Poetry On Trial: 1. “What are poets for?” by George Gunn

Alice Oswald: ‘Poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions’

This thoughtful provocative essay by poet George Gunn asks some timely questions on the whys and wherefores of modern poetry, and asks whether there is a socialised character of poetry in Scotland that is distinct from the leanings of the Anglo-centric establishment.  First published in the Scottish Review this essay-come-manifesto deserves as wide a readership as possible.


When the winner of the 2012 T S Eliot prize for poetry was announced in January the event grabbed the attention of the media because two of those poets short listed withdrew their books from the running when it was revealed that a financial investment company Aurum, with a portfolio of hedge-funds, was sponsoring the competition.

In the fallout from the 2008 ‘credit crunch’, this, in the scheme of things, was a minor burn – but not without irony. If the Poetry Book Society, who organised the event, lose their Arts Council of England funding they are entitled to search for an alternative source of lucre even though the City of London may not be the most ethical place to acquire it. On the other hand, that is where all the cash of UK plc has gone, so ‘a terrible symmetry is born’, if I could be forgiven for re-interpreting W B Yeats’ famous phrase.

‘Hedge-funds are at the very pointy end of capitalism’, said John Kinsella, one of the poets who withdrew his work in protest. Alice Oswald, the original objector, said that: ‘Poetry should be questioning not endorsing such institutions’. John Burnside, the prize winner, so articulate on the page, understandably proved less so under the forensic gaze of the TV cameras when he was asked what he thought about the ‘protests’.

Are Kinsella and Oswald genuine disaffected voices or are they ironical and inverse hecklers, whom the poet Tony Harrison has termed ‘the rhubarbarians’: instead of crying out against the mystification of poetry and art in general by the ruling class, as Harrison would have it, instead they complain that it is sullying its robes by associating with ‘such institutions’?

As someone who has wrestled on the killing floor of conscience when a play he wrote was given an award which was to be presented by Prince Charles, my sympathies lie with both the refuseniks and the recipient. This is, as both John Burnside and I will attest, an impossible situation. But society and life within it generally presents itself in political terms and as we do not inhabit Plato’s republic of perfect forms – in contrast to my imperfect republican conscience – but rather plummet and ascend in the imbalances of society itself therefore, the argument runs: poetry, like everything else, has a function.

So what is it and what are poets for? The question hangs in the air of human achievement like so much smoke. The fire of the answer is obviously: to write poetry. But to accept that singularity would be to avoid the reality of human experience which constantly validates Louis MacNeice’s awkward observation on ‘the drunkenness of things being various’. Are poets right to question the shape of our society, or is their purpose purely to imagine its possibility in relation to themselves?

If poetry is on trial then it may seem perverse to start off by putting forward the case for the prosecution and if the charge is: are poets good for anything?, then one answer would be: no, they are not. So what is the evidence?

To the casual observer it would appear that most contemporary poets – those who are put up for and win prizes, for these are the only ones they will hear about – are published in London and either work for publishers or teach ‘creative writing’ at a university. When their books appear they are praised by a select few fellow travellers in journals read by an elevated band of their peers, supplicants or aspirants. On first reading the poems produced by this group seem to be written in a secret language of Cabbalistic patterns and Masonic signs and signatures. This codification, as the distribution of literary prizes indicates, serves them well as it occupies space, traditionally the open domain of the public mind, and is easily recognised by others with a similar training. They move about this occupied space, these poets, like agents at a conspiracy.

They transmit their information to each other on a refined wavelength in messages constructed out of baroque scaffolding and arabesque surfaces where sentences swim through the sea of clutter, interference and desperation most people understand as reality, like a blind and deaf fish, much like the one recently discovered at the bottom of the sea.

The masters of indifference who manage this secret agency – in which each member is an active administrator – invite the public to swoon at the beauty of these messages and to praise the felicity of their construction and to reward the poet-messengers appropriately. The media fascination with literary awards has corresponded to the rarification of poetry itself. So it is that the ‘new renaissance’ (whisper it, ‘the real renaissance’) of poetry in Scotland has come to be. Note here that it is ‘poetry in Scotland’ not ‘Scottish poetry’ because it is one of the popular orthodoxies that ‘national’ definitions in regard to poetic output are contradictory, unhelpful, narrow and reactionary. This, of course, pre-supposes that ‘poetry’ comes out of nowhere other than a singular human consciousness unsullied by being born and brought up in Brechin as opposed to Belgravia.

