Critical and biographical information on Henry Reed, World War II British poet, critic, translator, and radio dramatist — author of "Naming of Parts"
Henry Reed, poet and radio dramatist
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Powell, Neil. "Missed Chances." PN Review (Manchester) 19, no. 1 (September/October 1992): 74.

MISSED CHANCES

Henry Reed, Collected Poems, edited and introduced by Jon Stallworthy (Oxford University Press) 20.00

In his Introduction, Jon Stallworthy mentions (in order to demolish it) the common perception of Henry Reed as 'the saddest freak of the literary fairground: the one-poem poet', along with Julian Grenfell — and, he might have added, F T Prince, whose reputation was for years based almost exclusively on 'Soldiers Bathing'. Prince, of course, has had a successful academic career and has enjoyed a resurgence of creative energy, while Reed, two years his junior, died forgotten and impoverished in 1986.

His neglect was due to a combination of bad judgement and bad luck. He spent fruitless years working on a life of Hardy, abandoned in the mid-fifties; he wrote jokily highbrow radio plays, and famously created the character of Hilda Tablet, when the main drift was towards television and middlebrow naturalism; the texts he translated for the theatre seldom had lasting success on stage or in print. His private life never fully recovered from the break-up of his relationship with Michael Ramsbotham in 1950.

Neither, it seems, did his poetry. The trouble is not simply that the poems by which we already know him — Lessons of the War, and especially 'Naming of Parts' — are outstanding, but that their qualities are so specific: through rhythmic poise, repetition, and shrewd juxtaposition, they transform cliches of military jargon into memorable utterance. Other poems from Reed's first collection, A Map of Verona (1946), use similar techniques to good effect: 'Hiding Beneath the Furze', for instance, in which each stanza's Audenesque repeated last line ('And this can never happen, ever again') becomes the first line of the final stanza, and the still more striking 'South'. Both these poems were written before the end of the 1930s, and they suggest that Reed found his distinctive voice early on, which for a writer is not necessarily a blessing, and was unable to develop it further. In the section here called 'Uncollected Poems (1950-1975)', the major item is a long, irregularly-rhymed narrative written in 1956 and intended as late as 1977 to be the title poem of a book, The Auction Sale and Other Poems, which never appeared. Though the characteristic polyphony of voices remains, the writing is lumpily inert and the diction strained: it's reminiscent of William Plomer's extended verse-anecdotes but without the formal energy provided, however arbitrarily, by Plomer's ballad-metres.

A key to the comparative failure of these later poems comes in 'The Town Itself.' Here Reed visits Verona, 'the city of a long-held dream', which in an earlier poem was only a map, to discover: 'Occasions drew me to you, but too late. / I wander about you, unregarded, lost.' Such poetry of missed chances has an inescapably melancholic charm, yet it points all too insistently towards greater things unwritten: among the drafts and fragments which conclude the book, 'The Chateau' and 'The Sound of Horses' Hooves' have the air of incomplete major poems in the making.

Jon Stallworthy has provided a beautifully edited, scrupulously annotated text: it may seem churlish, therefore, to wonder whether in doing so he has perhaps produced the wrong sort of book. The publishers may have thought so too, for it appears as a handsomely anachronistic hardback in the paperback 'Oxford Poets' series; a paperback, even if more selective and less scholarly, would be likelier to win the new readers which Henry Reed's best poems deserve.

neil powell

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