Nov 7, 2009

On Writing For Yourself, and On Writing For Others

I got married in 2000. My first kid arrived in 2002, and the second kid, in 2004. In that same year, my father was diagnosed with colon cancer. This was an emotionally difficult time for me.

My father had his surgery, to remove the tumour, and he survived. However, the doctors explained that in the next few years, the risk of recurrence would be high. I felt that I should spend more time with my father. I also wanted my children to spend more time with him. It was entirely possible that there wouldn't be much time left.

Soon after my father was discharged from hospital, I took him and my family on a holiday. This was the first time I had ever taken my father on a holiday anywhere. As he was still recuperating, we opted for a quiet, peaceful holiday at a Bintan beach resort.

While at Bintan, we spent a lot of time just lazing around the beach. I would park myself on a beach chair with a book, while my father took my son to play by the sea. I would just watch them from a distance - this was their special time together. Out of this holiday, the following poem emerged:


    My Father Takes My Son For A Walk

    Small waves sing and sigh and run to the shore,
    Push and pull at their ankles, as they walk hand-in-hand
    Along the edge of the sea.

    My father is white-haired now, his shoulders stoop.
    With each step he is approaching the end of his life
    Altthough in this moment he does not think of it.

    My son is a young child. Shells and boats excite him.
    In the years ahead, the old man beside him will
    Become for him an uncertain memory.

    I have my own journey. I am watching them,
    As if from a very great distance, as if I were a wave
    Travelling out into the endless sea.


This poem has attracted very mixed reactions from readers. Those who liked it, really loved it. But apparently, those who didn't like it, quite detested it. First, let's take a look at the positive feedback:

    "Very effective. The perspective of three generations in a few lines."

    "Simple, yet so effective. He's "a wave travelling out into the endless sea." One day he will be the grandfather taking his grandson for a walk along the edge of the sea, and his son will be the one watching. Gilbert, great images. Thanks."

    ... In particular, I love this poem. It strikes a chord in my soul and evokes much tenderness."

    "How lovely. Your detail for things that move the heart is very special. I have pictures of my mother and my son when he was young. Oh how I miss her!"

    "It's lovely. I love the ambiguity of the last line, a sense of movement and loneliness. Nice."

    ".... reading it now, I still feel the emotions rushing towards me. I feel especially touched by the line 'In the years ahead, the old man beside him will/Become for him an uncertain memory.' How true these words are."


What about the readers who hated the poem? One of them, an SPH journalist, disliked it enough to write an entire article about it. An excerpt from her article:
    The cliched personification of the waves, simple monosyllabic words and obvious alliteration all open the scene on much too precious a note. The emotional tenor - one of quiet reflection - is appropriate ... but the poem crosses the line into sentimentality.

    Stock images, such as the `endless sea' and the `white-haired' old man, do not help matters - which is a shame, because Koh does have an eye for detail.

    The trick is to write simply without being simplistic, but the poem doesn't quite achieve that balance.

    .... The syntax is equally unimaginative. The short declarative sentences and plain old subject-verb-object word order ... lend unbearably slow pacing to the poem.

    It is a quiet, sensitive snapshot a moment, but Koh's writing is too spare. Any emotional resonance soon fades with the final vague image of receding waves.
I am never that surprised when readers respond differently to any of my poems. I've learned from experience that this is quite possible. Maybe it's just something about the way I write, or perhaps it's just the way that poetry generally is.

In the past, I've asked a number of experienced poets to give me frank feedback on my poems. Every now and then, the feedback on the exact same poem would return in sharply different forms. For example, a poem might thoroughly impress Felix Cheong, but receive a ho-hum response from Cyril Wong. Conversely, Cyril might praise a poem enthusiastically, but Felix would just say, "Errrr, this one doesn't work for me at all."

As I look back now on My Father Takes My Son For A Walk, I find myself no longer interested in discussing the merits or weaknesses of the poem. What interests me is another kind of question - the extent to which poets should write for themselves, or for others.

When I first wrote My Father Takes My Son For A Walk, I never intended to show it to anybody. It was a highly personal poem, written just for myself. The first draft of the poem I completed in less than 15 minutes, literally while I was on Bintan's beach watching my father and children.

