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Letters to a Young Poet: Rilke’s Non-Correspondence School
Posted By Daniel Bosch On February 1, 2005 @ 12:41 pm In Featured,Reviews | No Comments
“The letter that is sent is never the letter that is received.” —Lacan
As Reviewed By: Daniel Bosch
Rilke never held a teaching post. We have no cache of syllabi, no workshop guidelines, and though in his letters he expressed quite a lot of readerly enthusiasm, there is no definitive Rilkean reading list, no Rilkean curriculum. On what grounds, then, is Rilke believed to have provided “a sublime, one-on-one equivalent of the modern writing workshop”?[i]  Well, for the past fifty years or so, American would-be poets have been introduced to a “Herr Professor Rilke” whom they construct in a peculiar reading of Letters to a Young Poet (LTYP). These ten Briefe, dashed off by Rilke between 1903 and 1908, were preserved and published in 1929, three years after the poet’s death, by their recipient, a German soldier named Franz Xaver Kappus. Though they are fascinating letters-especially when compared to Rilke’s other correspondence-the texts Kappus published as LTYP are neither workshops nor essays on craft, and they belong more properly to the history of polity than to the history of poetry.
[private]It would be a surprise to Rilke, and it’s a problem for any one interested in teaching the craft of verse, that such divergent histories should ever have been drawn together. LTYP is not a faithful guide to what Rilke had to say about becoming a poet, and Americans’ long-running romance with the book tells a cautionary tale to teachers who want to help young writers make progress in the craft. Certainly we want each of our students to develop in terms of sensitivity, as Rilke’s letters seem to require; yet American readers’ affair with LTYP shows just how insensitive and unimaginative we can be when we want to flatter ourselves with the judgment that we possess an “artistic” soul. It will not be easy work, as I hope to show, but as teachers we have a responsibility to help writers young and old to break up with the Rilke of these letters, in favor of the Rilke of poetry-and reality.[ii] 
LTYP is ubiquitous-it is by far the brand of Rilke most Americans prefer. In light of the history of the 20th Century, the popularity of LTYP might be attributed to the similarity between Kappus, the soldier who likes to imagine himself a maker, and America, torn between its progressive, constructive dreams and its often regressive, destructive Realpolitik. But this would in no way account for the book’s popularity. At this writing the M.D. Herter Norton translation (1934) hangs tough at about 5000 on the Amazon.com sales list, spiking in any gift-giving season-remarkably high for a book that ostensibly presents advice about being a poet. (Amazon.com also tells us that LTYP is the 13th most popular book sold to university students in Massachusetts.) By comparison, Stephen Mitchell’s widely praised translation of Rilke’s Selected Poems is at 22,291, and Peter Porter’s translation of Rilke’s verse is at 99,400. Amazon.com to date posts 40 on-line reader reviews of LTYP, with an average rating of 4.5 stars out of 5. In these reviews Americans tell themselves and each other about the book, and reading them we can begin to grasp why this is precisely the book to which literate American families have turned when one of their own turns up “sensitive.” Here is a sample of how American readers gush:
“…timeless advice full of wisdom about solitude, troubles, sorrows, love, human interaction and being part of a society in which one doesn’t seem to really fit in.”
“A dear friend…around the time of my twenty-first birthday… saw that I’d been having trouble finding my true calling in life… Once I read this book I was blessed with a new outlook on life and its true meaning.”
“… I was struggling to find myself during my early college years. I was instantly amazed at how a book written over ninety years ago could be so precisely helpful to the many questions I was suffering with at the time…”
“I was recommended this book by a Creative Writing teacher at NYU, because I myself am a young poet. The beginning has great advice to a young writer, don’t write something and search for recognition, write because you have to write, write because you love it…”
“It’s hard to think how one could not find a useful and valid insight on each page of this gentle work. If you are at all interested in Rilke, or in responding to Life, this book should be wonderful for you.”
