Henry Reed's "Naming of Parts"
Henry Reed's "Naming of Parts" is a golden oldie, a classic, a point of reference, a seminal text, a beacon in a sea of fog, and a shining star in an increasingly muddied heaven. Why do I give it such a buildup? Because it welcomes us with confident, lucid sentences. Because it is clearheaded and organized. Because it contains subject matter that matters. Why is it as good the tenth time as the first? Because it is greater than the sum of its parts.
Reed's poem expresses how it feels to be in class while wanting to be elsewhere. It feels the difference between the mechanical and the human. It contrasts the cold and sometimes oppressive artificial order of civilization with the free sensuality of nature.
The person speaking in "Naming of Parts" is a soldier in training. Like military instruction, whether in the classroom or in the field, the poem repeats and repeats itself. Yet underneath all that insistence lies a subversive element: the recruit is not paying attention only to the weapons instructor. He listens to some instruction, but then his mind wanders. His attention returns to the class, but then it goes away again. His mind wanders to the gardens nearby, to the change of seasons, and to the bees among the flowers. All the while, wherever his attention may be, the lesson continues. Classroom, outdoors, classroom, outdoors: which is in the foreground and which in the background? The more rifle instruction, the more his mind wanders from the military matter at hand. Yet even as his mind seeks relief from the mechanical instruction and the instrument of killing, even while he thinks of the bees pollinating the flowers in the early life-giving spring, the instruction drones on. The poem begins and ends with it.
Reed's poem has particular meaning for me because I trained at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1957 and served in the U.S. Army in 1964
1965. Like all military service, my time included weapons instruction and "close-order drill." The U.S. Army at that time issued its soldiers M-1 rifles. The speaker of this poem, being in the British Army, would have been issued an Enfield: a bolt-action rifle very similar to the M-1. The close-at-hand things in this poemcomponents of my M-1helped furnish a world of parts and specifications, manuals and marching.
The admonition in the poem to move the safety-catch with one's thumb, not one's finger, reminds me of the most awkward, difficult part of rifle drill: the part that produced subversive laughter, swollen thumbs, and frustrated sergeants. It involved raising the rifle diagonally across one's chest, forcing back the bolt with one's left hand against the "operating rod handle" (or "cocking-piece") to open the chamber (or "breech") so that one could check it for bullets, then with the right hand releasing the bolt from its lock while still holding it back until commanded to let it slam closed before pulling the trigger.
These actions followed a series of three commands: "Port arms" (we brought the rifle up across our chests), "Inspection arms" (we locked back the bolt and checked the chamber), and lastly a two-part command: "Ready" (followed by a pause while we tried to set free the bolt but still restrain it), and finally "Port arms'' again.
Why so awkward and difficult? Why swollen thumbs and sputtering sergeants? First, everything about the M-1 rifle is heavy. It is not easy to push back the bolt of an M-1 with the knife edge of one's left hand while holding it in the air. Next, one switches hands and holds back the bolt with the knife edge of the right hand while with the thumb of the same hand pressing slightly in the chamber to release the "bullet follower" and bolt. But the bolt is driven forward by a very powerful spring, and the position in which one tries to restrain it affords little leverage, so that it is tempting to hold back the bolt by sticking one's thumb farther into the chamberor, if doing this at a classroom table rather than in formation on the drill field, finding a way to use other fingers!
This is forbidden, perhaps not so much because the action of the bolt can break fingers, but because it isn't a crisp, military way to do it. It was amusing to us and enraging to the sergeant to hear the strungout sounds of bolts slamming shut and triggers being clicked as those who had "cheated" had trouble releasing their thumbs from the painful pressure of the bolt.
It's a truism for everyone but career soldiers that, while in the Army, one wishes to be almost anywhere else. When one is in formation, the sight of civilians walking any way they wish across the post grounds is heartbreaking. Yet there is also a seductive pleasure to the constant organization, the unambiguous nature of one's studies ("This is the upper sling swivel"), and the sense of achievement in learning new tasks such
as stripping and reassembling a rifle. The rifle, properly cleaned, oiled, and reassembled, works with a snappy precision in wholesome contrast to the mixed emotions of the conscripted. And the use of weapons is, after all, basic to the military. Discharged from the army in October 1965, I drove off the post by a back road, past the rifle range, a route that made my new freedom all the more immediate to me.
