This month’s poem of the month came to me during a work meeting recently; it was a somewhat attenuated review of some annual targets, and the use of jargon and corporate buzz words led my gaze to fall from the screen and out of the window to the street below. Students from the nearby university were strolling along the road; it was a bright but cold day, and the trees had just the merest suggestion of buds, but still, I could feel Spring; if not in the air, at least on the way.
The corporate terminology continued; lots of standardized acronyms and phrases you would hear in similar-sized organizations. The students laughed, and moped, and headed for the pub and the express supermarket. The sun shone and the wind whipped the tree branches. My memory presented a poem I had studied for my “O” level English exam; Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts”, an ode to the mechanical and regimented horrors of wars endured by the flower of often-conscripted young men.
I was fifteen and attending a Catholic secondary school when I first read the poem. I surreptitiously googled it and had a re-read, while the presenter of the financial performance presentation flipped onto slide seventeen.
And it was a revelation! I remembered being taught that Reed’s poem contrasted the regimented, dead language and efficiency of the military with the living, reaching beauty of nature in Springtime, but I hadn’t realised how sex-filled the poem was! But that makes sense – Henry Reed was conscripted when he was 27, and wrote the poem the next year; he was still a young man, and many of his peers would be in their teens, or barely out of them; young men becoming proficient killing and destruction machines, when they should, like the birds, bees and flowers, be busy fulfilling their natural destiny; making love in fact, not war! This was a side of the poem not taught to me by my Catholic teachers, and it was a beautiful surprise, like a bonus poem hidden behind the one I already knew.
Reading the words that narrator used – the swiveling, easing, glistening, using the finger and strong thumbing, and rapid backwards and forwards – it was clear that this particular soldier, like many of his peers, rejected the philosophy of dealing death on the orders of old men, and chose life and its beautiful, natural and erotic perpetuation.
NAMING OF PARTS
BY HENRY REED (1942)
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 the neighboring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have the naming of parts.