The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
Randall Jarrell 1945
Despite the variety of Jarrell’s writing (he produced not only poetry but also fiction, criticism, and children’s literature), “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is his most widely known work. While the people and events of World War II are commonly found in Jarrell’s poetry, this poem is unique for its lack of wit. Indeed, the grim tone of this poem places it firmly in the Modernist movement of literature. Many Modernist works addressed the alienating effects upon the individual of a mechanized and impersonal society. Certainly the death portrayed here is mechanized and impersonal. But in “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” Jarrell also draws upon Freudian criticism in its use of womb imagery and Marxist criticism in its portrayal of an all-powerful “State” controlling the life of the helpless individual to create a complex, realistic portrait of war. While Jarrell himself never saw combat as a serviceman during World War II, those who did have found his war poems to be very true to life.
Jarrell was born in 1914, the first of two sons born to Owen Jarrell and Anna Campbell Jarrell. The working-class family of Owen Jarrell came from rural Shelbyville, Tennessee, while Anna Campbell Jarrell was from a well-to-do Nashville business family. From 1915 to 1925 the family lived in
southern California, where Jarrell relatives had settled and where Jarrell’s father worked for a photographer. In 1925 Jarrell’s parents separated, and his mother took her sons with her back to Nashville, where they were provided for by her brother Howell Campbell, a candy manufacturer. Although Jarrell was expected to help his mother financially by delivering newspapers and doing odd jobs, he was active in writing, dramatics, and music during his school years. His uncle financed his college education at Vanderbilt University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1936 and a master’s degree three years later.
Although he majored in psychology at Vanderbilt, Jarrell studied under the poets John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, and Robert Penn Warren and edited an undergraduate humor magazine, the Masquerader. Ransom became his mentor, and Allen Tate, who lived in nearby Clarksville, helped and encouraged him with his poetry. Warren not only taught Jarrell at Vanderbilt but later published many of his early poems and reviews after he went to teach at Louisiana State University and became editor of the Southern Review in 1935. (Jarrell won the Southern Review’s poetry contest in 1936.) In 1937, when Ransom was offered a job at Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio, Jarrell followed him there, and he held a part-time instructorship until 1939. In that year Jarrell took a teaching post at the University of Texas at Austin, where he met his first wife, Mackie Langham, who had just received her master’s degree from that university. They were married on June 1, 1940, and the same year Jarrell’s first collection (of twenty poems), “The Rage for Lost Penny,” appeared in Five Young American Poets. Jarrell’s first independent volume, Blood for a Stranger (1942), contained all twenty poems from “The Rage for Lost Penny” and two dozen others.
Early in 1942 Jarrell enlisted in the U. S. Army Air Force and was sent for aviation training to Sheppard Field in Witchita Falls, Texas. From late 1943 until his discharge in 1946, Jarrell taught flight navigation in a celestial-navigation tower (a training dome similar to a planetarium) at Davis-Monthan Field near Tucson, Arizona. Reunited with his wife, who had gotten a job with the Red Cross, he wrote the rest of the poems of Little Friend, Little Friend (1945)—and some of those published in Losses (1948)—drawing upon his experiences with the flyers and planes and upon news dispatches by journalist Ernie Pyle and others. Some of Jarrell’s bestknown poems appear in Little Friend, Little Friend: “2nd Air Force,” “A Pilot from the Carrier,” “Losses,” “The Dream of Waking,” “Siegfried,” “The Metamorphoses,” “The Wide Prospect,” and “The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner.” The motif of the soldier as a child who barely learns the meaning of his life before he loses it, who lives and dies in a dream, estranged, anonymous, unable to see himself either as murderer or victim, is developed in one striking poem after another.
As a result of the favorable reception of Little Friend, Little Friend, Jarrell was given his first Guggenheim Fellowship after his discharge in 1946. In 1946-47 he held a part-time teaching position at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, where he gathered much of the material for his long prose fiction Pictures from an Institution (1954). Jarrell came to dislike New York, and in the fall of 1947, encouraged by Peter Taylor, who was already teaching there, Jarrell went to Woman’s College (later the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) as an associate professor. Jarrell’s new collection, Losses, appeared in 1948. About two-thirds of its poems are related to the war and its aftermath. In the summer of that year Jarrell went to teach at the Salzburg Seminar in American Civilization, and in the summer of 1951 he taught at the University of Colorado School for Writers, where he met Mary von Schrader. At the end of the summer he arranged a formal separation from his wife; soon afterward they were divorced, and Jarrell and von Schrader married in November 1952. In the fall of 1956 Jarrell began a two-year appointment as Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress. He found Washington living agreeable and made himself useful at the library, soliciting manuscripts from poets and arranging tapings of poets reading their work. Two of his most touching later poems came from the Washington milieu: “The Woman at the Washington Zoo” (thought by some to be his best poem), and “Jerome,” included in his next collection, The Woman at the Washington Zoo (1960). Jarrell’s last collection, The Lost World, was published in the spring of 1965.
