Friday, October 26, 2007

Henry Reed in Seattle (Part 1)

English Poet Henry Reed (1914-1986) was my mentor for a time and, in the early years anyway, godfather to my daughter Krista. Here's how those unlikely connections came about...

Major American poet and difficult man Theodore (Ted) Roethke was the key figure in the creative writing wing of the University of Washington's English Department. He had been poet-in-residence for many years, with "younger" poets as diverse as Richard Hugo and James Wright, David Wagoner and Nelson and Beth Bentley, as his students and then colleagues. I had started college at Northwestern University, but the costs proved prohibitive, so I transferred to the U.W., in part hoping to study with Roethke if accepted.

In the spring of my junior year 1963, I accosted the big bear of a man in the halls one day, saying I hoped to take his class in writing. He growled a response of sorts, "See me Fall," and lumbered off. That seasonal reference became an ironic pun when Roethke died in his swimming pool over the summer, but from a stopped heart (I think) rather than from drowning.

The English Department suddenly had to scramble to fill some very large shoes. Over the next couple of years, guest poets came to teach for a quarter or a year, or simply to read/lecture briefly--we were treated to John Logan, Robert Lowell, Vernon Watkins, Elizabeth Bishop... and Henry Reed. (Already on campus, David Wagoner and Carolyn Kizer quickly assumed more important roles in the Department as well.) I was a full-fledged English major by then, and a smalltime fledgling poet, so I took courses from some of them as I moved on into the Master's Degree program. (I was a Teaching Assistant and also became the Assistant Editor, meaning submissions reader, to headperson Carolyn Kizer at the well-known U.W.-sponsored literary magazine Poetry Northwest.)

Memory says, for example, that I studied with Logan, took tea with Bishop, and became T.A. to Reed. We hit it off immediately--he the cultured English gentleman with slightly fey manner (I guess he was gay as we would say now, but I believe he was also more Capote-asexual than active), and me a married grad student with one son already and a second child on the way. I helped Henry in a couple of his teaching assignments, and he immediately became part of our family; we'd have him to dinner on the rare occasion, and he would regularly entertain my wife and me in fine restaurants around Seattle, always searching for the best (but affordable) wines on the menu. I remember him routinely asking for Puligny Montrachet and then settling for Pouilly Fuisse, back in the days when neither was commonly found in the Northwest (our honored vineyards and winemakers were still some years away).

Reed was a man of letters in the old patrician manner; he wrote poems, essays and reviews, and BBC radio plays, and translated many other stage plays, from mostly Italian authors. He had become literarily famous for two things. One was his poem called "Chard Whitlow," which was a spot-on parody of the T.S. Eliot of Four Quartets fame. Many amusing quotable lines occur in Reed's poem, but I recall most (too often these days) his Eliotic mantra, "As we get older, we do not get any younger..."

But really Henry was best known for a single poem, plus the sequels or partner poems that accompanied it later: "Naming of Parts" from his sequence titled Lessons of the War. In this poem, a daydreaming WWII recruit half listens to his sergeant discuss the pieces of a disassembled rifle, conflating the military words into images of the Spring season outside, which slyly become more sexual as the poem progresses:

... 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...

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...

"Naming of Parts" quickly became known as THE single most important poem written by a WWII soldier, as Reed was briefly. The First War had produced many poets and great poems, but the Second seemed not to lead to poetry. However, Reed's success did soon lead to subsequent, er, parts titled "Judging Distances," "Movement of Bodies," "Unarmed Combat," and--much later--"Psychological Warfare" (not as painstakingly wrought as the others) and "Returning of Issue." These were fine and sometimes funny, but none was as astonishing as the original poem.

At any rate, Reed became a regular at the BBC, writing wonderful comic plays to be broadcast over the radio, and that's how he made most of his steady income, until called to Seattle to teach recalcitrant American kids how to create poetry.

((The rest of the story to come in a few days in my next blog chapter.))

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