To those who subscribe to this phenomenon and who have displayed a keen facility in the secret language and who give great weight to the patterns and signs go the prizes which guarantee the poet entry into the small Dionysian where the sun always rises in the eternal springtime in the best of all possible fraternities.

In 1817 John Keats wrote a letter to his brothers George and Thomas in which he spoke of a ‘negative capability’ and by this he meant to define his poetry as a defence of beauty against reason which he saw as the force driving Coleridge to objectify everything in terms of knowledge. Keats chose to make the claim for the liberty of the individual in order for them to define themselves in relation to systems as opposed to becoming a systems fodder. This has to be distinguished from the destructive individualism of the libertine right which allows for everything for everyone but which actually guarantees nothing for the majority.

For Keats the world was beautiful because it contained ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’, and for all that the term ‘romantic’ has attached itself to his life and work Keats was a man who studied the emerging scientific marvels of his time such as medicine and electricity and understood the negative pole of an electric current which is passive and receptive.
The ‘current’ one can detect in the poetry of ‘the best of all possible fraternities’, when one deciphers the inverted runes and anti-oghams, is of a charge not there, of a space emptied as opposed to being filled. That the ‘space between the words’, which is the maxim of the poetry workshop leader, is in fact just space and, unlike an atom, has no nucleus or electrons and as a result embraces neither the beauty Keats championed or the knowledge Coleridge sought. If a writer rejects ‘history’ and ‘subject’ as being dogma then all that is really left is style, which is the ‘space’ between substance and meaning. A poetics based on this offers nothing and challenges nothing but fulfils the nervous ambivalence of the contemporary age which is resistant to commitment or meaning.

What Keats gave us when he ruminated on ‘negative capability’ was an articulation of the necessary questioning of everything, of accepting no system as being complete. In this regard he carried the mantle of Socrates. On the day of his death it is said that Socrates approached his disciples and those who would eventually kill him and told them he was ‘setting’ Aesop’s Fables into verse. This flies in the face of the accepted Aristotelian credo that Socrates was illiterate.

To compound this heresy Socrates told those foregathered that he had had a dream. It was the usual recurring dream in which a voice (‘the’ voice) kept telling him to ‘keep practising the art’. Socrates had always taken this to mean the ‘art’ of philosophy but no, on the eve of his death, he realised that it was the ‘art of writing’ he should have engaged with. Sometimes enlightenment, even to the father of philosophy, comes too late. For Socrates this was ironically ‘ironic’ as his method in philosophy, as it was the in the art of the poetry of Keats, was one of constant questioning.

If that is the case for the prosecution then I admit it is a poor thing and if it appears that I deliberately undermine the evidence then I should remind you, as Wilde reminds us in ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, ‘that each man kills the thing he loves’. But what I am engaged in here is the pursuit of an answer to a question: what are poets for? There should be no need for a bitter look, a flattering word, a kiss or a sword. So to ‘the’ answer, to any case for the defence: it is that there must be a counter argument against the ‘inverted runes and anti-oghams’ of those who fortify the occupied space of poetry’s once open domain; ‘questioning’ as opposed to ‘endorsing’.

Writing poetry in Scotland has never been, despite the establishment of the myth to the contrary, a singular and obscure monastic discipline for a chosen elite, or an isolated or marginalised activity undertaken by sallow-cheeked youths ‘half in love with easeful death’ to reference John Keats yet again.

Anglo-centric literary orthodoxy places the poet at the edge of society, engaged in the production of an art which only a few well-educated individuals with the necessary time and resources can understand. The majority of people, or ‘the lave’ as they are called in Aberdeenshire, are excluded from this hierarchy in much the same way as an ordinary person is denied entrance into a convention of safe crackers: they simply do not know the code.

Education, in general, encourages the individual to aspire to reach up and appreciate what the playwright John McGrath called ‘the cultural jewels on the top shelf’: to crack the code and join the club. The emphasis here is on rising up, of leaving what you know behind, of rejecting your own culture as somehow inferior.