During the mid 1960s Jarrell was going through a difficult period. Depressed in the spring and early summer of 1964, he visited a psychiatrist he knew in Cincinnati. The psychiatrist increased the dosage of a new mood-elevating drug that Jarrell had been taking, and for a while he seemed to get better, but the drug caused him to be continually elated and hyperactive. In February, 1965 he was taken involuntarily to North Carolina Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill, where he was diagnosed as manic-depressive. In April he attempted suicide by cutting his left wrist and arm. Subsequently, he appeared to recover, and he returned home in July. Bothered by pain from the injury to his wrist, however, he returned to Chapel Hill in October for physical therapy and possible corrective surgery at Memorial Hospital’s Hand Rehabilitation Center. A few evenings later, while walking about a mile from the hospital along a country highway, Jarrell was struck by a car and killed. Although the circumstances were suspicious—the couple in the car said he “appeared to lunge” into the side of their vehicle—they were inconclusive and the death was ruled accidental.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
The title of the poem does much to inform the text. Such a blunt, sober statement as “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” establishes the poem’s stark, grim tone. At the same time, the title creates an expectation which goes unfulfilled. Traditionally, a title that announces “The Death of” a certain person accompanies a long, intricate poem containing in-depth characterization. This poem, however, is short and straightforward, with a subject who remains mostly anonymous. The title does tell the reader that the subject of the poem has a specific role in the military. The phrase “my mother’s sleep” is the first indication of the womb metaphor that persists throughout the poem. The word “fell” hints at the speaker’s powerlessness to control his circumstances, thus leaving him vulnerable to the “State.” And that word, with its initial letter capitalized (just as a Marxist critic would use the term), suggests a powerful and impersonal institution which considers its citizens to be expendable means toward achieving larger goals.
“I hunched it its belly” continues the womb metaphor and also indicates why it is used in the poem. The position of a ball turret gunner on the underside of a World War II bomber strongly parallels the position of a child in the womb, so Jarrell’s association is clear. But where a mother’s womb is warm and protective, this womb of the “State” is bitterly cold, as suggested by the line’s closing words, “my wet fur froze.” This phrase (which invokes an image of the gunner shivering in his furlined flight jacket) also hints at the great fear the speaker must have experienced: if the fur of the jacket freezes, then the speaker must have been sweating, and for the speaker to sweat in such cold conditions, he must have been very fearful.
The fact that the speaker is “Six miles from earth” is another hint that the speaker’s circumstances are precarious and unnatural (and, again, so different from the mother’s womb). The phrase “dream of life” can be regarded in two ways. If we think of a “dream” as something unreal, then the speaker’s life becomes a dream opposed by the reality of fighting and dying. But if we think of a “dream” as something hoped for, then we understand that life is something the speaker desires yet will not attain (since he has been “loosed” from it). Either way, the speaker is again seen to be powerless and hopeless.
Here the paradox that the speaker “woke to” a kind of “nightmare” (rather than from a nightmare)
Topics for Further Study
- This poem skips from the period in time when the speaker was born to when he was flying as a gunner in the war. Write a few paragraphs describing what you think this speaker’s life was like. Did he spend much time with his family? Did he leave a wife or a sweetheart behind? What were his hobbies? Did he enlist in the service, or was he drafted?
- Prepare a report on the planes that used ball turrets during World War II. When did they come into use? What were the benefits of turrets? What were the limitations? When did they stop putting them into airplane designs?
- This poem was written during World War II, a time when American sentiment is remembered for being unified in support of the war. There might have been some resentment toward Jarrell for pointing out the horror and gore of battle in such graphic detail. Do you think that a mother who lost her son in battle would appreciate Jarrell’s frank portrayal, or would she find it to be mocking the cause he died for? Do you think ball turret gunners would like this poem?
further blurs the distinction between what is real and what is not. Also, the words “black flak” echo “ack-ack,” which was a slang term for anti-aircraft fire during World War II.
There are several ways in which this line seems to comment upon both the brutal nature of war and the inhumane conduct of the “State.” First of all, the line makes no mention of the specific circumstances of the speaker’s death—even though, because of the poem’s title, we expect to learn how the speaker is killed. In this way, the speaker comes to us as one of a numberless dead: there is nothing distinctive about this death, which contradicts the traditional idea that to die in battle is both honorable and glorious. Also, that the speaker is given no ceremonies or commendations but is callously “washed ... out of the turret with a hose” again implicates the “State” as a ruthless, impersonal user of human life. And since the dead body is not simply removed from the turret but needs to be “washed ... out,” the line suggests that the speaker’s body has been most horribly mangled by battle—yet another indicator of the hideous nature of war.
