Thursday, June 20, 2024

How to Be a War Poet — Part 3


In a new series of 12 monthly essays, poet, journalist, and U.S. Army veteran Randy “Sherpa” Brown explores how military service members, family members, and citizens can develop a practice of poetry toward improved mindfulness, empathy across the “civil-military divide,” and even political or social action. 

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How to Be a War Poet — Part 3
“The Naming of Parts: How to Field-strip a Poem”

Last month, we suggested that a poem is a radio.

This month, we suggest that a poem is a gun. But that “gun” is not the right word.

Today, we have the naming of parts.

Before he was reassigned as a code-breaking translator of Italian and Japanese during World War II, British poet Henry Reed was first drafted into the Royal Ordnance Corps, where he served between 1941-1942. In his 1942 poem “Naming of Parts,” first published in New Statesman and Nation, he gently parodies a recognizable event in every soldier’s life: The introductory instructional brief.

No vocation, discussion, or relationship begins without a shared vocabulary. (Ask Tarzan! Ask Jane!) So any instruction—any event through which learning is to take place—necessarily begins with a definition of terms.

In his “Naming of Parts”—the first of an eventual series of six “Lessons of the War” poems—Reed alternates between the droning voice of an Army lecturer, and the distracted inner voice of a basic trainee. The topic at hand is basic rifle marksmanship. It begins: To-day, we have the naming of parts …

In my mind’s eye, I can see the classroom instructor using a pointer to indicate various figures on a diagram, or perhaps an oversized physical model of a rifle. I can also see a daydreaming student’s focus drifting fuzzily outward, perhaps through a window, to beckoning views of red and pink japonica flowers, which “glisten like coral in all the neighboring gardens.”

During my childhood years lived near Dayton, Ohio, my parents enrolled me into what I would later conclude was some sort of weekend youth hunter-safety instruction. I recall that it was sponsored by the Jaycees, but perhaps it was something more like the National Rifle Association. My parents are not gun people, nor am I. I suspect their motivations at the time were to provide me some summertime distraction, or possible connections to new friends.

Through the instruction, for example, I learned basic vocabulary terms, including “muzzle,” “sight,” and “butt.” (You can imagine the grade-school snickering.) After lectures and movies, we applied our new knowledge at an indoor BB gun range. Top shooters—of whom I was proudly one, two years in a row—moved on to team competitions, in events conducted on other summertime weekends, where we represented our geographic communities.

Where trophies only collect dust, however, some lessons were burned as aphorisms into my reptile-brain core, for later application as teenager, parent, and even citizen-soldier. For example: “Treat every weapon as if loaded.” And: “Never point a weapon at something you don’t intend to kill.”

After this indoctrination, I officially put away childish things. I was done playing with toy guns, and ever treating guns as toys.

Years later, through his drill-sergeant minions, Uncle Sam would build and reinforce upon these fundamental lessons. At Boot Camp, U.S. Army recruits learn that the term “gun” applies only to artillery pieces: In all other cases, “weapon” is preferred. Or the even-more-specific “rifle.” (Every service has its respective list of similar shibboleths. In the nautical branches, for example, I’m sure that sailors are similarly drilled to distinguish between “boats” and “ships.”)

There is even a sing-song didactic cadence—a parody inspired by the U.S. Marine Corps’ 1942 poem “The Rifleman’s Creed”—about the difference between one’s “rifle” and biologically male genitals. The phrase was immortalized in the Vietnam War movie “Full Metal Jacket” (1987), in which a drill instructor marches his skivvy-wearing platoon around the barracks. Each recruit bears his rifle at right-shoulder-arms, while cupping with their left hands their respective crotches. “This is my rifle, this is a my gun,” they chant. “This is for fighting, this is for fun.”

Today we have the naming of parts. Specifically, the naming of five basic concepts in poem-making: The foot, the line, the stanza. The volta. And the metaphor. With an awareness of these five key terms, I believe one can unlock any poem. Enough to discuss a poem and share it with others. Enough to handle a poem safely, and to point any dangerous ends in a safe direction.

(Disclaimer regarding the following definitions: I am not a professor of poetry. I am only a practitioner. If you want fancy book-learning, read more fancy poetry “how-to” books. Caveat emptor. “Take what you need; leave the rest.”)