McGrath’s entire creative life was spent reacting against his educational background and was a sustained attack on the ‘top shelf’ in order to bring the ‘cultural jewels’ crashing down onto the scullery floor so that ‘the lave’ can give them a good kicking about to see just what they are made of. As is usual when the structures of dominance, which cultural exclusion rests upon, are examined they are found to be no more than the shadow-puppets in Plato’s cave: an illusion. Once the sham is exposed then culture can be seen for what it is: the result of people living together in society. Art is the expression of that. Poetry is a craft within that art.

The poetic evolution of Scotland reveals a different narrative, offers us a more optimistic and inclusive literary tradition full of ‘cultural jewels’ of a more egalitarian nature. From my position within my ‘open domain’, which is Caithness and Sutherland, the view of both where poetry has come from and where it is going takes on a different perspective – literally, like looking through the other end of the telescope – from that of Anglo-centric orthodoxy.    In the north Highlands we have a duality of poetic traditions: that of the Celtic ‘bard’ and of the Norse ‘skald’. I place them both between inverted commas to differentiate between them and the appellation of ‘poet’. Time and cultural erosion have melded and reduced the function of bard and the skald into that of the poet but the popular conception and practice of the contemporary poet denies the residual influence of the bard and the skald onto what poetry was, is and could become.

This denial contributes to the loss of a collective cultural memory and consolidates poetry’s current position as that of an, at best, worthy irrelevance or something rolled out, when it is needed, as some kind of totemistic grotesque at such events as Burns Suppers, weddings or funerals.

Far from being at the edge of society or in the periphery of significance both the bard and the skald were at the centre of their respective culture’s ‘society’; which is again put between inverted commas here too, as an indication that ‘society’ is a consequence of ‘culture’, not the other way around. Both bards and skalds were given great status in pre-Norman Scotland because they were storehouses of the people’s stories, their dreams and creation myths.

The Norse looked to the skald and the Celts looked to the bard for an articulation of both their secular psychology, their ways of being and social interaction and for an explanation as to why the sky would not fall on them. The bard and the skald gave valediction and expression to the cult of the ancestors and mapped out a pathway into the future. They may have woven their alphabet from trees or cut their messages in runes onto flagstone but their social and cultural function was defined and necessary and available to all, for the story they told was the story of the tribe and the light they shone on that collective was the light of life.

Poetry, for the Celts and the Norse, was the music of their blood. It was the medium through which they understood themselves. Despite the attempts of the various hierarchies who have organised society in order that they rule over it, poetry is that medium still. Which is why, no matter its obscure codifications and institutionalised elitism, its canonisation and cultural misuse, poetry is still seen as dangerous.

From these earliest times through to the medieval Scots makars, to Burns through MacDiarmid and Hamish Henderson to the present moment, Scottish poetry has steadfastly refused to tow the state line, shunned the gowns offered by the academy, pledged its troth loyally to the cause of the people. Or it did. More specifically the attempts by the establishment to reign in the perennial popularity of poetry in Scotland has increased. For this is the age of the literary prize, of ‘makars’ and ‘laureates’.

Despite the undoubted success of many contemporary Scottish novelists the 19th century bourgeois art form which is the novel has never really been popular in Scotland. One could argue that despite the fact that Walter Scott has done more than anyone to ‘invent’ the novel as we understand it and to promote the ‘one on one’ undertaking which reading a novel requires, it still sits uneasily in the gallery of Scottish artistic and social activity, for it is an internal journey not an external trip, an individual experience, not a collective sharing. Charlotte Bronte in ‘Jane Eyre’, by declaring ‘Reader, I married him’, is making a mono-cultural assumption as to the individual relationship of the consumer to the work of art. If she were Scottish she would be more than likely to exclaim: ‘Listen everybody, I married him! See you at the dance!’.

Bronte, one supposes, was writing for a known audience as well as an imagined reader. She was at the same time writing for herself as her target audience and readership were from her known world and class. In Scotland writers have never strictly written for themselves. By this I mean the writer in Scotland has never been exclusively of themselves, singular or detached. Individual writers may have come and gone, been ignored, denied and died penniless but the main bulwark of Scottish literature is that like most everything else in Scotland it is a public activity. This is why poetry and not prose is the art form of the Scottish heart from Thurso down to the Tweed. Poetry is more of the blood and prose of the mind; one is passion, the other reason.

