Some Poems Worth Your Time: Lessons of the War--Henry Reed

Some Poems Worth Your Time: Lessons of the War--Henry Reed

If you recognize Henry Reed, it is likely for "The Naming of Parts." But this is just one of six in a poem sequence called "Lessons of the War." Still, it's a good place to start.

Here is a link to the six-poem sequence. Do yourself a favor and read at least the first sequence (the aforementioned "The Naming of Parts").

"The Naming of Parts" is an exchange between a British sergeant and the speaker--though the speaker's words are likely only thought, rather than spoken. Reed gets the sergeant's overly officious and slightly clueless diction just right, so that we share (and delight) in the speaker's recognition that the sergeant doesn't quite understand everything he is trying to teach. And meanwhile, the speaker reveals his ambivalence toward the service he has been called to give, which invites others to identify with him--by "others," I mean "others not in uniform."

But the wonderful thing for me about this poem is that it appeals to people IN uniform. I found it and fell in love with it as an army officer.

In "The Naming of Parts," it's clear the recruit-speaker is not completely committed to the military way of life. But when you read the rest of the poems in the sequence, you see his sympathy for the cause emerge from time to time. In that way,  the poems resemble Herman Wouk's "The Caine Mutiny," where Captain Queeg has clearly come unhinged--and yet we can't dismiss him entirely, because he was there to serve his country when no one else was.

The poem has always been a favorite of mine--part laughing at those who I imagine I know better than, part laughing at myself, part seeing the nobility even in the imperfect execution of service.

By the way, I have decided on a phrase from one of the other poems in this sequence ("Unarmed Combat") for the epigraph to my book "General Discharge."

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