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«  Hecht's Christmas Bell  »

Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog

26.11.2021


Hecht's Christmas Bell

In the newly published Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), edited and by Jonathan F.S. Post, we find a letter to fellow poet J.D. McClatchy, reacting to the 1995 publication of Touchstones: American Poets on a Favorite Poem (University Press of New England), to which Hecht had contributed an essay on "Gaze Not on Swans" (attributed to William Strode and Henry Noel).

Book cover

An American contemporary of Henry Reed's, Hecht saw combat in World War II, and was particularly affected by his experience liberating Flossenbürg concentration camp in April of 1945. With few exceptions, he finds little good to say about the Touchstones anthology, and takes a particular exception (Google Books preview) to Marvin Bell's piece on Reed's "Naming of Parts":
December 19, 1995 Washington DC

[To J.D. McClatchy]
Dear Sandy,

I imagine you're away now, either in England or California (I can't keep your travels straight in my memory) but I have just read your excellent little essay on Pope's "Epistle to Miss Blount," and read it not only with delight but with greatly moved feelings. Your essay, brief as it is, seems to me the best thing in the whole book called Touchstones. It is in many ways an odd book. I haven't read it all, and don't think I ever will; but I feel I must surely have covered both the best and worst of it. And these "best" and "worst" fall with astonishing neatness into two distinct camps that are easy to characterize. Let me say right away that I think the "best" are, after you, Wilbur, Justice, Nims (and there may be one or two others as yet unread). The other category is more numerous, and, as I was composing it I began to think I was, as I have long been accused of being, a misogynist, male-chauvinist pig. For my list includes (in no preferential order) Linda Pastan, Maxine Kumin, Erica Jong, Clara Yu, Rosellen Brown, Nancy Willard, Chase Twichell, and (saved by the bell) Marvin Bell.

...All of them, in any case, begin auto-biographically, with a sickening narcissism [and seem] to come to the poem they are ostensibly writing about with some reluctance. They feel all cuddly or martyred about their past, and this is what truly moves them...[.]

But in some ways Bell deserves a special trophy for incomprehension. It's not just that he begins with his own trifling army experience in writing about Henry Reed's "Naming of Parts." It's that there is so much about the poem he fails to grasp, not the least of which being the very clear and touching class distinction between the conscript and the staff sergeant who is lecturing. The difference would be ironically amusing (or mildly offensive) under normal circumstances: the intellectually inferior lecturing his better. But in war time, such roles are either irrelevant or reversed. And the recruit must put up with them not merely because army regulations require his obedience but because his life may depend on knowing what this well-meaning oaf is trying to impart. And all the grounds for resentment are thereby cancelled, and a new, not entirely desirable, basis for existence is established. The wistfulness of the recruit for the pastoral world of harmless nature, and the recollected world of lovers, is juxtaposed, as it was in Hardy's "In a Time of Breaking of Nations," with the familiar irony of war-time brutality.

Anyway, the book is, but for your piece, and one or two others, a silly book, eliciting the worst, the most hopelessly self-absorbed from writers who are far too self-absorbed...[.]

...With warmest and most affectionate wishes for the holiday season and the coming year,

Tony
[pp. 274-275]
It's obvious that Hecht holds Reed's poem with special regard—no doubt from the familiar experience of basic military training—and the comparison with Hardy is both apt and doting. Hecht does not appear to be one to suffer fools lightly, but Bell served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, so perhaps the criticisms regarding the other contributors' narcissism and self-absorption are heavy-handed. As a matter of fact, if you have read the entire letter, it sounds suspiciously as though Hecht may have misunderstood the editors' intentions for the collection.


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What is Henry Reed's first name?

1532. Vallette, Jacques. "Grand-Bretagne," Mercure de France, no. 1001 (1 January 1947): 157-158.
A contemporary French language review of Reed's A Map of Verona.



1st lesson:

Reed, Henry (1914-1986). Born: Birmingham, England, 22 February 1914; died: London, 8 December 1986.

Education: MA, University of Birmingham, 1936. Served: RAOC, 1941-42; Foreign Office, Bletchley Park, 1942-1945. Freelance writer: BBC Features Department, 1945-1980.

Author of: A Map of Verona: Poems (1946)
The Novel Since 1939 (1946)
Moby Dick: A Play for Radio from Herman Melville's Novel (1947)
Lessons of the War (1970)
Hilda Tablet and Others: Four Pieces for Radio (1971)
The Streets of Pompeii and Other Plays for Radio (1971)
Collected Poems (1991, 2007)
The Auction Sale (2006)


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