Most poets have one or two recognized 'anthology pieces' works which are time and again offered as representative or typical of their life's work. And most poets eventually resent the work they are best known by: why don't these editors print X or Y why is it always A or B? Sometimes this resentment can turn into self-contempt: maybe there's something wrong with A and B that they should be so popular.
And what goes for the poet can go for readers too. Few committed Yeatsians would name 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' as their Master's greatest work; few Larkinists would name 'This Be the Verse'. With Henry Reed, though, there is rarely any disagreement. Reed, it is universally acknowledged, wrote one poem of distinction. The rest of his work, although intelligent and competent, belongs to a much lower rank. Certainly, no anthologist wishing to represent Reed's work would choose a sample other than the one, the only one, by which this poet is now known.
'Naming of Parts' is section one of a five-section sequence called The Lessons of War, and it can claim, without much fear of contradiction, to be the poem of the Second World War the
cleverest and, by some distance, the most likeable: good-humoured, funny, sexy and resigned, it captures perfectly the period's strange mix of tedium and fear. Reed's parade-ground protagonist is being taught how to handle weapons but his mind is elsewhere: he is thinking about sex, he is thinking about spring, about renewal. He is thinking, in other words, about life, the life that wartime now prohibits and that he himself, the soldier-poet, is being taught how to destroy:
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.
The second section of The Lessons of War, called 'Judging Distances', is less ingenious and oblique than 'Naming of Parts' and much more explicit in its setting-up of the war-life opposition, but this very explicitness permits the sounding of a richer, more distressful note a note of anguished but teethgritting wistfulness:
A barn is not called a barn, to put it more plainly,
Or a field in the distance, where sheep may be safely grazing.
You must never be over-sure. You must say, when reporting:
At five o'clock in the central sector is a dozen
Of what appear to be animals; whatever you do,
Don't call the bleeders sheep.
I am sure that's quite clear; and suppose, for the sake of example,
The one at the end, asleep, endeavours to tell us
What he sees over there to the west, and how far away,
After first having come to attention. There to the west,
On the fields of summer the sun and the shadows bestow
Vestments of purple and gold.
The still white dwellings are like a mirage in the heat,
And under the swaying elms a man and a woman
Lie gently together. Which is, perhaps, only to say
That there is a row of houses to the left of arc,
And that under some poplars a pair of what appear to be humans
Appear to be loving.
(The poplars/elm joke will not be clear from this quotation. In the poem's second stanza, not quoted here, the recruit is told that, in army-speak, there are 'three kinds of tree, three only, the fir and the poplar/ And those which have bushy tops too'.)
Later on, Reed would add three more lessons to the sequence, but none of these quite lived up to lessons one and two. But then living up to lessons one and two became, for Reed, a lifetime's burden, and he would soon enough come to resent these wartime favourites. Reed was much influenced by later Eliot and would have wished to have attention focused on some of his more lofty-sounding pieces, like 'Tintagel' or 'Triptych', but readers who encountered Reed in this, his more portentous mode, tended to mix him up with Herbert Read another cross he had to bear throughout his literary life.
Henry Reed was born in Birmingham in 1914. His father was a bricklayer who liked reading; his mother was illiterate but knew many fairy stories. Reed read Classics at Birmingham University (where he met Louis MacNeice). His early adult years followed a fairly routine 1930s pattern: he discovered that he was homosexual and became a teacher. Conscripted into the Army in 1941, he was soon afterwards transferred to Intelligence at Bletchley, where he learned Japanese and published his first poems in the Listener and New Statesman. In 1941, he earned himself some minor fame by winning a New Statesman competition with a parody of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets ('As we get older we do not get any younger'). After the war, Reed joined the BBC and made an early mark there with his radio-dramatic version of Moby Dick. By the 1950s he was regarded along with Louis MacNeice as an important exponent of verse-drama (a genre much in fashion at the time). This was
probably the most settled and successful stretch of Reed's career. He even managed to turn to good account his well-known ambition to write a biography of Thomas Hardy (a task which he had toiled on conscientiously for many years but had somehow never managed to complete): he incorporated the fruit of his researches and of his frustrations into a sequence of successful verse-plays, two of which, A Very Great Man Indeed and Hilda Tablet, are regularly spoken of as reasons for regretting the demise of the Third Programme.
Reed, though, always viewed himself as something of a failure: a one-poem poet, a biographer who never delivered, a homosexual whose one important love affair had come to ruin in the early 1950s. Alcohol became a problem, and the last decades of Reed's life turned into something of a downward slide: in the bar of his much-frequented Savile Club he was for years a Man to be Avoided. He continued to write for radio (although the vogue for verse-drama went into terminal decline during the 1960s), and in 1964 he was delighted to be given a teaching post at the University of Washington, in Seattle. This part-time job sustained him for three years, and during the early 1970s he published a number of admired translations, from French and Italian dramas, some of which were staged or broadcast. It was also rumoured at this time that he would shortly be publishing a second book of verse (his first and only book, A Map of Verona, had appeared in 1946). The drinking got much worse, though, and Reed's final years were something of a horror tale, by all accounts. Reclusiveness and self-neglect took hold, and by the end even his close friends seem to have had trouble keeping track of him. He died in 1986. In 1991, Jon Stallworthy edited Reed's Collected Poems, and included a number of 'uncollected' pieces, among them 'Psychological Warfare' a sixth section, it would seem, of Lessons of War, and thoroughly in the manner of that sequence: witty, rueful, heartfelt. Elsewhere in the book, there is an excess of portentousness and self-importance, and it is easy to conclude that, yes, Reed really was a single-poem poet. Somebody once tried to cheer him, in the Savile Club bar, with the proposition that surely it was better to
have written one fine poem than to have written none at all. It took Reed a few moments to control his fury. Then he said: 'I'm not so sure.'