The Amazon.com endorsements of LTYP trace some of the broad outlines of late 20th century American writing pedagogy: distrust of the past (amazement “at how a book written over ninety years ago could be so precisely helpful”), vaguely therapeutic notions (“if you are interested in…responding to Life”), or empty platitudes (“write because you love it.”) Yet the love affair with the Kappus letters expressed in these comments is the product of two tendencies which should have no place in a writer’s education: on the one hand, an utter lack of imagination (about the circumstances of the letters’ production), and on the other hand, free rein with regard to what the letters mean. Americans want their LTYP, but they don’t want to understand the letters in any round, complicated way-don’t want to acknowledge, for example, that out of 61 pages (in the Norton edition) only 16 paragraphs and 16 other assorted sentences take up poetry directly. Fans of LTYP seem curiously anxious (like Rilke when he was writing to Kappus) to avoid the subject of poetry all together (something to which, in retrospect, one wishes Kappus had caught on.) The depths available in LTYP, in comparison to the depths found in Rilke’s verse, are negligible. For even if LTYP were an earnest invitation to an ordinary soldier to think and live “poetically,” one will never learn how to throw a good party by reading ten invitations.
This is especially the case if these invitations don’t-or can’t-tell you how to get to the parties. Rilke did not compose LTYP; the book is the concoction of Kappus and his publisher, with the assistance, in the case of the earlier American versions, of the translator. Rilke wrote ten letters to Kappus over five years; he let fall a greater lapse of time between each letter; the last was emitted after five years’ hiatus. Kappus published only the elliptical responses from Rilke, and couched the deletion of his own letters as a gesture of modesty (“Where a great and unique man speaks, small men should keep silence,”) Though it is an editorial commonplace in the case of larger collections of letters, the suppression by Kappus of the give and take of correspondence seems curious for such a slight-not to say trivial-set of notes between virtual strangers: it’s not as if the correspondence would be unpublishably large if it were presented in its entirety. The consequence is that Rilke’s words resound in a tightly sealed vacuum; the text is tricked up so that the letters, laden with abstract and emotionally charged vocabulary, are freighted with inordinate sense of awe and mystery.
Kappus’ book can cast its spell because American readers are ill equipped to resist it. Young writers’ investment in LTYP is all the more troubling since it doesn’t take very much imagination to read into Kappus’ text. Any teacher of verse who has received an unsolicited manuscript from a stranger could perhaps ask her students to consider, for example, that the title of the collection is a market-savvy bit of self-promotion. So, too, the limited empathy Rilke shows for the young soldier who had sent him his “stuff” might be fleshed out. Our students might imagine Kappus the “sensitive guy,”-eight years Rilke’s junior, a graduate of the military academy from which Rilke himself had fled and memories of which remained a powerful emotional “trigger.” Or, with our help, our students might be asked to consider context.
When Kappus writes to Rilke in 1903, after all, it’s not as if he were writing to a successful writer like Stephan George or Hugo Von Hofmannsthal (though we don’t know for sure that he didn’t also try to reach such stars before settling on Rilke). No, Kappus has chosen Rilke, who has in 1903 published only his weakest, most sentimental poetry, because of their school connections. Our young writers might be asked to consider whether there was reason for any one to think Rilke great in 1903. They might also (less charitably) imagine how a confused, lonely Kappus, who had prospered at the very military school from which Rilke had been shame-facedly, if thankfully, sent home, should view Rilke. Why should Captain Kappus, from the vantage point of his army barracks, have understood that Rilke the Untermensch had become Rainer Rilke the Parisien, a busy, cosmopolitan writer of 28? Why should he see in his mind’s eye a Rilke who brandished a silver-tipped cane and who must have groaned at the sight of yet another envelope on his desk, fat with manuscripts and scrawled with an unfamiliar Prussian return address? What sorts of impulses would motivate Kappus to write to this Rilke, someone committed not to the military but to poetry, a man in love with (and exiled from) two women, one a painter and the other a sculptor who has borne him a child? This Rilke would not be likely to fall under the spell of Kappus’ epaulettes-for this Rilke can read Kappus’ verses right through the envelope: ardent, ham-fisted rhymes, like fraternity brothers in suits and ties excitedly greeting each other from across the street. Polity required that he actually read Kappus’ letter, for Kappus mentions a teacher they had both worked with; the “poetry” Rilke could scan.
