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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.

Henry Reed (b. 1914)
Make Love, Not War:
A First-Time Reader's Guide to Henry Reed's "Naming of Parts"

Usually my students are confused at first (and then a little embarrassed) by Reed's poem. Only a few members of my poetry classes ever see the sexual side of the poem before I surprise them by showing it to them. Here, therefore, are four basic points to guide the first-time reader through the poem:

1. "Lower sling swivel," "upper sling swivel," "piling swivel," "safety catch," "bolt," and "breech" are all terms that refer to parts of a World War Two military rifle. "Naming of parts," "daily cleaning," "what to do after firing," and "easing the spring" are terms that a soldier learns when being trained in the use of a rifle. In part, therefore, the poem re-creates a training session where young soldiers are learning about their rifles.

2. The first part of each stanza re-creates the harsh and humorless voice of a drill sergeant who is training his men to become efficient soldiers: "Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday, we had daily cleaning."

3. The second part of each stanza, however, contains very "un-sergeant-like" phrases such as "Japonica glistens like coral in all the neighboring gardens," "the branches hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures," and "the blossoms are fragile and motionless." These "sensitive" passages in each stanza re-create the thoughts of one of the young soldiers who sees the ironic contrast between the natural beauty of his surroundings and the ugliness of preparing for war. An important part of the poem, therefore, is the glaring contrast between training young men to kill and die in war and the natural desire of young men to make love and thereby bring new life into the world.

4. Some of the sexual imagery in the poem is embarrassingly obvious. For example, the bolt (a phallic-looking piece of metal) sliding "rapidly backwards and forwards" in the breech (an opening into which the bolt is is inserted) parallels rather obviously the mechanics of human sexual intercourse. Also, when "the early bees" are described as "assaulting and fumbling the flowers," the sexual meaning ought to be pretty obvious. In addition, some of the phraseology in the poem has pretty clear sexual overtones: "and please do not let me see anyone using his finger," "easing the Spring," and "cocking-piece." Don't you get it? The parts of the rifle are being named, but so are the primary sexual organs of human beings.

So what is this poem about? On the simplest level this poem is about the tragically stupid and ironic contrast between a young man's desire to make love and that same young man being trained to kill and die in war. Perhaps the Vietnam era produced an antiwar slogan that best expresses the theme of Reed's poem: MAKE LOVE, NOT WAR!

If you would like to see another poem about the mingling of a lover and a killer in a soldier, please click on Keith Douglas and the Struggle to Remain Human: A Reading of "Vergissmeinnicht"