Charlotte H. Beck: On "Losses"

Jarrell experiments with multiple identity in the interplay of several speakers united in one--all representing those air-men who were precombat losses--in training, in simulated combat--but all wasted even before they could be "born" into the real experience of war.

The opening lines are those of an air cadet who perished even before leaving his homeland. In his feeling of utter uselessness, he summarizes the impotence of all precombat losses:

 

It was not dying: everybody died.

It was not dying; we have died before

In the routine crashes--and our fields

Called up the papers, wrote home to our folks

And the rates rose, all because of us.

 

When he goes on to say, "We died on the wrong page of the almanac," he reflects the fact that tragic miscalculations, like using the wrong set of star data, could result in fatal accidents when pilots were directed thirty to sixty miles off course to crash and die "on mountains fifty miles away." The first speaker alludes to the mock battles that the young pilots waged, in which they might perish while "diving on haystacks, fighting with a friend," merely trying to relieve the tedium of training. Such deaths seemed due to the combined carelessness of those in command and the immaturity of their trainees. Since only the statistics kept record of the rising death rates, there was nothing heroic in such a death; and the stillborn pilot is bewildered at this and at the difference between what war is really like and what the textbooks say it is. In his wistful aside, "(When we left high school nothing else had died / For us to figure we had died like)," the speaker awkwardly suggests that the immature consciousness struggling to express itself has perished before this idea can merge with its articulation.

In the second phase of the poem, the speaker represents another category of losses: those who survive training only to die in early missions. Like infants with new and dangerous toys, the fledglings still do not confront real warfare; their coincidental birth and death come when they awake "operational" over a potential target. As the human spirit becomes a functioning war machine, it loses its innocence and acquires, if it survives, a burden of guilt. The young men in the bombing crews who destroy people they neither love nor hate cannot really be blamed. The loss of life that occurs is both their fault and that of the state they serve. Somehow all that has happened seems unreal to one who remembers vaguely "the cities we had learned about in school" and their inhabitants, who are merely "the people we have killed and never seen." Ultimately these cadets perish needlessly because of "a mistake / (But an easy one to make)." The second voice is less innocent, much more bitter than the first, who merely registers his confusion. One element remains constant: both see absolutely no meaning in their deaths--except to the statistician in charge of the body count. In this regard, the losses are satisfactory, since the casualties are low; and even the bombed cities seem to say, "We are satisfied, if you are. . . ." No one is really to blame except the impersonal and irrational forces that produced the war. Among the dead at least, atonement and forgiveness are possible.

Until the last four lines, it is a composite "we" that speaks, or a single individual who speaks for the group. In the final statement, however, the "loss" becomes one helpless individual saying once more, "It was not dying. . . ." Death is not the real issue, since all men are mortal; it is the purposelessness of death that he deplores. In his dream of death--a familiar device of Jarrell's--the last "loss" imagines a conversation with the bombed cities that ends with the unanswerable question, "Why?" There is no rational answer.

"Losses" makes effective use of a shifting point of view that represents both the individual and the group from separate vantage points. The reader is made privy to a progression of losses--of life, innocence, identity. To become a statistic of war is to gain one kind of importance, to the state, and to lose at the same time another, that of the autonomous self. The poem depends on the reader's ability to follow the merging of separate and multiple identities and to perceive the unified as well as the diversified aspects of the speaker's laments. The conclusion acts, unfortunately, as a major barrier to any reader's acceptance of the shifting point of view. The last speaker hears the cities ask, in effect, the same question that he has already posed to the world, "Why did I die?" And the repetition of that question should form an effective bond between the bombed cities and the speaker, both dead and both innocent. The line "We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?" suffers, however, from excessive length--thirteen syllables and at least seven accents--and from the flatness of its monosyllables. The thrust of the irony is thereby effectively muffled, and the conclusion falls short of the promise contained in the preceding lines. What does come through is the pathos of baffled innocence.

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Title Charlotte H. Beck: On "Losses" 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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