Teachers might ask students to notice that Rilke’s initial response to Kappus is only eight spare paragraphs long. As any writer who has responded to a batch of poorly composed work sent by a stranger can tell you, it is not always easy to remain polite. Rilke manages it with a certain flair, but is there not an element of impatience and frustration to be read in how quickly Rilke attests-he waits until sentence three-“I cannot go into the nature of your verses; for all critical intention is too far from me.” That Rilke should, having written himself a free pass, ignore it only two sentences later and begin to criticize Kappus’ work could, as Kappus and his American readers would have it, follow from some sort of generosity on Rilke’s part, some sort of artist-to-artist fellow feeling. But is it not just as plausible that Rilke, repelled by Kappus’ verse and aware that he could keep silent, felt instead a surge of responsibility to art, an urge to be honest? Something made him write “Nevertheless the poems are not yet anything in their own account, nothing independent, even the last one and the one to Leopardi.” When would-be poets on Amazon.com are busy hyping the very next paragraph, which contains the “money shot” of the Rilke-as-sympathetic-guide-to-young-poets business (his immortal advice to “ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?”), no one ever mentions the possibility that this advice is offered to someone Rilke knows is not a poet, that Rilke is offering Kappus a way to admit defeat gracefully.
I am not claiming that we can satisfactorily decide which of these (or other) impulses guides Rilke in his hasty composition of the initial response to Kappus. The Kappus and the Rilke I have imagined above are plausible fictions, composed in order to make clear how suspiciously little so many readers make of LTYP. Our unwillingness to imagine that Rilke’s letter is not principally generous and enthusiastic betrays Kappus’-and Americans’-investment in a polite, if imaginary, sympathy between the poet and poetaster. But a reader who has little to gain from a sentimental, self-interested view of what it takes to become a strong writer-i.e. any teacher of poetry-should allow, from the very first letter, that Rilke may have thought Kappus anything but a poet.
Nothing in LTYP tells one about how to make a line, a stanza, or an image. So is LTYP “about philosophy,” as one Amazon.com reader suggests? Even such a generous grasp at these letters depends upon what one means by “philosophy”-especially in German. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is philosophy. Are we to make “philosophy” out of Rilke’s ruminations? What can we make of even a brief philosophical treatise that doesn’t define its terms, or that offers sentences like
Love is at first not anything that means merging, giving over, uniting with another (for what would a union be of something unclarified and unfinished, still subordinate-?), it is a high inducement to the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world for himself for another’s sake, it is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things.
The answer is anything, or nothing, at all. And the upshot is that Americans’ reading of such passages have been circumscribed by their desire to be confirmed in their belief that poetry has to do with how one feels, and not with how one puts words down in lines. American readers feel “free” to imagine that such passages say something specific and useful to them as would-be artists. But the “freedom” to read this way is bound by an invisible but strictly patrolled frontier of knowledge, beyond which American readers of LTYP will not go unless they are led. Kappus’ Rilke tells him stuff like “What goes on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love” and “If you think of your childhood you will live…among the solitary children, and the grownups are nothing, and their dignity has no value.” Or, more usefully, “If there is nothing in common between you and other people, try being close to things, they will not desert you.” Such juicy tidbits, read out of context, in the absence of Kappus’ questions and in the absence of instruction, have beguiled American readers, who have shown no natural inclination to treat LTYP as a “thing” and get close to it. Compare such “advice” with the intensely craft-centered letters written by Paul Cezanne to Emile Bernard, (a younger artist whom Cezanne had actually met) composed at about the same time as the Kappus letters:
