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Henry Reed's poem "Naming of Parts" (which you can read online) depicts a lesson used to teach soldiers the various parts of their rifles. (Hence the title "Naming of Parts"). Interspersed between the description of the lesson is a description of a nearby field. For example, here is the first stanza:

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
    And today we have naming of parts.

What is the purpose of interrupting the narrative with a description of nature?

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This question is best answered using a technique called close reading. So unfortunately, if you're just looking for an answer about the poem "Naming of Parts", you're going to have to read about close reading first. But since close reading is a useful and important concept that explains so much about literature, I think you will find it worth your while!

Close reading is a way of reading a text that is completely different from how you would normally read. When you read normally, the words enter into your mind and you remember the general idea of what the words say. But when you read normally, you don't pay much attention to each individual word itself, or the order and arrangement of the words, or to the punctuation. Close reading is the opposite. When you close read, you ignore the big picture and focus on the little details. This means asking questions such as:

  1. What words are repeated? Why?
  2. What words are capitalized? Why?
  3. What meaning does each individual word have?
  4. Do any of the words have more than one meaning?
  5. What effect do punctuation and line breaks have on the meaning?
  6. What is the order of the words? What words come first? What words come last? Why?

These little details may seem insignificant. But it's the little details that contain the most information. Resist the urge to think about the big picture, at least right away. The big picture will emerge slowly from the little details.

Another difference between close reading and normal reading is speed. You may be a slow reader, you may be a fast reader, but when you read normally, your eyes move from left to right, and you don't go backwards unless you missed something. Close reading is different. Because you're focusing on all these little details, you will spend a lot of time close reading a very small passage of text. And you won't just be reading left to right: you'll have to move backwards, reread things, underline things, and pause and think about things. For this reason, close reading is typically done with a very small passage. That passage can range in size from a single sentence to a few paragraphs. But unless you have a lot of time on your hands, you aren't going to close read an entire novel.

For this reason, this answer will only focus on the fourth and fifth stanzas of "Naming of Parts." I'm focusing on these stanzas because I find them the most interesting. Here they are below:

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 today we have naming of parts.

One last thing about close reading. Don't close read on a computer. Print out the passage you want to close read. That way, you can underline words and jot down notes. Trust me, it helps.

So now that we understand what close reading is, the next step is to actually close read the fourth and fifth stanzas of "Naming of Parts." To do this, I need to print out the passage, look at all the tiny little details, move backwards and forwards through the text, and write down my notes. I need to ask questions of the little details: what are the exact meanings of this word? Why is this word capitalized? What is the purpose of this period? I asked all of these questions, and took notes on a piece of paper. I then typed up my notes, which I reproduce below:

  1. The word spring has several connotations: it can mean the season, it can mean to spring (i.e. to jump), or it can mean a spring (an object that if pushed or pulled, will return to its original shape).

  2. The line "They call it easing the Spring" is emphasized by its indentation and the fact that it is at the end of the fourth stanza.

  3. The repetition with variation of the phrase "we call this \ Easing the spring" v. "They call it easing the Spring" is interesting. The change in pronouns seems to be important.

  4. A bolt could be interpreted as a phallic object (i.e. it looks like a penis).

  5. A "breech" can mean a crack in something, which could be interpreted as a vulvic or yonic object (i.e. it looks like a vagina -- BTW here's a discussion of whether vagina or vulva is the more appropriate term to use in this context, and here's a Stack Exchange question about whether vulvic or yonic is the more appropriate term to use).

  6. The phrase "rapidly backwards and forwards" is repeated twice, making it hard to miss.

  7. The first time the phrase "rapidly backwards and forwards" is mentioned, it is in the context of instructions for how to use the "bolt". Given the symbolism of the bold and the breech, it's pretty clear that "slide it rapidly backwards and forwards" is a reference to sex.

  8. The second time the phrase "rapidly backwards and forwards" is mentioned, it's in the context of "And rapidly backwards and forwards / The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers."

  9. Bees and flowers have a sexual relationship: bees transfer pollen from one flower to another, which allows the plants to reproduce.

  10. Given the fact that this stanza is filled with sexual references, when I hear the words "fumbling" and "assaulting," especially after the phrase "rapidly backwards and forwards," I immediately think of how those words can describe sex.

  11. In list item #3 I mention the change in pronouns between "we call this / Easing the spring" and. "They call it easing the Spring". The we and they creates an us and them affect in the poem: "we" is identified with the military trainees, and the pronoun "they" is used to refer to the bees ("The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers / They call it easing the Spring.") and thus to nature. The effect of this is to identify the humans as separate and different from nature: nature is not considered part of the group identified with the pronoun "we".

  12. However, the comparison is also a very strange one. Why on earth contrast human sexuality to non-human sexuality? Those are two very different things.