But a year later, I felt ready to show the world the poem. First, as usual, I had to edit the poem. But this time I found it really difficult. I knew that some words and phrases arguably didn't work so well. I experimented with deleting them, changing them, shifting them around. I also came up with one or two new ideas to incorporate into the text. Finally I produced a revised version that I felt would be more satisfying to a critical reader.

The only problem was that the emotional tenor of the poem had changed. It no longer quite captured what had happened that day, on the beach. The old man had become slightly larger than life; the sea less placid, a little more hostile; and as for the protagonist, he was still reflective but somewhat more certain and assured. Yes, the revised poem was still a snapshot of that same day, but it was like a doctored photo, Photoshopped with special effects. It was no longer the real thing. No one would ever know, of course, but me.

After some consideration, I threw away the revised version. And went back to the original version (or something very, very close to it).

36 comments:

Min said...

I'm sorry to barge in here like this, but as another NUS Lit Student who probably knows no better -- in terms of crafting a poem or of the intentions behind your poetry -- I have (as all good Products of the NUS Lit System have) something to say.

Firstly, doesn't it smack of inconsistency when you say

"I am never that surprised when readers respond differently to any of my poems. I've learned from experience that this is quite possible. Maybe it's just something about the way I write, or perhaps it's just the way that poetry generally is."
but are clearly 'that surprised' about bad reviews (cf. Nicholas's review and the snippets you've quoted in this entry)? Or are you not surprised and merely have an odd fixation, trying not to make a big deal out of it?

If "SPH journalists", "experience poets"and your readers can give such varied responses, then why are you still harping on a review that is "in sharply different form" from the positive reviews that you have not failed to point out to us?

Also, with reference to this line:
"What interests me is another kind of question - the extent to which poets should write for themselves, or for others."
I want to ask a similar question: to what extent are you writing this (this entry, and the previous related entries) for yourself or for us? :)

Anonymous said...

The tears just came as I was reading this. I could sense the emotions. I felt the same way as I see my parents growing older day by day...

Anonymous said...

Where Do We Belong?

Fearless freedom,
within the beautiful blue sky,
as the beautiful birds soar
and freely fly.
Could there be crooked crocodiles
or ruthless birds of prey
beneath and on the surface
of the calm waters and space?

Don't forget,
this is uniquely Singapore!
Men-in-White and Wolves-in-White
are similarly everywhere,
every time.
Are our calm and peace,
progress and prosperity real?

Everyone loves calm, peace,
justice, freedom and happiness.
But with MIWs in power grip
greedier and tighter,
more callous, more heinous,
more ruthless by the day,
Will commoners' contentment
be real, a dream or nightmare?

If after so many years past,
and our national pledge is nothing
but just an aspiration,
a bombshell hurl'd by the Father
like suicide terrorists,
upon the mesmerized masses,
unaware of the lurking danger,
wherefore is our inspiration?

If after 50 years of nation-building,
the Little Red Dot is anything
but still not a nation,
another bombshell cast
again by none other than the Father
upon subservient souls,
oblivious of their lives and limbs,
what for we sing the national anthem
and do national service?

If after existing 50 years,
for all intents and purposes,
as an independent country
and the whole wide world knows,
Singapore is but only a mere city,
not a country, albeit
a city of possibilities,
a garden city or coming sin city,
a third bombshell cast
also with all intents and purposes,
by another respected man of law,
a long-time incumbent,
a later legacy of the British Empire,
where then is our country?

What are we living for?
What are we fighting for?
What are we defending?
What will we by dying for?

What then is our nationality?
Where then is our country?
Where then is our home?
Where do we belong?

By 'Green Peas'
8 November, 2009.
Singapore.

Anonymous said...

I think Min has strike the nail on the head. (Sorry for the cliche, but then Mr Wang probably enjoys it. )

I think Nicholas Liu has traumatised Mr Wang too much. I mean, 3 defensive posts on your poetry? Wow.

Anonymous said...

I like this poem. I know that it was part of your Golden Point Award entry. I think you won the award, not merely because of the individual strength of each poem, but because the poems complemented each other very well as a set.