May I repeat what I told you here: treat nature by means of the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything brought into proper perspective so that each side of an object or a plane is directed towards a central point. Lines parallel to the horizon give breadth, whether it is a section of nature or, if you prefer, of the show which the Pater Omnipotens Aeterne Deus spreads out before our eyes. Lines perpendicular to this horizon give depth. But nature for us men is more depth than surface, whence the need to introduce into our light vibrations, represented by the reds and yellows, a sufficient amount of blueness to give the feel of air. (1904)
When Rilke wasn’t writing to Kappus-that is, for practically his whole life-he has another voice entirely, because he is not merely trying to take care of a distant stranger, and he feels he can discuss things of genuine interest to him. Rilke’s letters to friends, lovers, and other artists are clear, sprightly, vivid, precise, and determined to express important and lucid judgments about poetry and art. Opening Rilke’s Selected Letters, 1902-1926, I find passages like this, on Rodin at work:
First there is a firmly-kneaded lump of clay which consists of nothing but a globe placed on a shoulder-like support. This globe is prepared for him and contains no armature, only firm kneading keeps it together. He begins his work by standing the model at a very short distance from him, about half a pace from his easel. With big iron calipers he takes the measurement from the top of the head to the tip of the beard and immediately fixes this proportion on the clay lump by the addition of more clay. Then in the course of his work he takes two more measurements: nose to back of the head and ear to ear, from behind… (to Clara Rilke, 1906)
What has been happening here for the last three or four days is, God knows, spring no longer; it is a sultry young summer. In my little bed the hyacinths, which have long hesitated, are opening their blossomy eyes like someone shrilled at by an alarm-clock and stand there long and erect. The elms and oaks near my house are full, the Judas-tree has ceased blooming and its leaves are all out over-night; and a syringa which but three days ago was putting forth its first clusters is already fading and withering. The nights now are barely cool and the agitated din of frogs is their voice. The owls call more seldom, and the nightingale has not yet begun. Will she sing now, when it is summer? (to Lou-Andreas Salome, 1904)
In the first passage, an exceedingly detailed description evinces Rilke’s investment in artistic technique. In the second, the breath of romance blows-concretely- evoking colors and textures that carry the weight of the abstractions. In such passages-and these convey the tenor of the collected letters-we have access, however mediated, to a more reliable sense of Rilke and the things that matter to him than we have in any of LTYP. This more reliable Rilke is most clearly present, appropriately enough, in his famous letters about the paintings of Cezanne, written in 1907. Here Rilke manages, perhaps for the first time outside of verse, to synthesize his commitment to attending to the real world with his interest in “love”:
Today I went to see the pictures again…The good conscience of these reds, these blues, their simple truthfulness, it educates you…You also notice, a little more clearly each time, how necessary it was to go beyond love, too; it’s natural, after all, to love each of these things as one makes it; but if one shows this, one makes it less well; one judges it instead of saying it. One ceases to be impartial…that’s how the painting of sentiments came about (which is in no way better than paintings of things). They’d paint: I love this here; instead of painting: here it is….(Cezanne) turned to nature and knew how to swallow back his love for every apple and put it to rest in the painted apple forever.
It would be nice if we could say that the relative confusion and the lack of conviction and the promiscuously unrooted abstraction in LTYP is caused by how hard Rilke is struggling there to say things which he cannot say otherwise, or which he feels deeply about. But in light of Rilke’s other correspondence, we should see the Kappus letters as merely second-rate. Young poets need teachers to encourage them to stop imagining that the Kappus letters were, by some miracle, written to them. Even if such misreading were precisely what Kappus wanted, even if Kappus had been merely mercenary in publishing LTYP and had desired only to make money on his slender association with famous (and dead) Rilke, this self-centered reading mistakes Rilke’s letters for poetry or fiction, and this is worse not reading the letters at all. For Rilke wrote poems and fictions and letters (by the thousands) and he knew the difference between them.