  13. The poem also comments on the inadequacy of the soldiers. The poem lists "the point of balance" as an important element of the weapon (it's one of the parts that is named), but tells us that "Which in our case we have not got" the point of balance. To be balanced, one needs to be calm and controlled; not being balanced means being clumsy.

  14. Depending on how you read the poem, it either teases or encourages the soldiers. The soldiers are told that "easing the spring... is perfectly easy / If you have any strength in your thumb." Telling someone that something is easy can encourage them (it's easy; you can do it!) or discourage them (it's easy; why can't you do it?). The poem deliberately obscures the full context of this phrase to create this ambiguity.

  15. Nature is described as "the almond-blossom / Silent in all of the gardens." This is in direct contrast to the soldiers naming (i.e. speaking out loud) the various parts of their weapon.

  16. The sexual references in the poem are about watching sex. With the phrase "as you see", the poem implies that someone is demonstrating how "The purpose of [the bolt] / Is to open the breech" and that we are observing. There is no indication that the narrator is doing anything, the narrator is simply watching.

  17. The instructions (the "naming of parts") are designed for a masculine audience. The soldiers are instructed on how to use the phallic bolt ("We can slide it / Rapidly backwards and forwards") but not on the use of the yonic breech.

  18. I want to return to the phrase "easing the Spring" which I discussed in list items #1 and #2. A spring is something that goes back and forth; given the amount of sexual references in this stanza alone, and the frequent references to "rapidly backwards and forwards (which perfectly describes a spring's motion) it seems reasonable to interpret the word "Spring" not just as a season but as another reference to sex. This interpretation is supported by the placement of the word "easing" next to the word "Spring": easing can imply slowly moving something, which is another reference to sex in the context of the phrase "We can slide it / Rapidly backwards and forwards."

I could honestly go on for at least twenty more bullet points. I'm going to stop now because this answer has to end sometime.

The close reading is finished! We have the little details. But we aren't done yet. My notes aren't coherent, and there is no overarching argument--the big picture--that can make sense of these little details. To fix this, we will use the little details as pieces of evidence to support a larger argument. What the larger argument is is up to you, but you need to support your argument with evidence from your close reading. Otherwise, it's an opinion, not an argument. The following paragraphs represent my final argument about "Naming of Parts," based on the evidence I found using close reading. (It functions as my answer to the OP's original question):

Reed's poem "Naming of Parts" contrasts nature with war as a way of critiquing the culture surrounding the military. The poem uses metaphor to make a parallel between learning to use weapons and sex. The narrator's inexperience with both subjects is evidenced by the fact that he (the soldier is only instructed in phallic weaponry) observes rather than participates. Therefore, this poem describes an initiation rite, where violence (using a weapon) is a necessary component in sexual maturity and thus adulthood. Among other things, this poem implies a commentary on the gendered violence of the military, a commentary justified by the military's sexual assault epidemic, as well as the use of systematic rape as a military tactic.

The comparison between the military and nature serves to emphasize the strangeness, alienness, and absurdity of the situation. As the military conducts its initiation rite, it is contrasted with an image of sexual relationships in nature. This image is foreign, and its foreignness is emphasized by the contrast between "we" (the soldiers) and "them" (nature); the poem supposes that nature is fundamentally separate from the soldiers. In addition, nature is "silent" and has "balance" while the soldiers are inadequate ("it is perfectly easy / If you have any strength in your thumb"). While the soldiers struggle with the initiation rite, an alternative exists. The nature portrayed in the poem doesn't need a rite: it is self-assured and doesn't need to learn because it merely exists. This contrast highlights the absurdity of the soldiers, their initiation rite, and their violence.

So that's close reading! I hope this answer was interesting, and I hope you walk away with an understanding of how close reading is a powerful tool that can answer all sorts of interesting questions about literary texts. If you have questions about any of this, please ask!

As you read my answer, you may have disagreed with some of my interpretations of the text. You may also have thought of interpretations that I completely overlooked. That's completely normal. Different people will notice different things. In my opinion, close reading is best done as a collaborative exercise: that way no stone is left unturned. If you're interested in learning more about how and why people read the same text differently, there's a great tool called "reader response criticism" that I hope to discuss on this site at a later point.

Finally, I want to emphasize that learning how to close read is like learning how to read normally. It takes time and practice. If you want to learn to close read, I encourage you to find a passage you find interesting and just try close reading. See what you can do. And keep trying. You won't get anywhere without practice.