From I recall, your theme was about the different stages of life. For example, you had this poem, and a poem written in a child's voice, and a poem about a young man in a red light district, and a poem about an old widow, and also a poem juxtaposing the young Snow White with the old evil witch.

I also just read your poem "Old Folks Home" in the other post and it strikes me that the theme of growing up, and growing old, keeps reappearing in your work.

Anonymous said...

I like this poem. It feels real.

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang, I think you've given nick to much free publicity. lol.

Anonymous said...

I am not a poet.

But this series of blog articles - I find it educational - about how hard it is to be a wordsmith - and how at the end, you can't please everyone.

I only have respect for You - Gilbert Goh Wang?

Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Min, you might want to think about why you are relentlessly scrutinising this blogger's words.

your attack, which seems to me as nitpicking, also comes from a negative place. you are understandably offended by mr wang's sweeping statement of your kind of people.

but let's live and let live.

mr wang has always come across as rational and cool, but he is human after all and must be quite affected by the recent criticism. who wouldn't be? if this happened to you, wouldn't you be affected as well?

i'm no artist, but i have learnt a lot from this entry about the decisions a poet makes.

Anonymous said...

No actually I wouldnt be as affected as Mr Wang. It's one thing to disagree with the reviewer, it's another to invalidate his opinions. And most authors would not attack the uni faculty just purely because the offending author is studying there.

Secondly, even if we dun take all these into account, Koh's poetry just do not stand up to literary scrutiny. I dun care how many testimonials Koh has. Many of them are by people who cant tell the difference between free verse and prose actually which explains why they dun understand where Koh's greatest flaw lies.

Great job, Min. :D

Anonymous said...

I don't think Mr Wang invalidated Nicholas Liu's opinion.

I think that Nicholas Liu invalidated his own opinion. He did it, by writing the way he wrote.

I am an NUS lit student, by the way. And I feel that yes, Nicholas Liu's review IS an embarrassment to the faculty.

(While it is not strictly relevant to the topic, I should mention that I do know Nicholas personally. I might as well add that his personality in real life is exactly as condescending as the review would suggest).

So please don't for one moment think that Nicholas was even attempting to be fair in his analysis. That would be most contrary to his general character.

Fu Ceyi said...

Poetry like other mental exercises perhaps other than mathematics in the invisible realm is always subjective. No one is a pure individual; we are all to a greater or lesser extent, a product of our family, social and religious milieu. As our backgrounds are different, our responses would be different. Those who are touched by your poem perhaps share more or less similar backgrounds. Musical notes likewise vibrate in soothing harmony when in affinity, like in g to g, c to c and a to a. Our differences are to be expected and accepted. For me, valid criticism is considered a favor and our differences are to be enjoyed, for without them we stop evolving actively. No one can truly write for him-self solely nor can anyone write solely for others; in truth we write both for ourselves and others. There is a part of us in every one of us.

Personally I enjoy your poem, I can easily identify with it as naturally it strikes a chord in me. The flow is there. Keep writing and best wishes

? said...

Well Gilbert, I've not been to your blog for some time. I like your poem and I believe that poetic form and structure need not be revolutionary for proper effect. I am however lost on the waves mentioned in the last line.

Neither do I believe that authorial intent is connected with the primary aesthetic value of a work, as some trigger-happy readers have alluded to. I wonder if my education in literature (A levels only) has really benefitted me. Dissecting poems through technical lenses and locating devices within the nexus of a poem is... an inversion of values to me.

Instead of cliched devices and their impact on meaning, I prefer to focus on meaning per se. Sometimes, technical analysis helps but I would rather immerse myself in the sentiments I discern in/from the work than comment on its technical innovation. There is of course a line between a gush and tasteful expressiveness, but that depends on one's literary exposure. Mine is limited, but hey - maybe that's why I don't feel the need to trample on your work.

That aside, I hope this page doesn't become an exercise in gratuitous ad hominem arguments. I've seen that happen on your older political posts :S

Anonymous said...

He said that Liu's article is "inauthentic, pretentious and quite lacking any genuine insight." Yes, perhaps Liu's article is unprofessional to say the least, but the crux of this issue is that he has hit on valid points and exposed the weaknesses in Koh's poetry. Koh's reaction to the review was irksome at best.

