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I doubt if Henry Reed wrote ‘Psychological Warfare’ (LRB, 21 March) after 1950, but think it more likely that he at least started it during the last two years of the 1939-45 war, when he was also composing the later verses of ‘Lessons of the War’.
At the time he and I were stationed at Bletchley, he as a civilian and I as a soldier, and having been acquainted as fellow students at Birmingham University, we saw a great deal of each other. His civilian billet was a welcome refuge where I spent many congenial evenings during which he would read me extracts from work in progress, including the war poems. Some parts of the rather lengthy poem you have published seem familiar, though I could not swear to that: but I do know that he would write verse over long periods, sometimes years, before feeling he could do no more with the poem in question. I certainly think he would have revised and drastically shortened ‘Psychological Warfare’: but by 1950 I am sure he had put his wartime experiences well behind him.
What are friends for?
Editors, ‘London Review’
Since the appearance in the London Review of Henry Reed’s Psychological Warfare’ (LRB, 21 March), and with the Collected Poems still to come, I have been hoist on a mental tenterhooks, remembering back more than twenty-five years to the staggered periods during the Sixties when Henry was a Visiting Professor at the University of Washington. I had transferred there hoping to study with Theodore Roethke, who had been poet-in-residence for many years and the central force of what had become a ‘North-West School’: when he died in the summer of 1963, the University was determined to bring in distinguished replacements. Thus Henry’s first and subsequent terms as visiting poet. (How he was chosen and persuaded to take up the appointment is another story.)
I studied with Henry in 1964, and became something of a protégé, I suppose, although I was married and the father of a young son. He dined with us frequently and indeed became a sort of ‘Dutch uncle’ figure (my son called him ‘Henny’); and though even then somewhat reclusive and occasionally given to drink, he chose to allow all of us into his cultured and generous world. We enjoyed many wonderful meals out, with Henry, who always at least bought the numerous bottles of wine, elegantly holding forth on matters of literature and history and reciting passages from Shakespeare, certain moderns and his favourite Italian poets. To say that we were dazzled is to understate our emotions. Among other memories, these are uppermost: how thanks to Henry I got to meet and take tea with Elizabeth Bishop; the small ‘inner landscape’ painting that even now hangs near my bed, inscribed ‘To my dear Ed and Sharon from Henry with three years love’; the fact that Henry agreed to be godfather to our daughter Krista, born in 1967. His departure back to London that same year left us devoid of a sparkling presence.
The letters back and forth continued for some years, but we did no travelling, and eventually the correspondence stopped. Krista grew to become a sweet but retarded girl, my wife and I got divorced, and perhaps because of those disappointments, our connections with Henry were allowed to die out. Eventually I did visit England several times in the late Seventies and early Eighties, and I wrote or telephoned Henry each time. But he always begged off or postponed our reunion, claiming illness or the press of work or something else. I finally accepted the fact that, for whatever reason, he wanted no more contact with his long-ago American ‘family’. I grieve still for that loss, and I find ‘L’Envoi’ published in your issue of 12 September ineffably sad.