Naming of Parts by Henry Reed
Henry Reed (1914 – 1986) was a journalist, radio dramatist and poet. He’s not particularly well known today, but I have always loved his war poem Naming of Parts:
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 neighbouring 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.
Reed was an airman in World War II, and the poem describes a rifle lesson for young soldiers. He contrasts the technical lesson in how to use an implement which can kill people, with the exquisite beauty of the English countryside. What the men are learning is mechanical and boring. These young men, in training to kill efficiently, should just be revelling in the sounds and scents of the vegetation around them. The splendour of the japonica and blossom, the productive industry of the bees, the strength in the branches – all silently accuse human beings for the chaos and destruction they seem so eager to cause. The poem highlights the horror of man-made war in contrast to the peace and loveliness of nature.
There are two distinct voices within the poem – that of the insensitive and boorish drill instructor, and that of the internal voice of the sensitive recruit who twists the words of the teacher to fit the world he wants to inhabit. For him “easing the spring” is bees sliding in and out of flowers searching for nectar, not the metallic sliding of a rifle breech. Spring, the season of renewal and birth, is being turned into a lesson for death. The poem has sexual connotations in its language (‘parts’ is a euphemism for sexual organs), hinting that this should be a time of fumbling love and sexual energy for young men, not a time spent in military camp learning how to kill.
It seems unnatural to have this compulsive, institutionalised obsession with naming. Perhaps what is most important and beautiful in life cannot be so accurately named? Repetition and alliteration are skilfully used, as is irony.
Listen to a fabulous reading of the poem here: Naming of Parts
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