I'm not surprised if Liu is as elitist and arrogant as what the review suggests. But to focus and attack his character doesn't take away the validity of the arguments he has raised.

Mr Wang Says So said...

LOL ... Frankly, the current discussions on poetry are quite tame, compared to some topics that I've blogged about in the past.

Mr Wang Says So said...

"He said that Liu's article is "inauthentic, pretentious and quite lacking any genuine insight." "

LOL, I think you're mistaken. I never said that about his article. Go check again.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Min:

You misunderstand. There are four experienced poets who have, in private, given me extensive commentary on my poetry - they are Felix Cheong, Cyril Wong, Paul Tan and Enoch Ng.

In my post, my point was that even experienced poets can have quite different views on the same poem. However, when looking at my poetry collection as a whole, Felix, Cyril, Paul and Enoch all found quite a number of things to like.

Evidently, I think that people such as Alvin Pang and Aaron Lee and Toh Hsien Min must also like at least some of my poems, since over the years, Alvin and Aaron have chosen some of my poems for publication in their anthologies, while Hsien Min has chosen some of my poems for publication in his literary journal.

However, Nicholas, it seems, found nothing at all in my poetry to like. He even suggested that no "discerning reader" could possibly like my poetry - that is, if you like my poetry, you must be stupid. So yes, that did surprise me. I really do not feel that Cyril Wong, Felix Cheong, Enoch Ng, Paul Tan, Alvin Pang, Aaron Lee, Toh Hsien Min etc are stupid people who do not know how to read poetry.

In fact, there were three particular poems which Nick discussed in some detail, and said were particularly bad. Strangely, two of those three poems were part of a set that won me an award where Lee Tzu Pheng and Leong Liew Geok were the judges. As for the third poem, it was selected by Koh Buck Song & Umej Bhatia for publication in an anthology of which they were the editors. This 3rd poem was also adapted for a theatrical performance, IIRC, by The Necessary Stage, in the 2004 Singapore Arts Festival.

So now it seems, according to Nick's review, that Lee Tzu Pheng, Leong Liew Geok, Koh Buck Song and Umej Bhatia and the director of The Necessary Stage, should also all be added to the List of Stupid People who Do Not Know How to Read Poetry in a Discerning Way.

Well, that IS surprising to me.

But of course, after I read comments like the one by Anon November 9, 2009 7:33 PM, I'm no longer so surprised. Hahahaa.

Anonymous said...

I do not know if you already know this, Mr Wang.

A few years ago, my SAJC classmate Candice Wan won the Angus Ross prize for Literature (an international prize for best A-level student, across many countries). We were all very proud of her. It was reported in the newspapers and all that.

Then guess who started mocking Candice and making fun of her, on his own blog? Yup ... none other than Nicholas Liu. Jealous and insecure is what he is. Major case of sour grapes.

(Ok his comments about her were not as nasty as his comments about you. But you can infer the guy's general character).

j said...

seriously la, people, if you're not happy with nicholas' review then by all means attack his ARGUMENT, not launching ad hominem attacks on his person. just because he's said mean things means his review is invalid? please. -_-'''

Anonymous said...

I dont really think much about Nicholas Liu actually. I mean, his review is bitchy but I thought he brought out some valid arguments if you were to look beneath the nastiness.

Koh's poetry doesnt stand up to the test when compared to modern international writers that lit students has been exposed to. You ask any lit student to write a review and most of the reviews written will prob be disapproving if anything.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't Candice Wan the girl who was PROUD that she had only read 3 novels in 2 years?

I have to say Nick Liu wasn't the only one who was quite disgusted by that.

The Angus Ross is an exam prize... it's not the Nobel.

JCTeacher said...

"Koh's poetry doesnt stand up to the test when compared to modern international writers that lit students has been exposed to. You ask any lit student to write a review and most of the reviews written will prob be disapproving if anything."

-- and I have a dim view of most Singaporean lit students' abilities to critique in an informed and intelligent manner without resorting to derivative and outdated models handed down to them by expat teachers. NicLiu at least risked some skin.