One might reasonably say, “Who cares if a lot of young American would-be poets’ reading is self-centered and unimaginative? What matters is where they end up.” Precisely. Ask around. You will be surprised at how many people can tell you a story like the one told by Anita Barrows (poet, clinical psychologist, and co-translator of Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God-the set of poems most contiguous, chronologically, with the writing of LTYP):
In 1964, when I was seventeen, I was invited to spend a week on Cape Cod with a friend whose parents were German. On the long drive up from New York, my friend’s father, a writer, recited by heart one after another of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus-first in German, then in his own elegant impromptu translation. Imagine the fire kindled in me! When, months later, I tentatively brought to my friend’s Manhattan apartment a notebook filled with sonnets of my own, her father’s first response after reading them was to go to his shelf and pull out a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. “If you are going to be a poet you must read Rilke,” he told me, and gave me the volume to keep. “Rilke is the poet’s poet.” The letters went everywhere with me for years, along with The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which I read shortly afterward. It would not be an exaggeration to say that those two books shaped and concentrated for me my vocation as a poet…
Being a writer who knew Rilke’s verse by heart, Barrows’ friend’s father likely meant Barrows no harm when he gave her Kappus’ book. Being German, he wouldn’t necessarily be aware of what an American might make of LTYP. Nonetheless Barrows’ account sheds light on two American abuses of Rilke’s verse. First, Barrows exemplifies our adolescent readiness to invest in a fictional Rilke who functions as an inscrutable, exotic free versifier and who is conjured for the issuance of young writers’ poetic licenses. Second, Barrows’ passage makes manifest the acceptance of a broader, ideological circumstance which has hindered poetry education in America since the early decades of the 20th century: the belief that one can “shape and concentrate” a viable understanding of poetry either by reading prose about the poet’s calling or by reading verse in translation that makes no attempt to embody the structural accomplishment of the original work. Aside from an endearing allegiance to Rilke, it is not clear what Barrows gained from her over-exposure to LTYP. It is clear, however, that the line of poetry depends upon an abiding immersion in the shape and concentration of verse, not prose.
This misreading of LTYP has had direct repercussions on late 20th century American poetics that can be seen in the translation of Rilke into English-a major poetic industry. Here Rilke the promoter of soul healing and the “artistic” life so attractive to American readers and Rilke the rigorously formal poet cannot help but clash. Barrows and co-translator Joanna Macy, “a scholar of systems theory and a Buddhist who helps people find inner resources for dealing with global crises,” explain, in their chapter “Notes on the Translation,” their decision not to try to translate the Book of Hours into rigorous form:
Rilke wrote the poems of The Book of Hours in rhymed, metered verse. In many cases the rhyme scheme was ABAB and the rhythm iambic quatrameter (although Rilke did vary somewhat, e.g., ABAABAB; pentameter rhythms), forms which today sound too singsong to convey accurately the seriousness of Rilke’s meaning. In addition, the opening of form in American poetry, particularly since the beginning of this century, reflects the uncertainty and ambiguities of this modern age.
If I understand this rationale, Barrows and Macy think that when a person hears a poem that is recognized to be profound as “too singsong,” then the problem lies in the poem and not in the reader. It would follow, then, that much of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, even some of Shakespeare’s King Lear, for example, must sound “too singsong to convey serious meaning,” and should therefore be represented to the contemporary public, who otherwise might miss these texts’ “meanings,” in some form more conducive to today’s sophisticated tastes. Barrows and Macy’s assertion that such “opening of form…reflects the uncertainty and ambiguities of this modern age,” is unintentionally ironic. Any student of the last eighty years of American verse pedagogy can see that the “opening” of one shop of poetic form represents the “closing” of another, and that the only “uncertainty” and “ambiguity” that the modern age seems to grasp better than its predecessors had done is a fundamental uncertainty and ambiguity, due to lack of training, with regard to how to make good lines of verse and good stanzas. The complaint that older verse forms, including those worked into complexity by artists such as Rilke, sound “singsong” when compared to Modern verse is a transparent non sequitur. A quality translation of poems from the Book of Hours, which approached iambic tetrameter lines that rhymed (or slant-rhymed) ABAB, was only out of reach to Barrows and Macy because of their unwillingness to go to the effort to make such lines and stanzas. That Barrows and Macy were not interested in such careful verbal construction, however, is due to their “poetic” upbringing, and thus their investment in a theory of poetry which separates the concrete, formal expression of a poem from something called “the idea” Rilke may have meant to convey. In the case of Rilke, especially, such a separation leaves readers in an extremely muddy terrain, the preying ground of paraphrase and ideological distortion.
This preying ground is perhaps always where we end up when reading verse in translation without access to the original, but it is not the same as a playground for the imagination. As Critic John Higgs has it,
the imagination is this wonderful idiot; it needs constantly to be up against real things, real problems, or it wanders off into hapless imprecision, fantasy…Idiot fantasies are the sufferings of a lonesome imagination, one kept from the work it wants, from the informative action.
