Traditional interpretations point to polar changes in Reed's tone, language, and diction, and argue that these opposites can be explained in one of two ways: either there are two voices in the poems, and we are hearing both the instructor and the recruit; or there is only one point of view that of the recruit's and we are listening through him, and are privvy to his inner thoughts.
Petite posits that this is so much literary trickery, and that too much reliance has been made on Freudian interpretations. Essentially, he believes the possibility has been ignored that there is just one speaker in the poems: the instructor.
‘Critics do not credit Reed with a more profound insightthe instructors are victims of war, grappling with how to be human in inhuman circumstances. Psychologically, language is their last line of self-defense, a way to survive the dehumanizing acts war requires. There is no need to "explain" the presence of such language. War-weary, instructors long for beauty, finding it in nature undisturbed by war and expressing themselves in a second register.’Petite is particularly suspicious of O'Toole's stylistic analysis, Condon's "Freudian tour," and the conclusions in Beggs' dissertation.
It's a provocative thesis, but I find it hard to agree with a lot of what Petite puts forth, although I do concur that lengthy discussions of stylistics are tiresome, and often include more magical thinking and sleight-of-hand than proofs. But the idea that 'Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,' and there are no sexual connotations in "Naming of Parts" is patently ridiculous, and attempts to remove all the fun and playfulness from the poem. It's like arguing that all the women on Monty Python's Flying Circus were actually women.
By minding the evidence in biographies of Reed, it's obvious that the "Lessons of the War" are mocking in tone, and more or less autobiographic. Not the least of which is Scannell's assertion that Reed entertained his fellows in basic training by imitating their instructors. Most revealing, however, is the fact that when Reed adapted "Naming of Parts" (.mp3 file) for BBC radio, he split the poem into two speaking parts, and took the part of the recruit, himself.
A longer excerpt of "Literary Snobbery" can be found on the Questia website, and the entire article is available from Amazon.com as a digital download for $5.95.