Lessons Of The War Poem by Henry Reed

Lessons Of The War

Rating: 3.6

To Alan Mitchell

Vixi duellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine gloria

I. 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 of 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, and 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 naming of parts.


I am quite happy for Jacob Bearer to disagree with me concerning my comments on 'Lessons of the War' by Henry Reed. Jacob’s comments are a good example of an interpretation imposed upon a poem by a reader and all reader interpretations are important and valuable. I enjoyed Jacob’s reading. The setting of the poem is not actually Japan. Reed was an English poet, teacher and journalist; and this is his most famous poem, ‘a witty parody of British army basic training during World War II referencing his own experience. Reed was drafted into the army in 1941 and the poem was originally published in ‘New Statesman and Nation’ in August 1942. My interpretation of the two settings was during the boredom of basic training, Reed is daydreaming about Japan. The five stanzas of witty puns contrast the different parts of the rifle with ‘the vibrant world of japonica, almond blossom, bees, and branches’ which Reed seems to be imaging as a recruit as the drill instructor, a noncommissioned officer instructing the squad drones on. Reed seems to be projecting a sense of boredom and pointlessness, possibly because he knew after basic training he was not going overseas and into combat. Reed remained in Britain as a needed Japanese translator, and 'Lessons of the War' is considered one of only a handful of good poems, which came out of the armed forces stationed in Britain. Japonica does not refer to islands taken by the Japanese during World War Two; the term ‘Japonica’ is a general term referring to anything relating to Japan, anything from a skilled sushi chef to Fatsia japonica is a native of the coastal woodlands. There was no easing into peace following World War Two either. The Cold War begins, Germany and Japan are used as buffer zones against the perceived Communist threat. The Korean war soon breaks out. The Japanese were not eased into the shame of defeat or the shame of occupation, the burning humiliation was branded into race memory with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima To Nagasaki. Troops also do basic training in their own countries, and troops occupying post war Japan normally had considerable combat experience. Sorry taught the subjects and did some military training, which is written into 'Night Sounds Gnaw For Decades Survivor Days'; one of my lessons of war. If anyone really wants to understand Reed’s intention in this poem, then read the entire trilogy; Reed’s 'Lessons of the War' consists of his poems, ‘Naming of Parts’, ‘Judging Distances’ and ‘Unarmed Combat’ where Reed’s theme of an individual broken into a part of the military machine becomes obvious.

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Dear Jacob, the beauty of poetry is all readings are valid, a good poem will launch us into flights of personal interactive engagement and generate our all important independent thought. Poetry should be enjoyed and we all eventually have our favourite poems and poets. These poets speak to our souls. Our reading of them is our source of rich enjoyment. Even university lecturers are recognized levels of ignorance, one of my lecturers had never read a novel not written in the Romantic period. These men or women esteemed by most, offer insights into the meaning of poems, novels, short stories by greater or lesser poets and writers. As a poet yourself, you know that a specific poem may have multiple agendas and themes. Not all will be recognized on the first reading. This may provide the beauty and wonder of later readings. Second readings and later readings of inspired poetry offer new insights. I remember once a famous lecturer in New Zealand gave a beautiful analysis of a poem by a poet he was an expert on. At the end the lecturer asked the poet’s opinion on his comment. The poet replied, that was very clever, I wish I had thought of that. The point I am making is literary experts know the poetic terms and labels but a layman’s insight can be more accurate and often is. A layman’s passion and moments of poetic genius will always out write a mere scholarly poem lacking imaginations flames. My early poems, definitely several are among my best writes, are still among my favourites and were written without a great knowledge of poetic conventions and history of forms. I still reject rules where appropriate. Your voice Jacob and the importance of staying true toyour own poetic voice is most important. Do not change styles to please critics or opinions of readers. Learn and grow with time in your own inspired comfort zone. Only you can write your poems with your own unique individuality. At university I disagreed with many theories and some lecturers on bookworm analysis of certain poems. Critics building on critics comments. I applied twice and was not accepted into the elite University creative writing course? Thank God for that. I keep my own voice and when a poem I wrote reads badly, jars senses, sticks needles into nerve endings; it is deliberate; it is meant to create desired responses. I actually wrote a poem partly referencing such thoughts recently. Greg Uhan, a young poet I particularly admire, and I are in agreement about ‘Past Artists Build Build Build’. The creative writing course I was denied entry too, was actually run by an American Literature professor born in England and lecturing in New Zealand. So the question is, are not laymen opinions in American by Americans in touch with their own culture and cultural heritage; sometimes or often as valid, or more accurate than this one opinion? The answer must be yes, many readers provide many differing unique readings and understandings. I like them all, a few strike important reactions within my own understanding. If you truly want investigate a poem Jacob, do the investigation for the joy and fun of the journey, and not all poems are intended to be take seriously, some are written to entertain and for enjoyment. Your question Jacob, ‘can a poem speak for itself without a reader - such as myself - having to necessarily know a broad literary perspective coupled with at least some depth into any particular author? ’ would make a wonderful literary question for a final examination essay. I would love to read the answers both for and against. Both are valid. Until we speak again, probably in private conversation Jacob, God speed in all your writings.

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Jacob Bearer 10 July 2012

Terrance, I thank you for revealing to me, and others, my ignorance. It's always a pleasure to be humbled by one who does indeed know to what they are speaking. You've taught me to be careful with both my disagreements and my commentary. I guess, after reading your first comment I thought to myself, Self, surely Henry Reed would have known if no lessons from WWII were going to be written about in this poem, then why would he title it 'Lesson of the War'? I guess I was trying to squeeze lessons out of the poem, perhaps - as you have indicated - I imposed lessons onto the poem; isn't it interesting what you can learn about others and yourself when interpreting poetry? Again, thank you for your insights into the poem, and thank you for challenging me to truly investigate a poem and to truly take seriously the history behind the poem and the literary imagination going into the poem; although, again, my ignorance of literature will continue to shine through my commentaries. I guess, after this little exchange, I'd be interested in your thoughts on interpretation: can a poem speak for itself without a reader - such as myself - having to necessarily know a broad literary perspective coupled with at least some depth into any particular author? In short, can a literary layman - such as myself - interpret poetry properly; or am I doomed to perhaps shallow interpretations against which academics will forever roll their eyes?

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Sally Plumb Plumb 10 July 2013

I have read this many times before... a favourite of mine.

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Beth Larsen Larsen 17 April 2005

The ironic contrast between nature getting on with its business, new life, and soldiers ill prepared for their business, killing.

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Today we have naming of parts. Japonica Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens, And today we have naming of parts.

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Rod Andrews 03 March 2018

I can think of no other poet who has captured so well the address & vocabluary of the tween wars gunnery instructor and combined it so exquisitely with the hapless dreams of the reluctant conscript

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trizzac 13 February 2018

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Hunter Hart 15 May 2017

Dear Mr. Reed, The concept of this poem was very interesting to me in the fact that it is not just a set of rules for war. The fact that it is all about how to build a gun and naming a gun is the most interesting part. Thank you for sharing you poem.

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Juliet Languedoc 10 July 2014

A writing that calls for attention. Lessons well taught

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