The real problems of how to make poems are “covered” in Rilke’s verse, and no matter how lonesome our imaginations might be, solace offered by substituting LTYP is not solace, but confusion.
Instead of reading the tortured LTYP, which offers at best vague terms and injunctions, American would-be poets should study even a single stanza of Rilke’s verse. Almost any of them would do, but the first four lines of “Der Panther,” from New Poems1907, seems in this context particularly appropriate because it is perhaps the most anthologized and, so, best-known Rilke poem. The lines figure the entrapment of a soul in a closed cell (something like the American would-be poet’s narcissism) that eventually extinguishes the imagination, which is properly fed by attention to things-in-the-world and knowledge of things outside the self.
Sein Blick ist vom Vorubergehn der Stäbe
so mud gevorden, dass er nichts mehr halt.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.
His gaze has from the passing back and forth of bars
become so tired, that it holds nothing more.
It seems to him there are a thousand bars
and behind a thousand bars no world.
(“The Panther,” translated by Edward Snow)
How much better for students to put LTYP down and to attend, instead, to these few lines and their tacit tutorials in pentameter. Here Rilke advises us in the pacing of single sentences across an enjambment. Here he tutors us in rhyme, in the division of a quatrain into distinct premises for argument, in how to achieve sonic density, in the use of repetition for emphasis (the two uses of “tausend” a synecdoche for the meaning of the word.) How much better to have students explore this stanza’s deliberate metaphor for the circumscribed soul, which reads only that which is put in front of it, and so cannot any longer imagine that bars are bars. How much better it would be if we were to keep young writers from distracting themselves with LTYP‘s poorly wrought pseudo-meditations.
To study verse in this way one does not need to discover one’s self. The first stanza of “Der Panther” is some of the best advice about how to become a poet that has ever been put to paper. It is neither polite nor compromising, and it is neither confused about its claims nor about the poet’s role in delivering them lucidly, succinctly, and memorably. Lacan’s insight into the difficulty letters have in reaching their destinations is powerful, indeed. But poems like Rilke’s attest to the wisdom of genre distinctions like the one Lacan makes. Well-made poems are precisely that kind of writing most resistant to distortion, that kind of writing most likely to be received, if we would only put ourselves aside for a moment and attend to them. We can, as teachers, decide how much time our students spend in the midst of such exemplary writing. Every minute spent with “The Panther” is apt to help our students to acquire an imagination and a sensibility that can escape the limits set by self-interest.
Amazon.com precedes its “Reader Reviews” sections with more authoritative “Editorial Review(s)” that act like essay prompts. Jennifer Buckendorff begins her four paragraphs with these words:
It would take a deeply cynical heart not to fall in love with Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. At the end of this millennium, his slender book holds everything a student of the century could want: the unedited thoughts of (arguably) the most important European poet of the modern age.
Is it really cynical to point out how Buckendorff’s metaphors insist on the swaying power of desire and imply the opposite of cynicism, näivete? Would it were so that LTYP, the “slender” Rilke “holds everything”! And how tiresome it is to have to read his verse, which is made the old-fashioned way, in meter and rhyme and significant stanza shape, and which thus implies that a student has a hell of a lot of work to do that is anything but convenient-especially if one’s teachers are busy pandering to one’s “need” to feel confirmed as an artist because one can spew words across a page. Is it cynical to point out the blindness that “sees” LTYP as “unedited”? Or to suggest that there is something at stake in America’s love affair with LTYP that cannot possibly be about poetry, or about Rilke, for it is really interested in neither?
Teachers of young writers (and other responsible adults) have a responsibility to be so “deeply cynical”-if that is what it is. We have a responsibility to urge that our students fall in love with some other Rilke-the Rilke who wrote clearly and well and about things. With our steadfast encouragement, our students might all the sooner discover that they have nothing to fear from the hard work of verse construction and nothing to fear from letting go of the notion that poetry corresponds with self-discovery.
[ii]  Rilke, Rainer Maria, Letters to a Young Poet, M.D. Herter Norton, translator, Norton, New York, 1934, 160 pp. (reissued, 2003.) Perhaps LTYP has been read in similar ways in other countries. This essay will confine itself to what I take to be an American misreading and use of these letters.[/private]
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