Documenting the quest to track down everything written by (and written about) the poet, translator, critic, and radio dramatist, Henry Reed.

An obsessive, armchair attempt to assemble a comprehensive bibliography, not just for the work of a poet, but for his entire life.

Read "Naming of Parts."

Henry Reed Henry Reed
Henry Reed Henry Reed
Henry Reed, ca. 1960



I Capture the Castle: A girl and her family struggle to make ends meet in an old English castle.
Dusty Answer: Young, privileged, earnest Judith falls in love with the family next door.
The Heat of the Day: In wartime London, a woman finds herself caught between two men.




Weblogs, etc.

Posts from December 2010

Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog


Google Books Ngram Viewer

Google Ngram

Click image to go to Google Labs' Books Ngram Viewer

Here's a comparison of the frequency of published appearances of the names "Henry Reed" versus "Herbert Read," made possible by Google Books Ngram Viewer, which searches a corpus of 5.2 million texts published between 1500 and 2008—approximately 500 billion words. Notice where Henry nearly rivals his arch-nemesis in 1942, with the publishing of "Naming of Parts." You can read the announcement for the launch in the official Google Blog.

It's interesting to see the difference in usage of the phrase "war poet" in American and British English, during World War I and World War II. (Is there a way to chart two corpora in the same graph?) Read more about the linguistic trends being discovered using the database in the New York Times.

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1530. Radio Times. Billing for "The Book of My Childhood." 19 January 1951, 32.
Scheduled on BBC Midland from 8:15-8:30, an autobiographical(?) programme from Henry Reed.

Reed Reviews Donagh MacDonagh

This past weekend, I braved bridges and tunnels and drove down to the Perry Library at Old Dominion University, to retrieve this review. Curiously, ODU has a full run of The Bell magazine (1940-1954) on microfiche.

The Bell was a literary review and survey of contemporary life in Ireland, founded in 1940 by Peadar O'Donnell, and later edited by Sean O'Faolain. It is still regarded as one of the most important Irish magazines of the twentieth century, counting among its contributors such luminaries as Elizabeth Bowen, Michael Farrell, Patrick Kavanagh, Frank O'Connor, Liam O'Flaherty, and George Bernard Shaw.

In the October, 1946 issue, Henry Reed reviews Donagh MacDonagh's play, Happy as Larry:

Book cover

HAPPY AS LARRY. By Donagh MacDonagh (Fridberg, 6s.)
Reviewed by Henry Reed

HAPPY AS LARRY is a play written in a manner which is to-day usually reserved for radio-features. It employs an intermittent narration by a group of commentators; the main action takes place in a series of inset scenes. This is a wearisome and mechanical enough device in radio; one rarely avoids the feeling that the author has lacked the energy or the invention to construct a convincing piece of fluent action. It strikes one as a lazy way of writing, even on the air. Off the air, it seems lazier still. It is true that the six tailors who provide Mr. MacDonagh's narration are lively enough in their stock way, and that eventually he fits them fancifully into the main action, but one is aware of contrivance throughout; and one suspects that an effort is being made to divert us from observing the thinness of the main theme.

Yet it is not a boring work to read. It is probably a better play for the study than for the theatre, for it lasts but an hour in the hand, while in the theatre it would certainly last two. It is written in what can best be called light verse. Of this Mr. MacDonagh makes a genuine virtue; he is both fluid and varied, and there are several passages which are vividly memorable:
There she goes, the door is shut,
Close your eyes and see her work,
She tests the blade, the dangerous slut,
A woman fit for Hare or Burke,
Opens Larry's waistcoat, coat,
Opens the shirt and then the vest
Feels the flesh still warm and soft
On her husband's hairy chest,
Reads the chart and marks the spot,
Puts the knife against the skin,
Closes her eyes and presses hard
Feeling the keen blade sinking in. . . .
That is fine. And, for what it is, Happy as Larry is very good; But what is it?

It is this: A group of six tailors on a forestage are discussing marriage. Their remarks are not without a little of that roguish near-bawdiness about the pleasures of two-in-a-bed-o'-winter-nights, a little of which goes a long way (or else not far enough, I am sometimes perplexed to know which). One of them begins to tell the story of his Grand-da, Larry, who had two wives and never decided which of them was good and which was bad. We move back (inset) to Larry, a lusty young husband who discovers a young widow lamenting in a churchyard. She has just buried her husband; on his deathbed he has made her promise not to marry again till the clay is dry on his grave. When we first see her, she is fanning the grave in order to help things along. (This is one of those actions that only an Irish writer would accuse an Irish character of performing.) Larry takes her off home for a cup of tea. His own wife is the victim of the attentions of a Rossinian doctor; she spurns them, until, unbeknownst, he poisons Larry; then, to the astonishment and horror of the neighbours who have come to the wake, she yields to him. Here the tailors take a hand in the action: They poison the doctor. Seamus, the doctor's accomplice, urges Mrs. Larry to extract some blood from Larry's heart and pump it into the doctor. This she sets about doing. At the touch of the knife, however, Larry comes, rather dazed, to life again. Mrs. Larry falls dead. The tailors explain to Larry what has happened; he abjures regular unions forever, and announces his intention of becoming a ruthless sexual terror to the neighbourhood. He is dissuaded from this course by the widow whom he has found drying her husband's grave. All ends happily, and the tailors, having successfully adjusted the past by their timely incursion, return to the present Curtain.