This idea is not restricted to Scotland, thank goodness. In her moving memoir about her life with her husband, the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, ‘Hope Against Hope’, Nadezhda Mandelstam has this to say about the function of the poet:

The work of the poet, as a vehicle for world harmony, has a social character – that is, it is concerned with the doings of the poet’s fellow men, among whom he lives and whose fate he shares. He does not speak ‘for them’, but with them, nor does he set himself apart from them: otherwise he would not be a source of truth.

Whether the reticent nature of the Scot would embrace the Russian idea of the poet ‘as a vehicle for world harmony’ it is the case that from Dunbar to Liz Lochhead there is a long tradition in Scotland of literary art as being a socialised activity and of having a socialising function. In this way writers have had and still have far more purchase on civic and political life in Scotland than they ever have had in England. In other words there is a sense in Scotland that literature adds to our civilisation as opposed to detracting from it.

This latter condition of literature is often the impression one gets when one reads the English press. Perhaps it is going too far to say that England is hostile to imagination and intellect but there definitely is an impression abroad in that land that they are mistrustful of it. A society which relegates its poets to the margins will certainly shiver nervously if they suddenly declare themselves as ‘a source of truth’. That kind of ‘truth’ no government wants to hear.

However it is worth mentioning here that all critics or propagandists for Scottish poetry must remember how most people in Scotland receive poetry (as opposed to perceiving it) and this is through the filter of English cultural experience, which is transmitted into the consciousness of the majority of Scots through education. By education I mean here the mandatory 11 years of primary and secondary schooling. By being shackled to the rock of a neighbouring cultural ordering, the common intellectual condition of most people at the end of this process is confusion or apathy. Something has been denied and that ‘something’ is Scottish literary history which never gets a hearing. Or if it does the message comes from the occupied space and needs translating.

As Oscar Wilde so famously didn’t say from the dock but did say as ‘Saint Oscar’ in Terry Eagleton’s play of that name – and here he could be speaking of the Scots as well as the Irish:

I object to this trial on the grounds that no Irishman can receive a fair hearing in an English court because the Irish are figments of the English imagination. I am not really here; I am just one of your racial fantasies. You cannot manacle a fantasy

The fantasy prevalent in English literature, as it is taught in our universities, is that Scottish literature is part of the greater language family of Empire and for that reason has to have a similar genesis and can subsequently be subject to the same hegemonic rules of the literary ascendancy. Scottish poetry, its origin and its canon, stands in direct opposition to that assumption.

Yet there is little real lasting benefit to be accrued in defining what we are not. Much better for the furtherance of the project is to celebrate what we are by asking and doing. In this undertaking, perversely, we may find that the sturdy vessels of certainty and identity are not as secure as we imagined. There is nothing wrong, creatively, in rocking the boat of assumption.

Maybe the true state of all poets everywhere at any time is to ask and inhabit the mind-state of John Clare when he wrote: ‘I am – yet what I am none cares or knows’. The clamour for ‘identity’, or even recognition, mitigates against this fear of the void – to which Clare felt he was heading and indeed his destination was the asylum – and that generalising sump of history where all poets become Anonymous.

Contrast this fear with the ready embracing of the Anonymous mask by the ‘Occupy the City’ movement as their public face. As was Hamish Henderson’s reasonable ambition to have his work known but was happy enough if it was anthologised as that of ‘Anonymous’. For Henderson believed that his work came from and would return to the universal ‘carrying stream’ of creativity and cultural expression. Contrast the plight of MacDiarmid’s life-long struggle in what Norman MacCaig called ‘a torchlight procession of one’ against the darkness of Clare’s exclusion.

What mask does the poet choose now in these quasi-revolutionary times and what duty does the poet have, if any, to the public despite (and because of) all that I have claimed for Celtic cultural inclusiveness? Furthermore, what relationship does the poet have to recent world history as made manifest around the globe through new electronic and cyber technology? As the events in Arab countries unfold – as all future upheavals will be reported, which is through the ‘unofficial media’ of mobile phones and digi-cameras – does the poet have a role in this unfolding or are poets irrelevant? In what direction exactly is the ‘vehicle of world harmony’ heading?

