Friday, 6 February 2009

Reading Reed

Here is Henry Reed (1914-1986). Chastised by a reviewer for failing to mention him in my Modern English War Poetry, I have since performed the penitential (but pleasurable) task of reading and re-reading Reed's Collected Poems. Reed is also fortunate enough to be the subject of a website which describes itself as 'An obsessive, armchair attempt to assemble a comprehensive bibliography, not just for the work of a poet, but for his entire life.' The site is more than an essential resource; it is a wonder. Every dead poet should have one.

Reed fulfilled the terms of Robert Frost's ambition: 'to lodge a few poems where they will be hard to get rid of.' To be precise, he lodged three: 'Naming of Parts', 'Judging Distances', and his (to my mind, rather limp) pastiche of T. S. Eliot, 'Chard Whitlow'. I would also pick out the rest of Lessons of the War (from which 'Naming of Parts' and 'Judging Distances' are taken), Reed's 'Triptych', and lurking in that most unprepossessing part of a poet's work --- 'Early poems, drafts and fragments' --- the longish and posthumously-published 'Psychological Warfare'. Jon Stallworthy's editorial note informs us that 'Psychological Warfare' had been intended as an afterpiece to Lessons of the War; like those lessons, it is based on Reed's experiences in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps during the Second World War. Comically exaggerated, the voice of the instructor nevertheless rings true:

I am, as you know, like all true professional soldiers,
A profoundly religious man: the true soldier has to be.
And I therefore believe the war will be over by Easter Monday.
But I must in fairness state that a number of my brother-officers,
No less religious than I, believe it will hold out till Whitsun.
Others, more on the agnostic side (although I do not contemn them)
Fancy the thing will drag on till August Bank Holiday.

This has an echo of an earlier World War, and before long the instructor reveals himself to be a veteran of 'the fourteen-eighteen thing', in which the enemy was 'cruelly, ruthlessly, starkly obsessed with the arts, / Music and painting, sculpture and the writing of verses'. The instructor's advice: 'Please, do not stand for it.'

Henry Reed was often confused with the (fractionally) better-known Great War poet, Herbert Read. Far from taking it amiss, he encouraged the muddle by writing radio plays about a character called Herbert Reeve. I hope he would be disappointed that no one has criticised my book for failing to mention Read's poetry.

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