Judging distances: the illustrated version

More wistful beauty from Henry Reed’s WWII poetry.

I can remember it like it was yesterday: being a teen-ager, barely turned 18 (at the time, you could enlist at 17, and I did), lying in my bunk on a guided missile cruiser off of the coast of someplace or other.  Thinking: if only I could go back and finish high school…  National Poetry Month is not National Poetry Month without Henry Reed’s wistful beauty.  His meditation on time and the way that some times can be much farther away — or closer — than others in Judging Distances always takes me back to my misguided youth and that rack (bunk) on the USS Biddle.  I got this version of the poem from the Sole Arabian Tree web site; at the bottom of their page, you can find a link to a recording of it.  After the text, you’ll find a couple of notes on the vocabulary.

LESSONS OF THE WAR, by Henry Reed 

Published 1943

II. JUDGING DISTANCES

Not only how far away, but the way that you say it
Is very important. Perhaps you may never get
The knack of judging a distance, but at least you know
How to report on a landscape: the central sector,
The right of the arc and that, which we had last Tuesday,
And at least you know

That maps are of time, not place, so far as the army
Happens to be concerned—the reason being,
Is one which need not delay us. Again, you know
There are three kinds of tree, three only, the fir and the poplar,
And those which have bushy tops to; and lastly
That things only seem to be things.

A barn is not called a barn, to put it more plainly,
Or a field in the distance, where sheep may be safely grazing.
You must never be over-sure. You must say, when reporting:
At five o’clock in the central sector is a dozen
Of what appear to be animals; whatever you do,
Don’t call the bleeders sheep.

I am sure that’s quite clear; and suppose, for the sake of example,
The one at the end, asleep, endeavors to tell us
What he sees over there to the west, and how far away,
After first having come to attention. There to the west,
On the fields of summer the sun and the shadows bestow
Vestments of purple and gold.

The still white dwellings are like a mirage in the heat,
And under the swaying elms a man and a woman
Lie gently together. Which is, perhaps, only to say
That there is a row of houses to the left of the arc,
And that under some poplars a pair of what appear to be humans
Appear to be loving.

Well that, for an answer, is what we rightly call
Moderately satisfactory only, the reason being,
Is that two things have been omitted, and those are very important.
The human beings, now: in what direction are they,
And how far away, would you say? And do not forget
There may be dead ground in between.

There may be dead ground in between; and I may not have got
The knack of judging a distance; I will only venture
A guess that perhaps between me and the apparent lovers,
(Who, incidentally, appear by now to have finished,)
At seven o’clock from the houses, is roughly a distance
Of about one year and a half.


English notes

knack: “an ability, talent, or special skill needed to do something” (Merriam-Webster).  You “have” a (or the) knack “for” doing something, after you “get” a (or the) knack “for” doing it–you learn it.   Merriam-Webster gives a list of synonyms for knack: 

aptitude, bent, endowment, faculty, flair, genius, gift, head, talent

…and then gives a wonderful discussion of them that does a nice job of making the point that there aren’t really any synonyms:

giftfacultyaptitudebenttalentgeniusknack mean a special ability for doing something. gift often implies special favor by God or nature.

    • the gift of singing beautifully

faculty applies to an innate or less often acquired ability for a particular accomplishment or function.

    • faculty for remembering names

aptitude implies a natural liking for some activity and the likelihood of success in it.

    • a mechanicalaptitude

bent is nearly equal to aptitude but it stresses inclination perhaps more than specific ability.

    • a family with an artistic bent

talent suggests a marked natural ability that needs to be developed.

    • has enough talent to succeed

geniussuggests impressive inborn creative ability.

    • has no greatgenius for poetry

knack implies a comparatively minor but special ability making for ease and dexterity in performance.