This pressure on the poet to have a public function will only increase and in many ways completes the circle from the age of bards and skalds to the age of the Iphone. Compounding this frontier crossing into occupied and unoccupied space is the relentless media-driven circus of literary prizes and the fetishising of personality and competition over quality and merit. So it made awkward TV viewing to see John Burnside try to address the question by ignoring it of the inappropriate sponsoring the T S Eliot poetry prize, which he had just won, by a hedge fund investment company. The reporter had an angle of questioning which the prize-winner was either unable or unwilling to answer. £15,000 to a Scottish poet is a fortune.

Here was a poet placed in a strange world: in the trivial transience of the saloons of scandal and celebrity; a gaudy, tacky, chemically lit environment but one which nonetheless is firmly in the public domain but which is a place modern poets are not used to being: a literary rabbit in the Warholian headlights of ’15 (make that two and a half) minutes of fame’. It was not edifying.

So, in the end, what actually is the difference between the case for the prosecution and the defence of poetry? It could be that the evidence of all the ages of literature’s development up to this point is not enough. Maybe we should throw away the telescope and understand what John Muir came to realise about the mountains of Yosemite – that geologically they are always in ‘the long now’. This idea is perfectly understood in the theatre which is an art form that exists permanently in the present moment. ‘The long now’ for an actor is the instant they step on stage to the second they step off. You truly exist as a playwright when your play is being performed; everything else is ‘anonymous’.

The ultimate tragedy, I suspect, and the reason poets and poetry occupy a peripheral space in the modern popular consciousness, is that the poets whom ‘society’ rewards have allowed the language of their poems to suffer what William Thomson (or Lord Kelvin as he is more famously known) referred to as ‘heat death’ in physics. Thomson was trying to formulate some understanding of thermodynamics, of heat and mechanical energy and of how heat loss is a loss of mechanical energy in nature. Applied to the universe this means its ultimate fate is to have diminished to a state of no ‘thermodynamic free energy’ and ‘therefore can no longer sustain motion or life’. A dark gaseous eternity of photon leptons awaits.

The timescale for this theory of the heat death of the universe is unimaginably long. So there is no point in worrying about it, rather we should appreciate it as the beauty of physics. The ‘heat death’ of modern poetry, the loss of linguistic energy, is a far more pressing and anxiety-inducing problem for it allows us to appreciate poetry less. How can a poet speak with the people ‘among whom he lives’, as Nadezhda Mandelstam has it, when there is no linguistic equilibrium, let alone thermodynamics, no give and take, where poetry cannot do its ‘work’ and where there can be little possibility of the poet becoming ‘a vehicle of world harmony’?

If the space in our society reserved for poetry is currently occupied by careerists with a panache for the ‘secret language’ of safe crackers then it is because we have allowed it to be so occupied. We can, since it is within our collective power, re-possess the space. Who is to say that the government of a newly independent Scotland will be any less or more ambivalent towards culture than the present devolved one? If they saw culture and the arts as being a vital component in the development of the psyche of each individual and hence the nation as opposed to treating it, as they currently do, like a stall at a trade fair or a marketing opportunity then progress could be made.

The simple act of the Scottish Government buying 2,000 copies of each new book of poems by a Scottish poet published in Scotland and distributing them around schools and libraries would go a long way to injecting much-needed cash into the moribund beast which is Scottish publishing. It could be at last, to paraphrase W.B. Yeats yet again, ‘slouch… towards Bethlehem to be born’. It would also put cash in the pockets of Scottish poets and would reduce the need to appear gluff-eyed in the spotlight of public attention. Who knows, they may even get used to it. The poets may even work out for themselves what they are actually for.

(c) George Gunn, 2012  (First published in Scottish Review).

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  1. Colm Linnane says:

    This is a really thought provoking piece, thanks for posting.

    Couple of things stick out like sore thumbs for me. Think the idea of the novel as an “internal trip” is grossly reductive- my feeling is that the novel in Scottish Literature is significant (but admittedly different to that of poetry)- I think the novel places the Scottish voice and national experience into an international context (outwith the canonical “British/Imperial” tradition that George alludes to here).

    Also think the allusions to Burnside’s dilemma about the TS Eliot prize is a little ungenerous here- doesn’t the fleeting discomfort everyone (JB included) felt at his acceptance of a lucrative award mirror our own nagging discomfort at living through these times? Aren’t we all comprimised, complicit in our own imprisonment in the mad sinking prison barge of global financial collapse? The notion that poets shouldn’t be contradictory, elusive, hypocritical or, let’s go nuts here, grasping is a bit elysian isn’t it?

