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This review is taken from PN Review 87, Volume 19 Number 1, September - October 1992.

MISSED CHANCES Henry Reed, Collected Poems, edited and introduced by Jon Stallworthy (Oxford University Press) £20.00

In his Introduction, Jon Stallworthy mentions (in order to demolish it) the common perception of Henry Reed as 'the saddest freak of the literary fairground: the one-poem poet', along with Julian Grenfell - and, he might have added, F T Prince, whose reputation was for years based almost exclusively on 'Soldiers Bathing'. Prince, of course, has had a successful academic career and has enjoyed a resurgence of creative energy, while Reed, two years his junior, died forgotten and impoverished in 1986.

His neglect was due to a combination of bad judgement and bad luck. He spent fruitless years working on a life of Hardy, abandoned in the mid-fifties; he wrote jokily highbrow radio plays, and famously created the character of Hilda Tablet, when the main drift was towards television and middlebrow naturalism; the texts he translated for the theatre seldom had lasting success on stage or in print. His private life never fully recovered from the break-up of his relationship with Michael Ramsbotham in 1950.

Neither, it seems, did his poetry. The trouble is not simply that the poems by which we already know him - Lessons of the War, and especially 'Naming of Parts' - are outstanding, but that their qualities are so specific: through rhythmic poise, repetition, and shrewd juxtaposition, they transform clichés of military jargon into memorable utterance. Other poems from Reed's first collection, A Map of Verona (1946), use similar techniques to good effect: 'Hiding Beneath the Furze', for instance, in ...


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