Charlotte H. Beck: On "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"

Perhaps because of its length and many complicated changes, "Losses" seems to hang tenuously balanced between success and failure, an appropriate contrast in every respect to the poem which has always been--for better or worse--Jarrell's most famous war poem, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." So frequently anthologized has this five-line poem been that Jarrell grew to fear that his fame might rest on it alone. It is, however, not typical of Jarrell; and one might guess that it is his one offering to the metaphysical school so closely identified with his Fugitive schoolmasters.

The entire action of the poem encompasses but a single moment, the one in which a gunner is robbed of his life, his innocence, and his identity. In that one moment of consciousness, the gunner exchanges the warmth of the womb ("my mother's sleep") for the wet and cold of that impersonal environment called "the State." This birth into a nightmare occurs "six miles from earth" in the turret of a bomber, so ironically like the womb he has just been expelled from. The metaphysical conceit is held throughout the poem, even to the ending, which in effect describes an abortion. After the gunner' s remains have been impersonally hosed out and disposed of, the war machine is ready for its next occupant. The hardware has survived; the soft flesh has been crushed. Jarrell drives his short poem to its close in a manner both unpleasant and impossible to forget, its images embodying the poet's utter antipathy for mechanized warfare as none other could. There may be something slightly ludicrous about the speaker's tone; it is so matter-of-fact as to imply both his utter helplessness and the mechanical cleverness and precision of the machine in which he dies. Behind both stands the puppeteer poet, pulling the strings and obviously proud of his own cleverness. But because of its wit the poem caught the imagination of many readers who might not otherwise know of Randall Jarrell, although it is far from his best poem.


Title Charlotte H. Beck: On "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Charlotte H. Beck Criticism Target Randall Jarrell
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 10 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Worlds and Lives: The Poetry of Randall Jarrell
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