Now to the poem, which is composed of connecting parts (like a rifle) and at the same time expresses contrasting feelings. The language of the soldier who speaks is conversational but controlled. It isn't just the soldier's language, but also the instructor's. The student mimics his teacher. (Remember that the speaker is British.)
The first three lines sound to me like a tightly organized teacher at the start of a class. If you accent the first word of line two ("we"), you will hear the unmistakable tone of a teacher treating his students as if they were children. Later, I hear a controlling tone of voice in such a phrase as "whose use you will see." We can imagine the student being told at some point "not to get ahead" of the lesson plan. This is not the public school but the army: the lesson will be taught, to use a phrase often heard in military classes, "by the numbers."
We can't help but hear how often words and phrases are repeated. The poem doesn't employ rhyme words at the ends of lines, but still it has the sound of rhyming. The first stanza alone contains the word "today" four times, plus "yesterday," "daily," and "morning."
The speaker sounds as he does because he speaks in overlapping sentences and repeated words. The second stanza repeats the little turns-of-phrase "this is" and "have not got" (which will turn up again in stanza five) as well as "sling" and "swivel." "In your case" turns into "in our case," to be repeated three stanzas later. "Finger" and "thumb" occur twice each in stanza three. "If you have any strength in your thumb" appears in stanza three and will reappear in the last stanza. In stanza four, the phrases "you can see" and "as you see" echo "you will see" from stanza two. The phrase "easing the spring," first seen in stanza four, quickly appears twice more, but with "Spring" capitalized. Like the phrase "easing the spring," "backwards and forwards" shows up in two different contexts, and the title phrase "naming of parts" reappears three times. These repeated words and phrases make us feel the repetitiousness and insistence of the instruction. If we think of marching, we may remember how teachers sometimes try to "drum the information" into students. It is the sort of teaching in which we sense that we are being "talked down to," a class from which we too might let our minds wander.
Enduring such a class, we might come to believe that we could put the teacher's language to better use, and indeed some of the repetitions in the poem reveal how a word or phrase can mean one thing, then another. In stanza four, speaking of releasing the rifle bolt, the speaker
says, "We call this easing the spring." One sentence later, the bees are said to call their pollinating of the flowers "easing the Spring." The same sounds mean different things. The first use of the phrase is factual, objective, impersonal. The slightly altered second version of it is poetic, subjective, and personal. In the same way, "which we have not got" first is part of a factual sentence telling us that the rifle lacks a piling swivel, but later what "we have not got" is ''the point of balance." By then, "point of balance" seems to be not just a location on a rifle but a place somewhere inside us where normally we feel emotional and psychological equilibrium.
"Naming of Parts," as its title suggests, is also, by implication, about what we call things. But we simply do not have words for everything. Compare the wordy exactitude of the lesson on rifle parts to the description of the japonica, which "glistens like coral," the branches ("silent, eloquent"), and the blossoms ("fragile and motionless"). We know what to call the sling and the swivel, the breech and the bolt, but what are the words for our feelings? No single word can describe one's feelings in early spring, just as no one word can define either physical or spiritual love. The look of naturetree branches, bees, and flowerscan trigger in us definite emotions. When it does, we often locate these emotions outside ourselves, seeing them in nature.
In "Naming of Parts," phrases change their meanings right before our eyes. Like the speaker, we understand that the same phrase can be applied to a piece of cold equipment or to sensuous nature. Perhaps, like the speaker, we cast an ironic eye on the whole business of the rifle instruction because we have come to know more than the language says. Like him, we know that the world has many parts, including classrooms and gardens, fields of fire and fields of poppies. We know, too, that a man or woman plays many parts, including, for some, soldier or lover, obedient apprentice or distracted student. We may remember the line in Shakespeare that tells us, "All the world's a stage." We may know that a military assault is said to be "staged." We may notice that the bees in the poem are said to be "assaulting" the flowers. They are also said to be "fumbling" those same flowers. Language, it seems, can go anywhere.
