"Naming of Parts," "Judging Distances," Literary Snobbery and Careless Reading in the Analysis of Henry Reed's "Lessons of the War"

By Petite, Joseph | Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, March 2005 | Go to article overview

"Naming of Parts," "Judging Distances," Literary Snobbery and Careless Reading in the Analysis of Henry Reed's "Lessons of the War"


Petite, Joseph, Journal of Evolutionary Psychology


Though individual poems, "Naming of Parts" and "Judging Distances," in Henry Reed's series "Lessons of the War," are widely anthologized and are considered among the best poems of WW II, the explication that exists offers a curious but consistent phenomenon: interpreters praise Reed as a fine writer, only to insist that he needs their help to account for what they see as a major anomaly. The "literary" language that appears, it is argued, could not belong to the instructors who speak the poems, for instructors are dismissed as verbal incompetents. The remedy to the alleged anomaly is to posit a "second voice" and assign it to recruits, even though there is no textual evidence that recruits speak. Recruits are then declared spontaneous poets (and interpreters find nothing odd in this assumption) who, we are to believe, repeatedly interrupt military lectures with poetic outbursts. The outbursts are explained by a non sequitur. Pronounced more sensitive, the recruits are said to be rhapsodizing about a contrast between the beauty of nature and the horror of war--the only problem being that recruits, never having been to war, would be speaking of a contrast they haven't experienced. Thus, we are to accept the premise that Reed's poems are great because he created a group of awkward sounding, non-grammatical straw men who are held up to ridicule.

Critics do not credit Reed with a more profound insight--the instructors are victims of war, grappling with how to be human in inhuman circumstances. Psychologically, language is their last line of self-defense, a way to survive the dehumanizing acts war requires. There is no need to "explain" the presence of such language. War-weary, instructors long for beauty, finding it in nature undisturbed by war and expressing themselves in a second register. The irony is that interpreters, with the exception of Condon, 1954, had available Reed's 1970 "Returning of Issue," which was made the final poem in the series, where from the first line and throughout much of the poem, the military figure uses literary language, making unnecessary claims of a second speaker. The task is to see not that Reed was so incompetent as to dump into the poems dissonant voices that have to be explained but that Reed's poems are, in fact, both whole and far more complex than, to date, they have been thought to be. Further, the real "Judging Distances" has been invisible to critics. Reed's significant achievement, the instructor's clever use of abstract language, has never been hinted at.

The first academic response to "Lessons of the War" was written in 1954, though collected in 1966. Condon states the obvious, that there is a contrast in "Naming of Parts" between the man-created world war and the Eden-like condition of nature. We're told not of the contrast between the recruits and the speaker but the recruits, innocent of war, and the inhumanity of war. Inexplicably, the instructor, as another human being caught up in the grip of war, is never mentioned. The closest the explication gets to the instructor is that the recruits are "being instructed." (1)

Condon does not heed the admonition attributed to Freud, that sometimes a cigar is merely a cigar. He begins another trend, conducting an unwarranted "Freudian" tour. Though nothing in the poem remotely hints that matters sexual are explored, "parts" is seized upon to argue that this must, of course, be an indication that "private" parts are involved (245). Since this is about man after the Fall, the private parts are, of necessity, "depraved." The lack of parts has nothing to do with the incompetence of military bureaucracy, which is what the instructor is focused on. Since Condon isn't interested in the instructor, the absence of parts shows the recruits' "sexual incompleteness." Lacking a 'point of balance,' has nothing to do with a rifle, but, we are told, refers to depraved sexuality. Thus, the depravity of war is mirrored in men because all that is left is "masturbation and debilitating daydreams. …

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