Death is an undeniable element in any poem about war. It provides the core energy of the situation, the mystery and hint of primal fear that commands the reader’s attention. Traditionally, war poems contrast death with the sense of honor and glory that soldiers are taught they can win in battle. In poems that celebrate heroism, the unknowable aspect of death is in harmony with the soldier’s personal achievement: that is, his struggle toward self-fulfillment as a warrior is completed by the soldier’s death. The opposite strain of war poetry is made up of those that see death as a way of the warrior’s noble ideals disintegrating into nonsense. In “The Death of the Ball Turrett Gunner,” Jarrell seems to lean toward this view of death as the waste of consciousness when the speaker is “washed ... out of the turrett with a hose,” but in fact this poem takes a more complex view of death. In this poem it is life that is shown as vacant, unthinking, and unfeeling, and life is only liberated at the moment of death, when, ironically, it is too late for awareness.
This marked change can be observed in the poem’s fourth line, with the words, “I woke”: prior to this, the speaker had only spoken of being asleep—first in the sheltered life of childhood (“my mother’s sleep”) and then in the unthinking dependence one assumes in the military, which, like sleep, is fallen into. It is only in battle, when faced with death, that the speaker awakens. Jarrell only implies that soldiers reach the state of awakeness when faced with death, not that death itself is an awakening, but the two are too close to stay apart for long. Even if the soldier could wake up to the world but not die, he would have to place himself in danger so often that death would be unavoidable, either to meet obligations or to keep that state of awakeness.
Flesh vs. Spirit
The speaker of “The Death of the Ball Turrett Gunner,” is clearly emphasizing mankind’s physical nature over more metaphysical aspects. The reference to his mother in the first line draws attention to the chain of reproduction that leads to a person’s existence. This idea of reproduction is built upon in the second line, where the phrase “in the belly” strongly suggests an animal in the womb. Jarrell later said that this visual resemblance was the image with which he started this poem. The mention of fur, especially wet fur, completes the connection of people in machines to preborn infants, since the wetness brings to mind both the amniotic fluid the fetus floats in and, less directly, a physical sensation that can be touched.
The speaker of this poem does not speak of a specific relationship such as “above” or “below,” which we commonly use as metaphors to imply that things are of “higher” or “lower” value. Instead, the narrator of this poem places his location as “six miles from the earth.” The verb that follows this, “loosed,” completes the thought of detachment or disassociation from the physical world. Instead of simply distinguishing the physical world from the world of free-floating, nonphysical thoughts, however, the poem presents both of them as products of the human mind: the world of the flesh is a “dream of life,” but the realm that is beyond this is the domain of nightmares. All that is left by the end of the poem is destroyed flesh, so insignificant when it has been separated from its spirit that, like common dirt, it is washed away with a hose.
Apathy and Passivity
Jarrell presents the speaker of this poem as someone who has never had any control over his life, nor any interest in controlling it. The first line describes the only major movement in his life as being from the influence of his mother—the primal influence, the one relationship that every animal is born with—to the influence of the vast, impersonal social body characterized as “the State.” The mother’s control is not remembered fondly, as being pleasant or morally superior, but is called her “sleep,” implying that she had little awareness of life herself. Nothing about the State is shown to be very inspiring either. The speaker does not make an aim or a goal of joining this organization but describes how he “fell” into it. Throughout both phases of his life, there is the symbolism of the infant who is not in control.
In trying to get a sense of the character of this poem’s speaker, the reader must ask whether he is pathologically passive, aligning himself with anyone who cares to give orders without exercising enough personal judgement to protect his own life. The fact that he displays no individual personality and no wants or needs seems to indicate this. On the other hand, by ending the poem with the gruesome image that he uses, Jarrell offers a punishment that is far in excess of what one might deserve for such noninvolvement. With their sympathies thus aroused, readers are more likely to see the speaker as too immature and naive to form opinions independent of his mother or the government.
Describing the construction of “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is no easy task because the poem appears to be written neither in free verse nor in standard metered verse. Each line contains five stressed syllables, which would lead one to believe the poem is written in a regular meter. But the irregular placement of these stressed syllables—coupled with the irregular number of unstressed syllables—indicates that this poem does not conform to established poetic forms.
For example, notice the meter of the first line:
From my moth / er’s sleep /I fell / into / the
The line contains five metric feet: the first is an anapest (two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable) and is followed by four iambs (one unstressed syllable before one stressed). But the next line has a completely different meter.
The first two feet are anapests, while the last foot is a spondee (a foot consisting of two stressed syllables). In between are two iambs (unstressed/ stressed), causing the line to end with three stressed syllables.
The poem’s irregular meter adds much to its overall effect. The way one expects an ordinary metrical arrangement (due to the five stressed syllables in each line) and then finds a very unusual construction corresponds with one possible message of the poem: that what appears to be ordinary behavior (in the man fighting in a war) is actually very out-of-the-ordinary (because war is so impersonal and inhumane). Also, the way that stressed syllables occur unexpectedly echoes the bursts of
Compare & Contrast
- 1945: World War II ended after heavy bombing of German cities and the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
1991: A coalition of countries sent troops to the Middle East to oppose Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The attack was lead mostly by aircraft and surface-to-air missiles. By avoiding ground engagement, coalition casualties were kept to a minimum, with only 144 Americans killed in the war.