Is this a good story? Not very, I should say. Yet I have read the play twice, and do not think I have missed anything, except, possibly, the point. There is a good deal of briskness about the verse. The whole thing is the kind of thing one would happily put up with in an opera, for which, indeed, the play would provide an admirable libretto. Or, perhaps, the words might be cut entirely, and it might do very well as a ballet. In its present form, as it seems to an English reader, it is invincibly thin. Yet the English reader, cannot help feeling also, that perhaps he has missed something that an Irish reader would seize and applaud. Is the English reader being too Sophisticated? Or merely too naive?
With the entire run of The Bell at my fingertips, I was sure to double-check for notes on the contributors, and to scan backward and forward several issues for another contribution by Reed. I didn't find anything more that he had written, but I did find a very short review of A Map of Verona, from June, 1946. I'm saving that for the next post!

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1529. Sackville-West, Vita. "Seething Brain." Observer (London), 5 May 1946, 3.
Sackville-West speaks admirably of Reed's poetry, and was personally 'taken with the poem called "Lives," which seemed to express so admirably Mr. Reed's sense of the elusiveness as well as the continuity of life.'

Yes, Mr. Reed, I've Read Your Poem

When an anecdote turns out to be more amusing than accurate, I will usually grant points just for sheer entertainment value. Such is the case with this humorous aside, which appears in Reed's entry in the Encyclopedia of British Writers (New York: Facts on File, 2003). Funny as it may be, it unfortunately perpetuates Reed's reputation as having written only one poem worthy of remembering:

After World War II Reed published A Map of Verona (1946), a book of poetry in five sections. The section called 'Lessons of the War' contains poems based on his brief and unsatisfying experience in the army. One of these poems, 'Naming of Parts,' became widely anthologized and so well known as an antiwar poem that it made Reed famous as a one-poem poet and overshadowed his other work. (On being introduced to him, a person would usually say, 'Oh, Mr. Reed, I've read your poem.')

Now, I was curious as to where this chestnut may have originated; I didn't recognize any of the editors of the encyclopedia, and it appears rather suddenly in the fossil record. Another quick search of Google Books turns up a previous appearance, in Elements of Literature, Sixth Course: Literature of Britain (Austin, Texas: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1993):

Book cover

Henry Reed was born and educated in the industrial city of Birmingham. As an adult, he served in the British army and the diplomatic corps. He then began a career as a journalist in London, where he was well known for his wit and satirical imagination. More limited in output than any other significant poet of his generation, Reed's fame rests entirely on a single work. Constantly anthologized everywhere in the English-speaking world, 'Naming of Parts' has long been one of the staples of modern poetry. (The story goes that a faculty member, introduced to the poet for the first time, said, 'Oh yes, Mr. Reed, I've read your poem.') Excerpted from a longer poem published in Reed's first volume, A Map of Verona (1946), 'Naming of Parts' contrasts gentleness with rude actuality, the voice of a man of action with the musings of a dreamer. In the process, it transcends the fact that, in spite of its Cockney lilt, the language of most of the poems is as flat as the prose of a training manual.

That's a lovely summation, and apparently the source for the story's appearance in the Encyclopedia of British Writers. The Elements of Literature series was edited by Robert Anderson (1917-2009). Anderson was a playwright and screenwriter, best known for his 1953 play, Tea and Sympathy, which was produced as a feature film in 1956, starring Deborah Kerr ("Years from now when you talk about this—and you will—be kind"). Anderson would seem to be a reputable source, so I'll go ahead award him the points he's due. I wonder who the offending faculty member may have been?

1528. Manning, Hugo. "Recent Verse." Books of the Day, Guardian (Manchester), 31 July 1946, 3.
Manning feels that 'Mr. Reed has worn thin much of his genuine talent in this direction by too much self-inflicted censorship.'

1st lesson:

Reed, Henry (1914-1986). Born: Birmingham, England, 22 February 1914; died: London, 8 December 1986.

Education: MA, University of Birmingham, 1936. Served: RAOC, 1941-42; Foreign Office, Bletchley Park, 1942-1945. Freelance writer: BBC Features Department, 1945-1980.

Author of: A Map of Verona: Poems (1946)
The Novel Since 1939 (1946)
Moby Dick: A Play for Radio from Herman Melville's Novel (1947)
Lessons of the War (1970)
Hilda Tablet and Others: Four Pieces for Radio (1971)
The Streets of Pompeii and Other Plays for Radio (1971)
Collected Poems (1991, 2007)
The Auction Sale (2006)



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