Naming of Parts

by Henry Reed

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The Poem

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“Naming of Parts” is a thirty-line lyric poem divided into five stanzas. The poem depicts a group of infantry recruits receiving a familiarization lecture on their rifles. The title reflects the practical, if prosaic, necessity of knowing the proper term for each of the rifle’s parts. Readers hear two distinctive voices in the poem—that of the insensitive, boorish drill instructor giving the lecture and that of a sensitive, young recruit whose mind is wandering during this mind-numbing discourse on rifle terminology. The key to understanding the poem is realizing that roughly the first three and one-half lines of each stanza present what the young recruit is literally hearing and enduring while the remaining lines suggest what he is thinking and noticing as his instructor lectures about rifle parts.

The first stanza opens with an overview of the week’s training schedule. As the first lines make clear, this day’s class will be devoted to learning the names of the rifle’s parts. The recruit’s mind, however, is elsewhere. He notices the Japonica shrubs blooming in neighboring gardens, a detail that establishes the season as spring. In the second stanza, the instructor is calling the group’s attention to the rifle’s “swivels,” that are fastened to the weapon’s wooden frame or “stock.” The missing “piling swivel,” a part the military deems inessential, inspires the recruit’s sudden notice of the branches described in lines 4 and 5. In marked contrast to his present situation, he finds the natural scene to be complete and whole in and of itself. The third stanza concerns the rifle’s “safety catch,” which functions to prevent unintentional firing. The sudden mention of blossoms at the end of the fourth line once again indicates that the recruit is dividing his attention between the lecture and the springtime scene. He is struck by how the blooms of flowers simply exist. Despite their fragility, they need not learn safety procedures nor must they comply with any arbitrary strictures.

With the next stanza, the instructor has moved on to the principal moving part of the rifle: the bolt. In an effort to demonstrate how the rifle operates, the instructor is mimicking the firing process, using the bolt handle to move the spring-operated bolt back and forth. The military jargon for this procedure is “easing the spring.” Witnessing the local bees engaged in the process of pollination, however, inspires the young soldier to reinterpret this phrase in a sexually suggestive sense. As the initial repetition of the phrase “easing the Spring” indicates, the fifth and final stanza functions as a sort of reprise of both the lecture and the recruit’s reactions to it. He has obviously seized upon two phrases from the lecture, the “cocking-piece” and the “point of balance.” The rifle’s “cocking-piece” functions as a fitting symbol of sexual tension, once more suggesting the “release” he and his fellow soldiers are being denied. The rifle’s “point of balance” leads the young soldier to reflect on how their present situation has thrown their lives out of balance.

Forms and Devices

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Reed divides the poem into five six-line stanzas, each of which follows the alternating pattern already explained. Within the stanzas, the principal poetic devices are imagery and wordplay calculated to evoke connotations at odds with the denotations of the instructor’s words and phrases. The effect is to illustrate what Reed sees as the inherent contrast between the world of nature and the world of war. In the first stanza, for instance, the image of Japonica plants glistening “like coral in all of the neighboring gardens” stands in...

(This entire section contains 360 words.)

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stark opposition to the rifle imagery in the first three and one-half lines. The second stanza turns on the image of the missing “piling swivel”; contrary to this image, the tree branches mentioned in the fourth and fifth lines bespeak a peaceful, harmonious, and integral relation with nature. The phrase “silent, eloquent gestures” sets up a thematic opposition to the third stanza, in which the soldiers are being admonished to release the safety catches of their rifles with their thumbs. This clumsy gesture further contrasts with the serenity of the “fragile and motionless” blossoms, and the corresponding reiteration of the phrase “using their finger” evokes a sexual connotation the instructor hardly intends.

The fourth stanza juxtaposes the image of “easing the [rifle’s] spring” with that of bees “assaulting and fumbling the flowers.” The imagery and the connotation are again sexual, with the flowers likened to passive victims and bees to sexual predators. The principal play on words is the repetition of the phrase “easing the Spring”—now with an uppercase s. The young recruit is thinking of the sexual release symbolized by the bees pollinating flowers. The last stanza serves as a summation: The first few lines are once more devoted to the instructor’s phrases, but this time they are taken out of context. As a consequence of what has come before, the phrases and images come home to the reader in the full force of their associated sexual implications. Juxtaposing these once again with the natural images repeated in the fourth and fifth lines heightens the reader’s sense of what these young soldiers do and do not have.