- 1945: The fall of the Germany revealed to the outside world the existence of the extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau; their operators were responsible for killing an estimated 14 million “racial inferiors,” including Poles, Slavs, gypsies, and 6 million Jews.
1956: In a speech to the Communist Party Congress, later known as the “Secret Speech,” Nikita Khrushchev outlined the atrocities committed during the reign of Josef Stalin over the Soviet Union. Estimates of the number killed in the Great Purge of 1936-39 reach as high as 20 million.
Today: War crime tribunals have been convened to determine the extent of “ethnic cleansing,” or systematic murder of masses of people due to their ethnic background, in both Zaire and Bosnia.
anti-aircraft fire, which consist of sudden explosions. Notice also that the pronouns which refer to the speaker (“I,” “me,” “my”) are unstressed. This corresponds to the idea of the individual’s relative unimportance in the eyes of the “State.”
World War II (1941-1945) was a period when Americans came together as a nation and accepted great personal sacrifices for the greater good of the nation. The country had been through difficult times before, most recently during the Great Depression, which spanned from 1929 until the time when the United States entered the war. During the Depression, families went from living wealthy or just comfortable lives straight into poverty, sometimes overnight, due to tumbling stock prices that cut investments to a fraction of the amount of money put into them. By 1932, stock prices were one tenth what they had been four years earlier. This caused thousands of banks to close their doors, denying people the money they had deposited for saving, and businesses failed, unable to borrow or collect what was owed them. At the height of the Depression, unemployment in the nation reached to 25 percent (a rate below 5 percent is considered acceptable in a healthy society). President Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1940 for a precedent-setting third term, signifying the nation’s approval of the way he was handling the Depression. During the 1930s, Roosevelt’s New Deal economic policies had increased the powers of government to benefit impoverished citizens, with programs such as Social Security and the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Works Progress Administration; the latter two directly employed jobless citizens. At the time of entering the war, most Americans had benefitted from government’s helping hand.
The country entered the war on December 7, 1941, after Japanese forces destroyed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in a surprise bombing attack. Almost immediately, hundreds of thousands of American citizens, feeling shock and outrage and a patriotic sense of duty, enlisted in the armed forces to fight against the Axis powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Young men in their teens lied about their age at enlistment centers just to get a chance to fight. In all, more than sixteen million Americans served in the armed forces during World War II: six million of these were volunteers. Three hundred thousand died.
Even those who did not serve in the Air Force, Army, Navy or Marine Corps were required to make sacrifices for the good of the war effort. In order to feed those involved in the fighting, limits were put on the amounts of meat, cheese, and vegetables that could be bought by each household. Also, raw materials were limited, so that there would be enough to use in the production of vehicles and weapons. The support from those at home came in two forms: products made of petroleum products and certain metals and woods became unavailable to buy, and citizens were asked to donate items such as aluminum cookware or rubber tires to government collection drives, so that they could be recycled for use in the war. With production of war-related necessities, the Depression ended, but many citizens immediately poured portions of their new-found incomes into Savings Bonds that offered low returns for their investments, to help the government pay for the war. By the time the war reached its high point in 1944, the U.S. government spent 214 billion dollars, more than twice the Gross Domestic Product of just four years earlier. Women, who had been raised within the tradition of raising children and keeping the household were suddenly pulled into the workforce to fill the requirements of industries that had increased their production and had lost their regular workers to the service.
M. L. Rosenthal, in his pamphlet Randall Jarrell, does not address “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” at length, but he does make some general comments that shed light on the poem. In discussing Jarrell’s war poems, Rosenthal states: “[Ordinarily Jarrell] resisted any obvious political rhetoric.” And it is certainly true that this poem offers no explicit political statements. Instead, like many of Jarrell’s war poems, this work “focuses on the literal data of war—their irreversible actuality, and the pity of the human predicament implicit in that actuality.” Rosenthal calls this “letting the facts of war experience speak for themselves.” In poems such as this, the reader does not need to be told that war is terrible, because the actual events of war will communicate the same message. This practice follows the principle that in creative writing it is better to show than to tell.
In an article first published in The Georgia Review, Frances Ferguson notes that “the lack of a middle between the gunner’s birth and his death—in the life and in the brevity of the poetry—[causes] the time between birth and death [to be] lost.” As Jarrell completely skips the years of development between birth and adulthood, the poem emphasizes how short the speaker’s life has been. This in turn points out the horrific nature of war—how it takes away the lives of people who have barely had the chance to live.
Patrick J. Horner, in his article in The Explicator, sees “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” as “a condemnation of the insensitive, dehumanizing power of the‘state.’” This is accomplished most notably by the “paradoxical use of birth imagery.” In other words, where the womb is typically considered to be a place of warmth and safety leading to the happiness of birth, in this poem it is cold and dangerous and leads to gruesome death. Homer also notes how the last line “clearly suggests one of the common procedures for ejecting a foetus after abortion.”
