It’s National Poetry Month, and that means Henry Reed’s achingly beautiful and super-funny Naming of parts. Getting the humor might require having spent some time in the military, which I did; getting the vocabulary certainly does, as it’s full of technical terms for rifle-parts. I originally found the version that I give here, with its nice links to some of the difficult vocabulary, on the Sole Arabia Tree web site. For this year, I’ve added some additional vocabulary notes here. Go to the Sole Arabia Tree page for a recording of Henry Reed reading the poem.
swivel: “a device joining two parts so that one or both can pivot freely”(Merriam-Webster) . The poem mentions several kinds of swivels on the British-Army-issue rifle of World War II: the upper sling swivel, the lower sling swivel, and the piling swivel.
sling: “a device (as a rope or chain) by which something is lifted or carried” (Merriam-Webster). See the picture of a rifle above.
easily: the adverbial form of easy. It never appears in the poem–I add it here for the benefit of the non-native speakers whose English is good enough to be puzzled by these lines in the poem:
You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb.
Yes, that sounds weird, and you should say You can do it quite easily if you have any strength in your thumb. Does Reed use it here to imply something about the level of education of the drill instructor? Is it a dialectal variant in the United Kingdom? Was it current at the time that he wrote the poem, published in 1942? I have no clue. I do, however, find quite striking the parallel that Lieutenant Colonel Edward Ledford (US Army) draws between the drill instructor’s deadpan “which in your case you have not got,” sometimes interpreted as prefiguring how slaughtered these kids were going to be later, part because of shortages of equipment, and notorious my-kids-won’t-go-to-war-but-let’s-send-yours Donald Rumsfeld’s dismissal of the concerns of actual American soldiers at the beginning of Bush’s Iraq War:
The scene is in Kuwait. The setting is a less and less endearing and more and more trite town-hall meeting. Soldiers are gathered around. They will move north into Iraq the next day. The soldiers, we soon discover, apparently aren’t feeling real dulce-et-decorum-est-pro-patri-mori.
Playing the role of leader, Donald Rumsfeld places himself among them. He opens the floor to questions and comments. Specialist Thomas Wilson raises his hand. He is called upon.
Wilson: A lot of us are getting ready to move north relatively soon. Our vehicles are not armored. We’re digging pieces of rusted scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass that’s already been shot up.. picking the best out of this scrap to put on our vehicles to take into combat.
Rumsfeld [in a scientific, theoretical, detached tone]: As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time. [brightening, as if realizing something] If you think about it, you can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can be blown up.
A female Soldier asks a next question, but the audience cannot hear it
Rumsfeld: It is something you prefer not to have to use, obviously, in a perfect world. It’s been used as little as possible.
Lieutenant Colonel Ledford continues his critique of Rumsfeld’s dismissive (and later seen to be deadly, both for us and for Iraqi civilians) words by rewriting them in the style of Naming of parts:
As you know, you go
with the Army you have.
They’re not the Army
you might want
or wish to have
at a later time.
If you think
you can have
all the armor
in the world
on a tank
and a tank
can be blown
It is something
you prefer not to have to use,
a perfect world.
It’s been used
as little as possible.
LESSONS OF THE WAR
To Alan Michell
I. NAMING OF PARTS
To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day 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 to-day we have naming of parts.