Anonymous said...

Singapore poetry is a joke. There's nothing that will outlast the next 10-20 years of enforced faddishness.

Alfian Saat rips off Whitman via Ginsburg. Cyril Wong wanks on about the same old beautiful hurt in book after book, channeling Gluck and Carson to vulnerable gay readers. Edwin Thumboo is a pompous fossil that people know about only because he's been exploiting his establishment clout, and Koh Buck Song is his imperfect wannabe. Felix Cheong, Paul Tan, Alvin Pang, Aaron Lee, Toh Hsien Min? Derivative drivel oversold to audiences with fancy design, clever marketing, and hype. None of it is going to stick not because nobody cares but because they just aren't good enough to really grab readers apart from a few naive and easily entertained noobs.

Come back in 50 years and try again.

Anonymous said...

Oh THAT Candice Wan. I see... Well, her self-congratulatory tone irritated me as well.


"and I have a dim view of most Singaporean lit students' abilities to critique in an informed and intelligent manner without resorting to derivative and outdated models handed down to them by expat teachers."

I wasn't referring to JC students. I mean, as someone not under the MOE system anymore, many Singaporean undergraduates are distasteful of Singapore poetry in general because they do not match up to the global literary arena. We rather read Joyce Carol Oates or Plath rather than Thumboo or Koh.

Anonymous said...

Nothing unusual here - it's quite common for artists to be disrespected in their own country. It happened to Goh Choo San (dance), Russell Wong (photography), Stefanie Sun (singer) etc etc.

Arthur Yap (poetry) is listed in the "Oxford Companion to 20th Century Poetry in English" which means that even on the global scale, he IS considered to be a significant figure. But how many Singaporeans know his works, or even his name?

Even the Beatles had to get famous in the US, before they could get famous in Britain.

Anonymous said...

"A prophet is despised in his own country, and in his own house, and among his own kindred." -Mark 6:4

(sorry this was in the wrong thread earlier)

Min said...

@November 9, 2009 6:31 PM 's Anonymous:

Am I really being nitpicky? Aside from the fact that yes I am offended that Mr Wang decided to generalize all NUS Literature students in numerous accounts. I understand if he has a bone to pick with Nicholas, but what have the rest of us got to do with this?

I'm not criticizing his very human ability to feel strongly about his own poems. I'm merely asking if there is anything contradictory about his statements and his actual reactions as posted in this blog. To put it simply, why such a fuss? If it's a bad review (in both senses of 'bad'), why is there a constant need to validate the merit of his poetry?

BTW, 'relentless'? You might want to think about why you're choosing the words you're choosing. :)

@Gilbert:
Thank you for taking the time to reply. Perhaps I have misunderstood and am misunderstanding you but, I take it that even though Cyril Wong, Enoch Ng, Paul Tan and Felix Cheong have "found a number of things to like", they must have found a number of things they did not like as much. My problem is that IF you had a knee-jerk reaction to their criticisms, it was probably never published in public, let alone multiple posts. They are indeed experienced and their advice and criticisms are obviously more valid.

May I ask where Nicholas implies that people who enjoy your poetry are "Stupid People who Do Not Know How to Read Poetry in a Discerning Way"? I might have missed it but my problem with this whole thing is that you seem to be taking Nicholas's review too harshly (whether his review was good or bad is a whole 'nother ball game).

Did Nicholas really find NOTHING at all in your collection to like? He might have implied that with the last line, but even that's a stretch. Was there anything 'literary' (I use this term loosely) to admire, any innovation, any surprises? For Nicholas, the answer was clearly a resounding no. But did he criticize your ability to invoke and evoke emotions out of your readers? I don't think so.

When I read this: "This is a solid poem, succinct and well-pitched. Is it a poem I would expect from a poet over a decade into his career?", I get a sense that he was expecting more from you. I personally feel that it's not your ability as a poet that's being under fire, it's your ability to be a BETTER poet that's the main problem.

Then again I'm just a lousy lit student who over-reads.

Anonymous said...