Ted Humphrey is a freelance writer whose essays frequently appear in Magill’s Literary Annuals. He currently teaches in the Department of English and Foreign Languages at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, CA. In the following essay, Humphrey discusses “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” in the context of the other poems in Jarrell’s collection Little Friend, Little Friend to provide evidence for his interpretation of the poet’s philosophy of war’s effect on its participants.
From Homer and the poets of the Old Testament to Walt Whitman, Wilfred Owen, and Rupert Brooke, poets have written about war—for the most part glorifying it as a heroic activity of man and embodying and expressing the ethos of the culture and age in which it was written. Some, such as Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, wrote powerful poetry about the horrors and futility of war as well as of the heroism of the young who feed the voracious appetites of the war gods.
Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” the final poem in his volume of war poems, Little Friend, Little Friend is, like nearly all of his war poems, an air-force poem. It also compactly
What Do I Read Next?
- Jarrell’s best poems have recently been assembled in one volume, The Collected Poems of Randall Jarrell, published in 1996.
- Of all of the thousands of books to come out of World War II, Studs Terkel’s The Good War captures the mood of the times especially well. The book contains a series of interviews with people whose lives were affected by the conflict—not just soldiers and their families, but also at-home sympathizers, Germans and Japanese, and various other people.
- The Collected Stories of Peter Taylor. Taylor was a member of Jarrell’s social circle at Kenyon College, and his stories reflect the strength of social force on weak-willed privileged Southern young men sympathetically.
- Jarrell’s Master’s degree thesis was on poet A.E. Houseman, who wrote in the early years of the twentieth century. Houseman’s book A Shropshire Lad contains some of his best poems, many of which are similar to Jarrell’s in vision and theme.
- One of the most important of the many novels to come out of World War II, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, reissued in paperback in 1980, captures the interplay between fear, duty, and heroism especially well.
defines the relationship of the individual to the state in time of war. It details in unsparing clarity the nature of modern warfare as waged with behemoth airplanes, anthropomorphized as beasts with bellies and wombs. Jarrell knew what he was talking about. He had sought to become a pilot at the beginning of World War II only to “wash out” as a combat pilot, but he served as an aviation instructor and acquired an expert’s knowledge of planes, aviation, and combat tactics. Robert Lowell, a close friend of Jarrell’s, recalled in Randall Jarrell: 1914-1965 that Jarrell displayed both a precise knowledge of aviation and the ability to draw inspiration from this knowledge. While capable of standing alone, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” is best understood in the context of the other 32 poems that comprise Little Friend, Little Friend. Taken together the poems relentlessly document the pain, struggle, and desperation of young men in their warships. In the poem “Losses,” the poet describes airmen who, “In bombers named for girls, ... burned/The cities we had learned about in school-/Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among/The people we had killed and never seen.” The impersonal nature of air warfare is rendered almost dispassionately; the tone is always controlled by the poet’s focus on the sharp, clear details of the action rendered in metered language equally clear and direct—the controlled rhythms contrasting strongly with the chaos of the subject. Always Jarrell articulates the harsh ironies of warfare. In “Losses” he wrote, “When we lasted long enough they gave us medals; / When we died they said, “Our casualties were low.” Each of the 33 poems in Little Friend, Little Friend provides a perspective on battle. “Siegfried” is a much longer version of what is finally distilled in “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” It opens with a stunning view: “In the turret’s great glass dome, the apparition, death,/Framed in the glass of the gunsight, a fighter’s blinking wing,/Flares softly, a vacant fire. If the flak’s inked blurs,-/Distributed, statistical-the bombs’ lost patterning/Are death, they are death under glass ....” Capturing from one perspective the dispassionate observation of death, the poet switches point of view (as he does in many of these poems including “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”) from the attacked to the attacker and characterizes the perception as a dream: “Under the leather and fur and wire, in the gunner’s skull,/It is a dream ....” In this poem the Gunner is hit—suffering a terrible wound—but survives. The poem ends with his understanding of how war changes those who participate in it, and how that involvement brings an understanding of one’s world through the tasting of one’s own blood.
It becomes clear in reading the poems of Little Friend that Jarrell repeatedly manipulates several images: the dream of life or death that appears in more than half the lyrics he published in book form; the cramped and enclosed space of the life in the state (represented here as the confines of the ball turret itself, that bubble attached to the belly of a B-17 bomber usually equipped with twin .50 caliber machine guns); birth; sleep; death; and the metamorphoses of healthy youth to wounded or dead soldiers. Jarrell carries these images throughout the volume, bringing them to their most powerful, most economic rendering in the five, blank-verse, or unrhymed, lines of “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” But this poem differs from many of its predecessors in that its tone is dispassionate, unemotional, and ironically understated as if the horror of death in the smashed ball turret is so complete—the destruction so inescapable—that ordinary human emotion cannot respond to it except as a nightmare.