  • 1
    Thank you for this interesting and didactic answer! I have a few thoughts about this, but first of all: "I am going to restrict my analysis of the poem to one stanza--the fourth stanza--which is the one I find the most interesting" - fair enough, but could you maybe indicate which parts of your analysis are applicable to the whole poem and which just to this stanza? You've made a good argument for the connection with sexuality in this particular stanza, but does this apply to the whole poem, or do different stanzas use different metaphors with sexuality being only one of them? – Rand al'Thor Jun 22 '17 at 7:00
  • @Randal'Thor that's an interesting question that you could answer yourself using close reading. (I'm not trying to be evasive; the point of this answer is to teach the members of this site how to do close reading. So I deliberately avoided answering everything about the poem, because I want to encourage people to try close reading themselves.) – user111 Jun 22 '17 at 12:47
  • Just for fun, here is 'The Baking of Tarts', which I now see in an entirely new light, from the title onwards. monologues.co.uk/Parodies/Baking_of_Tarts.htm – Spagirl Jun 22 '17 at 13:37
  • Where do you get that the poem is contrasting war with anything? Where in your close reading did you find any mention of war? How do you know that the narrator is not a soldier in a peacetime army? – user14111 Jul 7 '17 at 4:07
  • @user14111 not entirely sure what your question is. RE: contrasting: see bullet point #11. RE: peacetime army: if you want to be pedantic about this, OK, fine, replace the word "war" with "military" in your mind and you should be good. However, I personally consider the phrase "peacetime army" to be an oxymoron, which is why I don't differentiate between the two in this answer. – user111 Jul 7 '17 at 4:16
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The poem always seemed to me to be contrasting the realities of the war that they are about to be thrown into with the seemingly pastoral views outside of the window. What the poet is seeing outside is not the entirety of reality and his mind keeps wandering away from the war, to the more peaceful countryside. The comfortable illusion that everything is green and beautiful.

I think that is why the stanza's are interspersed with one another. His mind is wondering away from what he is learning, and then being jogged back (wash, rinse, repeat). Similar to a school kid who isn't paying attention to maths but is rather staring out of the window.

  • This is a very interesting, and it seems to me, valid interpretation. (I think of war novels like All Quiet on the Western Front and the Enormous Room.) From the standpoint of military culture, I could see an alternate take, more consistent with a certain perversity required in the business of killing. (This viewpoint is well illustrated in the first half of Full Metal Jacket, in which the soldier's rifle is meant to be the Marine's best friend, and the Gunnery Sergeant's address in particular. Destructive capability perceived as generative – DukeZhou Aug 8 '17 at 21:28
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Gone are the days of the Aeneid when a poet boils within himself , " Of arms and men I sing." All poets, particularly war poets, invented their own language to despise ' war and the pity of war'. Owen delivers the message about the old lie, 'dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori' while Arthur Rimbaud depicts a soldier dead in Asleep In The Valley. Nature stands for creation, fruition— consummation of life and beauty at its best in sharp contact to which stands war bringing death and destruction on its wake. It negates all that sustains life— all that's healthy in nature. And for this particular purpose nature and war are juxtaposed; they are two extremes, poles apart. In the poem Naming of Parts by Henry Reed we are led into a military classroom in the background of nature in blossoms and there from, into the inner workings of a young soldier's mind that shuffles across the class room lesson within and nature in its full glory without. He is in his late teens or early twenties.He has just embarked on the new found land of sensuous joy. For him beckoning of life, beckoning of pollination is hard to resist.

How dull, drab and awfully frightening might he feel to think of a rifle parts which symbolically represents death when Japonica glistening outside The instructor's demonstration with a rifle without allowing the trainee soldiers to handle it, is set against the silently eloquent boughs of the garden suggesting arms of the loved one which' in our case... got'. How painful to the young soul.

Then the safety catch, its quick release and the death knell. The young mind is appalled and instantaneously reverts to the blossoms, presumably maidens in pristine glory— a thing which eludes his sensual pleasure.

In the fourth stanza the bees have found the bed of crimson joy of Blake's description, of course without the suggested derogatory implications.The poor soldier is denied that joy of intense love only to be reminded vaguely how it feels in easing of spring with the suggested pun and implied implications. It pains him to see the bee forward and backward into the core of the blossom. Oh busy bee, how lucky you are!

So nature brings out very poignantly what the young soldier is denied at the prime of life and parroting the the words of the classroom he makes his suffering all the more excruciating.

  • 1
    Nice answer! I would recommend elaborating on the sentence "Nature stands for creation, fruition— consummation of life and beauty at its best" -- why does nature stand for those things? I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "of course without the suggested derogatory implications" -- I would recommend elaborating on that as well. I'll probably notice a few more things on a second reading of this answer. But overall, this is nice enough that I felt comfortable upvoting it. – user111 Sep 5 '17 at 18:11
  • It has a reference to 'Sick Rose' of Blake and, there from the expression, 'crimson joy' which the worm there in uses for its lust and lasciviousness. In our expression that negative sense is done away with. Nature creates, sustains and luxuriates in the joy of creation and it is manifested in beauty, eloquent silence or rhythmic murmur of rivers, rustle of the woods or buzzing of the bees. This much I can say. – Barid Baran Acharya Sep 5 '17 at 18:57

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