Critical and biographical information on Henry Reed, World War II British poet, critic, translator, and radio dramatist — author of "Naming of Parts"
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Thorpe, Adam. "Books: Short and Sweet." Review of Collected Poems, by Henry Reed. Observer, 24 November 1991, 63.

Books: Short and Sweet

COLLECTED POEMS by Henry Reed
edited by John Stallworthy [sic]
Oxford £20

Adam Thorpe

I REMEMBER once desperately scouring a First World War anthology for 'Naming of Parts': Henry Reed's fate was to write the best-known poem of the other war, which produced only a handful of memorable poems, and to devote much of his creative energy in the 1950s and early 1960s to the BBC Radio Drama Department, wherein many superb writers have discovered obscurity.

Verse plays were in their heyday, and Reed (like MacNeice and Dylan Thomas) had the ear and the wit to salt the form's intrinsic bombast. None of Reed's celebrated plays (Moby Dick, The Streets of Pompeii, Hilda Tablet and Others) have left more than a whisper on the literary ether, however a cultural problem which the likes of Don Haworth and John Arden understand equally well. What about the poems? Reed's first collection (A Map of Verona, 1946) was followed by the odd published poem in the Listener and such like, some excellent verse translation and much talk of a second collection; this was still being worried in 1985, despite Reed's state of alcoholic self-neglect: 'prowling round the three or four poems from the 1950s I still want to finish occasional jerks forward do occur'. He died a year later, apparently a one-poem poet. But this finely-edited book reveals a writer whose output was scrupulous, not thin.

Previously unpublished work rewards one's inevitable frisson with a beautiful visionary statement ('The Chateau'), a plangent confession, ('The Intruder'), and what is almost certainly meant to be the final poem in the Lessons of War sequence of which 'Naming of Parts' is the first. 'Psychological Warfare' is a monologic masterpiece of grisly piety and pomposity, showing how Reed's apparent genius for mimicry could fuse with his poetic skills in the best possible manner, denying neither the satire nor the pathos:

There are other unpleasant things they may face you with.
You may, as I did in the fourteen-eighteen thing,
Find them cruelly, ruthlessly, starkly obsessed with the arts,
Music and painting, sculpture and writing of verses,
Please, do not stand for that.

The whole sequence now deserves far greater recognition, that drill-sergeant's taxonomic rifle ('This is the lower sling swivel') but a glorious part. As does a long narrative poem, 'The Auction Sale', which employs a similar braiding of voices outer and inner, matt and glowing. In a 'great grey flapping tent' a young man fails his bid for Venus and stumbles out like Adam. Reed's recurrent motif of the lost Eden makes his tone more elegiac than lugubrious. There are no pylons. It's as if the haberdashery of our century needn't be accounted for. He is his 'own and veritable door', and the fragments included here pay ambiguous homage to a perfectionism which could not in the end let go as if the 'perpetual splendour/And radiance' he sought was around the next deleted comma.

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