The power of the poem is carried forward in three declarative sentences. The first two lines comprise a complex-compound sentence. The next two lines comprise a short periodic sentence, that is, a sentence in which the subject and verb are delayed by introductory modifying structures. The poem ends with another complex sentence. This last line has fourteen syllables, ten of which, one could argue, are stressed; this is a variation of the metrical patterning of the first line. The poem’s figurative structure is a series of images of sleep, dreaming, falling, and metamorphosing—changing from a human child into an animal-like agent of the state, to be aborted and disposed of by technology in the form of “nightmare fighters” and a steam hose. The extraordinary image in the first line, “From my mother’s sleep, I fell into the State,” may well result in part from Jarrell’s own disturbed and alienated childhood and his sense of abandonment perhaps caused by his parents’ divorce and his being shuttled back and forth between Tennessee and California. The image of the child’s falling from birth into the State suggests several ideas. First of all it reflects the Christian myth of the Fall of Man from innocence into knowledge of good and evil, the dreaming, sleeping condition of the mother dropping the contents of her womb into the ultimate expression of evil, the State’s war machine. In the belly of this machine, a World War II B-17, the narrator “hunches” in the cramped confines of the ball turret, his brutish nature suggested both by the posture of “hunched” in a fetal position and the concluding image of the second line, “till my wet fur froze.” He is connected to the mother ship with the umbilical cord of his oxygen hose. The “wet fur” suggests both the wet skin of a newly born animal and the literal wool of the airman’s flight jacket. Both the animal or physical self and the “protection” of the state are unable to shield the Gunner (his identity having been obliterated by his reception into the “belly” of the state and reduced to his state-assigned function of “gunner”) from his death. Once the Plexiglas covering of the ball turret has been shattered by gunfire, which may have killed the Gunner directly, the freezing cold of the upper altitudes at which these mighty bombers flew froze the “fur” and the gunner himself. One is reminded that in Dante’s Inferno, Satan is represented as a beast with three heads frozen to his waist in Cocytus, the very center of Hell, the extreme cold there reflecting the outermost distance from the benign warmth and blessings of God’s love. Jarrell is certainly suggesting that warfare then reflects a total alienation from God’s love. The State provides only a “dream of life” from which the Gunner is awakened to his death by the horrific “nightmare fighters.” As a result, the Gunner is aborted from the “belly” of the state. The assertion in the fifth and final line—“When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose”—suggests the impersonal, uncaring nature of the state—“they” with no antecedent, no responsible “person” behind the action—in cleansing the state’s womb with a steam hose to make it ready for the next occupant.
The awakening of the Gunner after he has been loosed from the earth’s dream of life is to the violence of the black flak (the bursting shells fired from anti-aircraft cannons) and the nightmare fighters, and thus is an ironic awakening into a meaningless existence between his birth into the state and his death at the hands of the state. Jarrell’s war poems reveal the terrible heritage of human agony and the waste of human potential that lies beneath the veneer of civilization. Some critics have seen in the behavior of the Gunner and other soldiers a passivity; they appear simply to await their death with incomprehension or at least inactivity. However, one might reasonably look to the location of this behavior. It is the “state” in the form of, here, the belly of the warplane flying “Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life.” Thus, the passivity would appear to be at least enforced by the State if not, indeed, its product. Jarrell does not see war as heroic, or the warrior as valiantly fighting on for honor or victory or some ennobling ideal of the community. The warrior is simply the victim, unable to escape his predicament.
Source: Ted Humphrey, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
Weigl discusses the various metaphors in this Jarrell poem, especially the turret as womb for the unfortunate gunner.
Among the many fine critical responses to what is arguably one of Jarrell’s best and most widely recognized poems there is a predominantly common thread in the form of a strict metaphorical exegesis of the poem. Most significantly these metaphors are seen in the fetus-like description of the gunner trapped in the womb-gloom of his turret, and in the poem’s coldly distanced and impersonal final line in which the fetus/gunner is washed out or aborted from the turret/womb by a steam hose. It’s clear that Jarrell himself had at least one of these metaphors in mind. In an extensive note on the poem included in The Complete Poems, the poet wrote that “hunched upside-down in his little sphere, he [the gunner] looked like the foetus in the womb.” In addition to these specific metaphors, there occurs throughout the poem a great deal of highly suggestive, allusive, and even ambiguous imagery which leads naturally to a figurative reading. Although any fair and careful consideration of the poem must surely address itself to these insistent metaphorical tendencies, the poem is most powerfully felt when the reader pursues its literal layer as well. Indeed, Jarrell is careful to point the reader in that direction when he writes in the same note that “a ball turret was a plexiglass sphere set into the belly of a B-17 or B-24, and inhabited by two. 50 caliber machine-guns and one man, a short small man.... The fighters which attacked him were armed with cannon firing explosive shells. The hose was a steam hose,” thus emphasizing the importance of our literal appreciation and understanding of the poem. However adroitly we may argue for the metaphors’significance, especially for the way they provide a manageable form for this particularly horrible experience, even the most powerful metaphors pale in the face of the layer of literal consciousness upon which the figurative structure is constructed.... Through an intense compression of language (the poem is only five lines long, roughly five beats per line depending on your scansion), and a powerfully ironic understatement, the gunner is figuratively born into his death. Yet what should and does resonate long after we’ve put the poem down is the literalness of the almost completely unadorned presentation of that death, what Douglas Dunn has called “the indignation of acceptance.”