Also, we can research an author's history, motives, and obsessions. We can look into this writer's youth and life-style. If we did, we would find out that Henry Reed was born February 22, 1914, and died December 8, 1986, and that in 1941 he was drafted into the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. We could read the letter he wrote to his sister during basic training, in which he complains that it seems as if his group is expected to learn nearly everything but "the management of a tank." We would learn that at college he acted in plays and was known for his gift of mimicry.
But the poem by itself does not demand that we go outside it. Read-
ing Reed in the classrooms of America is in one respect like reading portions of Walt Whitman or many other authors. Although one is free to interpret the poem in terms of the author's life, one need not: the drama is in the dichotomy of macho, mechanical army weapons training and the sensitive recruit who speaks about it. Nor is this all he has to say about his time as a soldier. "Naming of Parts," written in 1942, is the first part of a five-poem series published together as "Lessons of the War." The other four are titled "Judging Distances'' (1943), "Movement of Bodies" (1950), "Unarmed Combat" (1945), and "Returning of Issue" (1970).
The language in "Naming of Parts" could be called "straightforward." It is the language of the kind of poetry to which we can apply one of the simplest and most convenient definitions of poetry: "heightened prose." Now, there are as many definitions of poetry as there are writers and critics who wish to establish their turf. Some definitions are particular and restrictive, while others are deliberately general so as to include as many kinds of poetry as possible.
Many people believe that a poem must rhymeabsolutely. Many also feel that it must establish a rhythmic patterncalled "meter." Others will settle for some form of counting from line to lineusually of syllables. These and others argue that poetry must appear in lines, never in paragraphs. To some, the defining characteristic of poetry is compressed language. To others, it is imagery or figures of speech. To still others, poetry depends on a special quality of vocabulary or syntax. There are some to whom no poem is poetic without an elevated tone of voice. To others, good poems must speak partly by implication: they argue that such indirection creates the alert reading we associate with poetry. Some say that poetry depends on what is left out, and that the "poetry" occurs in the reader as much as in the writer. However they define poetry, readers agree that good poems cannot be easily or quickly summed up in prose. They agree that how a thing is said affects what is said.
But the definitions continue to come and go. Some say that poetry has an intimate quality: its tone of voice is personal. Others insist, "I know it when I see it." Finally, there is a kind of "behavioral" definition: if the publisher says it's poetry, it's poetry.
Among such a crowd of definitions, "heightened prose" may seem banal. But it touches the heart of the verbal condition, in which the language of poetry and the language of prose overlap. The border between prose and poetry remains invisible, and moreover it is constantly shifting according to the latest poetic experiments. It has proven impossible to fix the boundary for very long. Artists being artists, rules about art are made to be broken. In that sense, art is the truest kind of freedom.
This may be more true for poets than for prose writers, since the writer of prose often has a practical purpose in mind.
Henry Reed made a living writing good prose, especially radio plays. Could it be characteristic of poets who also write stories and scripts that the style of their poems will generally be direct and efficient? They might be assumed to favor Samuel Taylor Coleridge's often quoted distinction between prose and poetry: prose, he said, is "words in their best order," while poetry is "the best words in the best order." Although coming up with the best words and the best order often cannot be accomplished step-by-step, but is sufficiently complex to be largely intuitive, poets who live by writing prose do seem generally also to write their poems in a language close to prose. That is, their poetic language usually stays close to the language of clear conversation.
If, as the French poet Paul Valéry said, prose is like walking and poetry is like dancing, such a style doesn't exactly boogie. It's too hands-on for that. On the other hand, nearly any reader can follow the steps. Its "readability" can be a powerful advantage. When this way of writing succeeds, it works with precision, insistence, and inevitability. None may deny it. Such a poem may appear to be a kind of "found object," a mix of sound and meaning that seemed to exist out there in the ether, waiting for the right mindset to come by, absorb it, and then express it.
"Naming of Parts" is just such a poem.