    • the knack of getting along

 

Knack appears in the poem twice–in the beginning:

Perhaps you may never get
The knack of judging a distance, but at least you know
How to report on a landscape

…and then in those stunning last lines:

                                                          I may not have got
The knack of judging a distance; I will only venture
A guess that perhaps between me and the apparent lovers,
(Who, incidentally, appear by now to have finished,)
At seven o’clock from the houses, is roughly a distance
Of about one year and a half.

better-barn_istock-thinkstock
American barns are stereotypically red. Why? I have no idea. Picture source: https://www.hobbyfarms.com/build-a-better-barn-for-your-farm-3/

barn: “a building used for storing grain and hay and for housing farm animals” (Merriam-Webster)  Merriam-Webster gives an obscure definition of barn that I have never, ever come across before: a unit of area equal to 10−24 square centimeters that is used in nuclear physics for measuring cross section.

As broad as a barn door is an analogy used to describe something that is very wide.  The most common thing to describe as being broad as a barn door is someone’s ass, and that’s not typically a compliment.  Looking for examples on the Sketch Engine web site, I see very few uses of broad as a barn door that are not negative.  (You’ll also see big as a barn door and wide as a barn door.  Why miss the opportunity for some alliteration?)

  • I had my first look at the boom horse Hay List . He’s built like a tank with a backside as big as a barn door.
  •  And since security companies advise against “unsubscribing” from spam, since to most spammers, this merely means the address is active, the hole in the law is as wide as a barn door.
  • I have sent you a cheque for what you asked, you are very modest in your request for which I like you all the better; a Colonist would have opened his mouth as wide as a barn door.
  • Now, for Europe, this means we have to absolutely cancel the EU Treaties from Maastricht to Lisbon, we have to return to national currencies, and we have to establish, simultaneously, a global Glass-Steagall Act, and I mean the real Glass-Steagall as Franklin D. Roosevelt imposed it, and not some watered-down versions like the Vickers Commission ring-fencing, or Volcker Rule, which leave holes for banking speculation as big as a barn door.
  • But the chain remained tangled, and amid all kinds of mocking advice we drifted down upon and fouled the Ghost, whose bowsprit poked square through our mainsail and ripped a hole in it as big as a barn door.

I love that the drill instructor tells the new recruits not to call a barn a barn, but doesn’t tell them what they should call it:

A barn is not called a barn, to put it more plainly,
Or a field in the distance, where sheep may be safely grazing.

 

gkvp0cz
This illustration seems to come from a forum about a computer game or something. Nonetheless: it’s a pretty good illustration of dead ground! Picture source: https://goo.gl/5rWBHB

dead ground: technically, this is space that cannot be observed.  Tracing back through references, it seems to have come from a term for describing parts of the base of a castle’s fortifying walls that were sheltered from fire by the defenders, and therefore were weak points vulnerable to attack.  Here’s one Quora writer’s definition of it:

Dead Ground is when the observer is unable to resolve keeping eyes on over an intermediate part of the stretch of ground being observed. The observer may be interchanged with detection equipment and includes areas of surveillance which are obscured from a clear alarm signature (environmental distortion from clear auditory reception) or trigger reception (automatic pixel motion detection) by the way the observer is angled. Dead ground exists in hidden embankments and undulating paths, roads or desert open areas with heat waves rising and obscuring or creating distorted imagery.

Some examples from the enTenTen corpus, searched via the Sketch Engine web site:

  • Small valleys and dead ground permitted the enemy to approach without being observed.
  • Bravo started firing at the antiaircraft gun with small-arms, this almost proved fatal, as their target immediately cut loose in retaliation, luckily for Bravo they were in dead ground , and the hail of fire passed harmlessly overhead , as the Swapo gunners could not depress their gun sufficiently, yet it was a sobering experience.

“Dead ground” shows up twice in the poem, both towards the aforementioned stunning last lines:

The human beings, now: in what direction are they,
And how far away, would you say? And do not forget
There may be dead ground in between.

There may be dead ground in between; and I may not have got
The knack of judging a distance; I will only venture
A guess that perhaps between me and the apparent lovers,
(Who, incidentally, appear by now to have finished,)
At seven o’clock from the houses, is roughly a distance
Of about one year and a half.

One thought on “Judging distances: the illustrated version”

  1. Thank you for beauty and knowledge, beauty in knowledge and -more -knowledge in beauty .
    I like your “misguided youth” .
    Like you I left home and started earning my life at 17 . I wasn’t guided at all .

    Like

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