With this poem and with other, similar war poems Jarrell echoes Wilfred Owen’s regard for soldiers as objects of our pity, and, in spite of the socalled popularity of his war, Jarrell also reveals the empty and mocking offices of patriotism as well. The speaker, a dead man, is alive enough to speak to us of his death but too dead in spirit to evoke anything more than a stripped-down version of his brief existence and his eventual confrontation with the “black flak” of life. Like the speakers of Jarrell’s “Losses” and “Eighth Air Force,” the gunner stands as a symbol for combat’s relentless squashing of innocence.
The poem’s first line precisely sets the post-lapsarian point of view: there has been a fall from grace, a descent from the idyllic peace and safety of “mother’s sleep” into the cold arms of the State. The gunner is of course a grown man at least of the age for conscription, but in terms of understanding just what exactly the State has in mind for him, he is an innocent and naive recruit, a newborn. The State replaces the mother in line two in one of many skillful and dramatic transformations which Jarrell manages through a precise telescoping of time. Once within the State, which becomes more specifically the turret, the gunner assumes a fetal position necessitated by the close-quartered design of the turret. From this position the speaker presents himself as a kind of ur-man whose “wet fur froze,” a primal being dehumanized by the demands of warfare. When the gunner wakes to the brutal realities of war he no longer resembles the boy who fell from his mother’s sleep. This waking does in fact represent one of two murders in the poem: first the boy is murdered through the exact dismantling of his innocence, and then the man is murdered by the exploding cannon fire. But what allows this ur-man metaphor to exist at all is the literal reality of the gunner in his Army Air Force issue furlined jacket, his perspiration freezing in the cold air of 35,000 feet.
Line three sweeps us away from the earth’s dream of life to the vacuum-like and emotionless world “six miles” above. So much happens so quickly here that the patient and passionate reader may suffer the same disembodiment of spirit as the gunner. The earth has been torn loose from his feet and he is suspended in an ironic reversal of the apollonian perspective, forced to hover above his life so that he may now see it as it actually is: only a dream. Once removed from the physical constraints of earth, the gunner realizes too late the lie of the State’s promise of an after-life. The irony of the poem’s sleep imagery is also most fully realized in line three, when we come to see that life for the gunner was and is only a fiction, a fantasy, and that the only reality he will ever know is death in the form of the “nightmare fighters.” Between this line and line four there occurs another of the poem’s transformations: in this case the gunner’s waking becomes the dark vision of the enemy coldly poised for the kill.
Line four is perhaps the most direct and unadorned line of the poem, qualities which emphasize the irrevocable and inevitable fate of boys in combat, including those who physically “survive,” and the literalness of the line, the plainly presented said quality offers no escape from the huge facts which loom up and dominate in the form of those strangely superior fighters. As in the Greek way, all critical action with regard to the gunner’s actual death happens off stage. In the brief moment between lines four and five the exploding shells have reduced the gunner to something that now must be washed out of the turret with a steam hose. The final line, like the previous one, is flat and unequivocal. Because the gunner (like the fetus) has never been allowed to fully achieve an independent life, moving as he did from one womb to another, his observations of even his own horrible death read more like reportage than lyric poetry. Though this ghost may speak a literal truth: “When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose,” because he has been robbed of his innocence he is no longer able to render an imaginative and therefore a hopeful or redeeming vision of the world which had only provided a “dream of life” in the first place. What this final line most significantly reveals, however, is that the poem’s essential form takes the shape of an inevitable movement through a series of unconscious conflicts which can never be resolved, only repeated again and again, and the gunner’s death is reduced to one more grim statistic of war, hopelessly announcing itself.
Source: Bruce Weigl, “An Autobiography of Nightmare,” in Field, no. 35, fall, 1986, pp. 15–18
M. L. Rosenthal
In the following excerpt, Rosenthal delineates the subject’s progression from sadness to depression to death in Jarrell’s famous five-line war poem.
Although Randall Jarrell wrote a very witty novel and a good deal of lively criticism as well, his most enduring interest as a writer lies in his poems. Between the appearance of an early group in the New Directions anthology Five Young American Poets in 1940 and his death at fifty-one in 1965, he prepared seven books of verse. Their usually melancholy titles suggest the desolation with which he constantly contended and which seems to have won out in the breakdown he finally suffered....
The pattern of movement is characteristic of Jarrell: a static initial state of sadness; then a phase of confusion that lets deeper depression flood into the poem; and then a final bitter thrust. We see it
“Yet what should and does resonate long after we’ve put the poem down is the literalness of the almost completely unadorned presentation of that death, what Douglas Dunn has called ‘the indignation of acceptance.’”
working in the famous five-line war poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”....
