Monday, June 30, 2014

Witty parody is not the same as clever but ultimately horrifying, not at all

In her blog a couple of weeks ago, Frances Garrood mentioned that “Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed was her favorite war poem. I had never heard of either Henry Reed or his poem, so I looked them up. I learned that Henry Reed (22 February 1914 – 8 December 1986) was a British poet, translator, radio dramatist and journalist. The first paragraph about him in Wikipedia says:

Reed was born in Birmingham and educated at King Edward VI School, Aston, followed by the University of Birmingham. At university he associated with W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice and Walter Allen. He went on to study for an M.A. and then worked as a teacher and journalist. He was called up to the Army in 1941, spending most of the war as a Japanese translator. Although he had studied French and Italian at university and taught himself Greek at school Reed did not take to Japanese, perhaps because he had learned an almost entirely military vocabulary. Walter Allen in his autobiography As I Walked down New Grub Street quoted Reed as saying “He devote every day for the rest of his life to forgetting another word of Japanese.”

“Naming of Parts” is actually Part I of a six-part poem entitled “Lessons Of The War” (the six parts were published separately over a period of several years) . One site calls it “a witty parody of British army basic training during World War II” but after reading all six parts I disagree. I found it clever but ultimately horrifying. Francis, as I said, called it her favorite war poem.

My favorite war poem (by which I mean my favorite poem about war, not a poem about my favorite war) has always been a tie between “The Blue and The Gray” by Francis Miles Finch (see this post) and “In Flanders Field” by John McCrae (see this post). The first is about the American Civil War (1861-1865) and the second is about World War I (1914-1918) , but both are really more about the aftermath of war than war itself.

I have decided to link to the six parts of “Lessons Of the War” individually so that you can tackle the poem at your own pace and decide for yourself how witty, clever, or horrifying it is.

Here they are:

Part I. “Naming of Parts”

Part II. “Judging Distances”
Part III. “Movement of Bodies”
Part IV. “Unarmed Combat”
Part V. “Psychological Warfare”
Part VI. “Returning Of Issue”

After you have waded through plodded through finished reading the entire work, I would love to hear what you think.

What I think, in case anyone is interested, is that the lessons of war are many, and we have learned none of them. Or maybe that we must learn them over and over, because we keep forgetting.


  1. Mark Twain's War Prayer - a prose poem has my vote. Beautiful - and horrifying and sadly true.

  2. I have read it now, and will probably read it again. I found it moving, but too long, and somewhat repetitive.
    I still much prefer Mark Twain's War Prayer.
    And wish that both were fantasy.

  3. We have learned that violence solves little, \i had that sorted before I was twelve.
    Politicians don't go to war.
    I would bring back jousting. Let the leaders put their mouths where their balls should be.

  4. You would not believe the length of the post I just wrote here. It was a fine comment it really was, and it has been lost to stupid blogger. I'm all tired out again, it's almost time for bed, so I'll thank you for the post, say I did not like the poem, and leave this in it's stead by Spike Milligan who fought in Italy and wrote many moving accounts of his time there.

    Young are our dead
    Like babies they lie
    The wombs they blest once
    Not healed dry
    And yet - too soon
    Into each space
    A cold earth falls
    On colder face.
    Quite still they lie
    These fresh-cut reeds
    Clutched in earth
    Like winter seeds
    But they will not bloom
    When called by spring
    To burst with leaf
    And blossoming
    They sleep on
    In silent dust
    As crosses rot
    And helmets rust.