    Interested in the idea of government funded poetry publishing, if only in terms of drawing an extremely tenuous analogy with the Butter Mountains or Wine Lakes that were a result of the Common Agricultural Policy in the 1980s. I’ll grant that it would be (like the CAP was) a firm indication of a government/institutions priorities but how would it impact on the “worth” people place on poetry.

    These criticisms are half baked and don’t mean the article isn’t one of the better pieces I’ve read on poetry and its place anywhere.

  2. Colm Linnane says:

    Ugh. Many typos. Apologies.

  3. bkbloodaxe says:

    I love Colm’s concept of poetry mountains! Seriously though, subsidised poetry would be as effective as Danny Alexander’s fuel duty reduction. It would swiftly be pocketed by the publishing industry and be of questionable benefit. The Millennium Collection of ‟classics‟ took up a lot of shelf space in secondary school libraries to no good effect except for the Everyman publishers’ balance sheets.

  4. George Gunn says:

    In reply to Colm and to bkbloodaxe. First of; John Burnside. Maybe I didn’t make it as clear as I intended: I completely sympathise with John’s predicament as I’ve been there myself,to a lesser degree, but the tensions of existing in the world of prizes and media hype are real and suck the life out of literature because in many ways they diminish it. John Burnside deserves all the success he has achieved. The rigmaroll is the destructive thing. We all become complicit. As to the novel in Scotland all I was suggesting was that it has become the form paramount and despite Galt, Gunn and Grassic Gibbon there is an artificiality about it which does not really evolve organically from the carrying stream. Tensions rise here again because as Colm points out Scotland has some fine novelists. Perhaps the truth is I am allergic to novels although, lke everybody else, I read them. As to the “government” funding poetry publishing I do not for one minute expect any butter mountains or the like because what I propose is an economy of scale. Scotland is finite so the number of copies of a new book would reflect that arithmetic.A similar scheme operates very successfully in Norway and as a result contemporary Norwegian poets enjoy a broader public persona and readership out of a purely practical scheme. If publishers do not care, as they seem not to, to maintain the public health of contemporary Scottish poetry then let us, the people, through our democratically elected government, insist upon it. All I desire is for people to have access to their poets.

  5. Colm says:

    Fair point well made about prizes, the fact that I really admire almost everything Burnside’s written the last few years probably makes me too quick to leap his defence against barbs that aren’t there.

    The CAP analogy was a bit of whimsy and not intended to be taken seriously (although I have to say my mind is now haunted by long-buried childhood imaginings of mountains of butter in dank European warehouses!). Didn’t know about the Norwegian model- very interesting. Think there’s definitely a need to think about public arts funding beyond the marketised/investment model currently in vogue.

    I reckoned the novel point was coming from a particular point of view, just thought the opposition was worth making!

    Thanks again for the considered response and the original piece.

  6. Much of what you describe is most ludicrously illustrated in the culture of the art prize – which is no more than ‘pop-star’ one-hit-wonder stuff created by a marketing capitalist Cork St closed shop, and something that drove me away from painting a long time ago towards poetry. All a writer needed at one time was a scrap of paper and a pencil with a point, no brown-nosing, hangering on, private view networking… all diminishing and humiliating. Perhap there is a kind of ‘poetic mind’ that seeks the simplicity and the truth in whatever medium they find best expresses it, and which is subversive because of that very persepctive. The literary – as well as poetic prize circuit – is a closed shop. in the publishing desert which is Scotland, anyone outwith the established closed shop or inner sanctum of house names may as well whistle at the moon as aspire to publication. The hurdles now for writers are the catch 22 of agents,publishers endless competition entries in the hope of gaining the chink of a publishing window, the type of brown-nosing the art world excells in…. and it begs the obvious question that with so many exlcuded from sharing their work with what is in fact a controlled readership, the prizes do a pass the parcel circuit of a limited number of ‘the published’ elite, while the great unwashed and unpublished are forced towards the avaricious ‘e’ jaws of Amazon. The only positive is that it doesnt stop writers writing and poets poeting, they continue to carve their unseen runes…

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