This poem is “impersonal.” The speaker is not the poet himself but a dramatic character, a soldier who has been killed in the war. Yet the ironic womb imagery recalls the earlier mother theme, as of course the word mother itself does. We begin with the abstract yet unhappy assertion in the first line, an assertion that the young man received into the military world from the dreaming family world of childhood has hardly had time to emerge from fetal unconsciousness before he is in a new womb, that of war. Attention shifts in the next line to the chill, metallic character of that new womb. Suddenly then, the next two lines transport us to the gunner’s moment of “waking” into night-marish vision, at the moment his plane is hit by flak in the sky. The image is fetal; a note by Jarrell in Selected Poems stresses the fact that, “hunched upside-down in his little sphere,” the gunner “looked like the foetus in the womb.” The scene itself here is close to the confused cosmos of the two poems already discussed. Life is seen as only a “dream,” whereas death is the reality into which the protagonist is born. In the harshly distorted womb images of this poem, we have once again the motif of love betrayed.
What Jarrell forces on our imaginations through his grotesque symbolism is the obscenity of war, its total subversion of human values. In highly compressed form, he has summoned up his subconscious preoccupations and the dynamics of poetic association they generate to make a poem that gets outside his own skin. The conversion
“What Jarrell forces on our imaginations through his grotesque symbolism is the obscenity of war, its total subversion of human values.”
process was not simple, though the result is emphatically clear in its narrative movement and in its succession of tones and intensities. Instead of the anapests that launch the first two lines, a suddenly lurching hovering-accent gets the third line off to a wobbling start that helps shake the poem open to let in wider ranges of felt meaning. (Effects of confusion and ambiguity, in rhythmic shifts as in the literal suggestions of language, often have this function in poems.) The brutal nastiness of the closing line refocuses the poem sharply, yet the final effect is not abrupt. The line is in hexameter, longer by a foot than any of the preceding lines. It has the impact of a final “proof” of war’s nature as a mockery of all that is life-giving....
Jarrel’s war poems are found mainly in his Little Friend, Little Friend and Losses volumes, which came directly out of the war years, and there are a few more in The Seven-League Crutches. His vision of the soldier as betrayed child is clearly epitomized in “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” a poem strategically placed at the end of Little Friend, Little Friend. As with most American and British poets of the second world war, the ultimate implied attitude is an ambiguous, or at any rate a tentative, one. The shock, horror, and questioning that mark the poetry of the first world war were the discovery of a generation, a discovery crystallized on the run, in the midst of death—the discovery that war was the trenches, the barbed wire, the humanly pointless slaughter while, in [World War I poet Wilfred] Owen’s words, “God seems not to care.” Jarrell and his contemporaries had been teethed on that earlier work; for them it was the definition of war experience. All later war poetry is in an important sense informed by the World War I “tradition.” However, there are at least two significant differences for Jarrell’s generation. First, they felt a far greater initial detachment from official rhetoric and from the assumptions of the social system. And second, though there was a good deal of old-fashioned combat in the later war, the over-all organization and the far greater importance of the air forces and long-range technology and communication made the involvement of most soldier-poets far less immediate than before.
These differences may be overstressed, but I am trying to suggest that the poetry of Jarrell’s generation feels the impact of war with a double awareness. It is still in touch with the original shock of World War I, but is further away from the almost tribal sense of participation in a ritual gone wrong....
Source: M. L. Rosenthal, “Randall Jarrell” in Randall Jarrell, University of Minnesota Press, 1972 pp. 5, 10, 14-15.
Ferguson, Frances, “Randall Jarrell and the Flotations of Voice,” in The Georgia Review, Fall, 1974.
Horner, Patrick J., in The Explicator, Summer, 1978.
Bryant, A. J., Jr., Understanding Randall Jarrell Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1986
A very readable study that explains each of Jarrell’s poems and gives a brief history of each. A good source for understanding where one piece fits into the entire scope of Jarrell’s career.
Ferguson, Suzanne, The Poetry of Randall Jarrell, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.
The author looks at Jarrell as being primarily a teacher, not a poet: sometimes this leads her to excusing technical weaknesses, but this approach allows her to get closer to what is probably the real spirit of the works.
Griffith, George V., “Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turrett Gunner,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 40, Fall 1981, p. 62.
This study makes the case that a strong connection exists between the “rebirth” in the poem and New Testament theology.
Mazzaro, Jerome, “Between Two Worlds: Randall Jarrell,” in Postmodern American Poetry, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1980, pp. 32-58.
This essay examines Jarrell and his contemporaries as part of the time in which they lived. Mazzero’s theory that Jarrell’s ideas were divided by the war are well-founded, but ultimately unconvincing.
Rosenthal, M. L., Randall Jarrell, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972.
A brief (46-page) and very direct critical survey that quickly glosses over most of the common critical theories about Jarrell’s works, with a slightly more psychological approach.
Little Friend, Little Friend, New York: Dial Press, 1945.
Randall Jarrell: 1914-1965, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967.