits though. Now if I could just remember what a spondee is.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Gerry LaFemina

    Hass's ironically titled (It is a BIG book--in both its length and breadth) A Little Book on Form, is smart and insightful. I sometimes want to argue with him (which is, aas, impossible), and sometimes feel the push toward a belief that the fractal/LANGUAGE poetics is the most relevent school of poetry today overwhelms the arguments, but there's no doubt that Hass is well read, erudite, and cares, deeply, about poetry and the history of prosody.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    This is such a resource. It is an ambitious review of poetic forms, and includes many examples of each form, recommending even more poems for outside reading. I enjoyed reading Hass's history and analysis of poetic form, and, while this is a long book that required a good amount of time to read, it did not drag in the way a similarly themed textbook might. Also, and this is completely irrelevant, but the cover is gorgeous. This color combination is my favorite.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Vincent

    Little? Actually, quite lengthy and informed. Hass has penned a solid look at the ways forms work, even so-called free verse. The examples within range from classics by Frost to lesser known (to this reader) ghazals (and what is easily my favorite poetry from C. D. Wright), all discussed with clarity and focus. Great stuff.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Scott Wiggerman

    A challenging book at times, but also insightful. It's not quite what I expected, and a good portion of the book focuses on three forms: sonnets, odes, and elegies. There are much shorter chapters on other forms, like sestinas, prose poems, etc., and Hass presents a brief history of each of the forms complete with examples. I will add this his final chapters on scansion and meter are excellent.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Caroline Meek

    This book gave me language with which to talk about formal aspects of poetry. Written in short, easily-digestible yet rich sections, Hass packs so much good information into this volume! I read this book for an advanced poetry seminar with Andrew King (University of Iowa), and I feel more confident as both a writer and reader as a result.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Aisha

    5 stars for a great reference and jumping off point for learning and studying poetic forms. Reads like lecture notes from the many workshops the author has conducted. Lots of opportunities to read further (suggested readings in each section). This work fulfills Popsugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge Prompt - “A book you meant to read in 2019”.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Kendra Drischler

    This is a smart overview of how poetic form work in English, with Hass's trademark breeziness. I could have done without pages and pages of lists of poems in the main text, though: there should have been an index.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Meg Gee

    A great book for reimagining form that is accessible for the academic and layman alike. Wish there were more ways in which the poetry was used, such as prompts at the end of each chapter that utilized the examples thoroughly. Overall, lovely. I will be purchasing my own copy.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Rod

    This book feels essential somehow. A deeply enjoyable dive into many and various poetic forms, with copious and apposite examples, that will also serve as an invaluable reference in years to come. Hass also uses a light hand to suggest further reading so that you don't feel browbeaten or exhausted.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    Good morning to everyone except the person who decided this book didn't need an index.... This book could have been an incredibly useful reference text, but good luck finding the passages you were looking for.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Zach

    A great resource for teaching poetic form and devices to high school students.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    An excellent new book on poetic forms, one stanza length at a time.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Emma

    Ditto for previous book - didn't finish, class is over, woohoo.

  29. 5 out of 5

    elena

    excellent reference on craft - adding it to my reference shelf.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jonathon

    Very enjoyable. It brought me back to the poetry classes I took a decade or so ago, and made me think about my current lyric writing in new ways. Rekindled an interest in poetry.

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