"Arthur Yap (poetry) is listed in the "Oxford Companion to 20th Century Poetry in English" which means that even on the global scale, he IS considered to be a significant figure. But how many Singaporeans know his works, or even his name?"

Oh this discussion is getting ridiculous. Just because Yap is listed in a reference book means he's a significant figure. Come on lah. Get real lah. Gee, Ng Yi Sheng has a Swedish wikipedia entry, does that mean he is an international figure? But then if your definition of significant means being listed in a reference book than okay loh.

milkred said...

Really.

If a poet has to constantly explain himself and his work to others, then isn't his commuication a failure?

The logic, it baffles.

Frankly I don't think poets should keep talking about their own work. It's distasteful because it seems either 1. totally immodest or 2. extremely defensive. Your work is your work, let other people interpret it for you.

Anonymous said...

Min, you obviously did not read the review properly. Yes, Nicholas did write

"This is a solid poem, succinct and well-pitched."

... which sounds like a compliment to Gilbert Koh. But read on. In the next few sentences, Nicholas immediately takes it back, saying in effect, "Haha, just kidding, the poem sucked."

This seems to be a trademark of Nicholas's snide reviewing style. Read Nicholas' other review in QLRS (of Terence Heng's book). Nicholas starts off with high praise:

"The British poet Maura Dooley praised Terence Heng's first collection Live a Manic Existence with a Cup of Sanity in Your Hand as "a tour de force... cutting but never bitter, Heng is a master... of the short urban lyric." Closer to home, Heng is known to admirers for his daring use of local as well as foreign vernaculars to explore such difficult themes as identity, alienation and love. Coming after a break of seven years, Heng's second collection of poetry From Where I'm Standing was one of the most anticipated local releases of 2004. "

.... and then he writes:

"I lie, of course. I've never heard of Terence Heng and odds are that unless you're a scenester, neither have you. As far as I'm concerned, this is no great injustice, for From Where I'm Standing is a terrible book.

I mean, seriously. What kind of reviewer is this Nicholas Liu? I find his reviews a real waste of time. He seems more interested in playing tricks on the reader, and entertaining himself with his own about-turns, than actually writing a review.

I've previously written reviews myself (films, not books) and one thing I've learned is that if you intend to write reviews regularly, you have to build trust with your readership. They may not always agree with every part of your views ALL the time, but they should at least be able to see why you said what you said, and why they should go on trusting you enough to read your future reviews of other films.

This Nicholas Liu person, I for one do not trust him and am not going to read any more of his reviews of anything.

The said...

Though not about poems and poetry, this piece does provide another perspective on reviews and being a critic.

On Nick's review - there is a difference between critique and a demolition job.

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”

http://iantan.org/?p=1507

Mr Wang Says So said...

"May I ask where Nicholas implies that people who enjoy your poetry are "Stupid People who Do Not Know How to Read Poetry in a Discerning Way"?"

Sure ... He says in his review that:

(1) the book is "ideal" for people who wish to read local poetry, without "having to learn how poetry is read"

And

(2) he says that the "discerning reader" will not like my poetry.

So if you,

(like Felix Cheong, Toh Hsien Min, Leong Liew Geok, Lee Tzu Pheng, Cyril Wong, Alvin Pang, Aaron Lee, the director of The Necessary Stage etc etc)

actually happen to like my poetry, then obviously you have not learned how to read poetry, and furthermore you couldn't possibly be a discerning reader.

In that case, you'd have to join the List of Stupid People who Do Not Know How to Read Poetry in a Discerning Way.

Mr Wang Says So said...

"I mean, seriously. What kind of reviewer is this Nicholas Liu? I find his reviews a real waste of time. He seems more interested in playing tricks on the reader, and entertaining himself with his own about-turns ..." .


LOL, in his Terence Heng review, he praises the book, and then says "I lie, of course".

When reviewing my poem, he tells the readers a few nice things about my poem, then he says: "I have deceived you."

I bet he even thinks he's clever, haha.

Aiyah, enough of this nonsense. I'm not publishing any further comments about Nicholas Liu.

Anonymous said...

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”

I love ratatouille! This speech seriously sounds 10x better in the movie then simply being read here.

Anonymous said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5ik3yHjP2I&feature=related

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