The individual soldier of poetry is the foot, which is a unit of rhythm. A foot is a repeated rhythmic sequence of two or more syllables. The number of “feet” in a line of poetry determines its “meter.” In John William’s celebrated score for the movie “Jaws,” the shark-beat “Da-DUM” is akin to a poetic foot; while the phrase “da-DUM, da-DUM, da-DUM” is akin to a meter of three—a “trimeter.”

People with degrees in poetry can wax on and rattle off complex discussions about the differences, say, between “iambic pentameter” and “dactylic hexameter.” Let them. As a lay reader and soldier-poet, I don’t necessarily need all that that academic pomp and nuance—I just need to know enough to appreciate how things in poetry go bang, and whether to squeeeeeze a poem or to keep my finger off the trigger.

Think of “meter” as something akin to “cadence.” Different poems have different rhythmic cadences—and sometimes, like the troops’ shuffle after a marching-drill command of “route step,” no rhythm at all.

Bonus tip: Simply reading a line of poetry out loud often reveals what words or syllables a poet intends to be emphasized. Often, working and chewing a poem in our mouths reveals new music. For example, I often revisit Natalie Merchant’s (as part of 10,000 Maniacs) 1987 song, “Gun Shy,” and revel in the various ways she articulates, navigates, and enunciates this phrase: “Stock and barrel, safety, trigger, here's your gun.”


A line of poetry is a phrase. When talking on the radio, to avoid detection by the enemy, soldiers are often trained to break transmissions longer than 3-seconds into multiple phrases with the procedural word “break.” Line-breaks in poems do similar service, to various effects.

I say again:

They visually.


The phrase.


In prose, we group thoughts into paragraphs. In poetry, we group thoughts into stanzas. A stanza is a group of lines arranged in a visual pattern. One or more blank line-spaces provide white-space, separating and organizing stanzas.

In Italian, “stanza” means “room” or a “station.” I think of stanzas as similar to assembling troops in formations. If a line of poetry can be compared to a squad of soldiers standing abreast, a stanza can be thought to appear as a group of squad-lines standing together as a platoon.


In U.S. Army doctrine, one of the nine principles of war is ... “Surprise!” Nearly every poem has a moment of surprise—a “volta” or “turn”—a pivot-point at which something magic happens. Sometimes, it is a moment of clarity, an “a-ha” moment at which the reader is made to realize that the thing being addressed by a poem is, perhaps, not the thing at all. When the familiar becomes unfamiliar, or the unfamiliar becomes familiar.

And the volta can sometimes shift, as readers grow in our understanding and appreciation of poetry. Our potential appreciation of the poem “Naming of Parts,” for example, may grow with the revelation that, given the wartime shortages of 1942, Reed and his fellow recruits may not have had access to any actual rifles (or only to obsolete ones) during their classroom indoctrination. I say again: The trainers were forced to drone on about war, rather than provide soldiers any “hands-on” training with the weapons they would be expected to use on the battlefield.


The engine of poetry is metaphor. A metaphor is an implied comparison of two objects, people, and/or actions. A “simile” is a related concept—it is an explicit comparison. When we say something is “like” another, it is a simile. “Poetry is like an engine” is a simile. “Poetry is an engine” is a metaphor.

Poets (and poetry readers) are insatiably hungry for new metaphors—new ways to illuminate and describe and express the human experience. Poets try to avoid chewing the same terrain, regularly choosing instead explode clichés, to provide thoughts and images in fresh combinations. Why? So that their words will fly past readers’ defenses hot and straight and normalpast cover, past concealment—to (SURPRISE!) accurately hit their intended targets.

In conclusion, here’s Henry Reed again:

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.

We have today the naming of parts. After naming the parts, we can engage in conversations. About poems. About wars. About what we understand, and what we do not understand. About how we have changed, and how we have not.

Today, we have the naming of parts.

Next: War Poetry Never Dies: The Thin Red Lines that Connect Generations.

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Randy “Sherpa” Brown is a 20-year retired veteran of the Iowa Army National Guard, and the author and named editor of more than six military-themed poetry collections, anthologies, and chapbooks of poetry and non-fiction. One recent such project is “Things We Carry Still: Poems & Micro-Stories about Military Gear,” which he co-edited with fellow war poet and military spouse Lisa Stice (“Letters in Conflict: Poems,” 2024). Since 2015, he has served as the poetry editor of As You Were, the literary journal of the non-profit organization Military Experience and the Arts. He also regularly shares tips and techniques regarding military-themed writing at The Aiming Circle, a patron-supported community of writing practice. More info: