Thomas Travisano: On "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"

[...] Jarrell implies that "placing sorrow" in postmodern war or rendering its griefs into the pastoral or chivalric frameworks of the past is now impossible.

Jarrell's war elegies break radically and finally with the traditional pastoral elegies: they increase rather than shed complexity; they displace rather than "place" sorrow. Jarrell implies the difficulty of achieving mature recognition of one's condition amidst the accelerating cycles of postmodern life. The ball turret gunner has not had a living instant to achieve the self-recognition celebrated by Aries or Yeats's Major Gregory. A glimmering of conscious awareness comes to him, if at all, only after the moment of death.

"The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" is one of the earliest of post-modern elegies of a type that might well be termed "peculiar monodies." Traditionally, a monody is an elegy uttered by a single voice, whereas a threnody is choral. The poems under discussion in this chapter are peculiar monodies partly because of the peculiar placement of the poem's speaker and because of the peculiar relation of that speaker to the figure being mourned. The peculiarity of Jarrell's monody derives in large measure from the fact that the monodist is already dead: he is both the subject of the elegy and his own sole mourner. And "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" was published five years before Billy Wilder popularized the technique of narration-after-death in the 1950 film noir Sunset Boulevard.

Another peculiarity of this new form of monody involves its uncanny inquiry into the rites of mourning. In Jarrell's "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," this rite of passage—"When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose"—is so lacking in dignity, that it functions not to express nor to relieve but to suppress grief. G. W. Pigman, in his sensitive study of Grief and English Renaissance Elegy asserts, "The essential concept for understanding the process of mourning is denial. Mourning, in the words of Martha Wolfenstein, is a 'painful and protracted struggle to acknowledge the reality of the loss.' The stages of mourning represent the development of this acknowledgment at the expense of the desire to deny the loss. Unresolved mourning represent the triumph of denial; the bereaved clings to the dead to avoid conflicts of guilt and self-reproach or suppresses grief as if no loss had taken place." In Jarrell's poem, mourning seems impossible and grief is suppressed in the face of a death so shocking and so quickly dismissed that it remains impossible to process emotionally. The gunner remains the only sentient being left to witness or acknowledge the reality of a death that the rest of the world has simply washed away. He lingers still, a disembodied survivor whose voice hovers tentatively while his existence and his death have equally been denied.


Title Thomas Travisano: On "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Thomas Travisano Criticism Target Randall Jarrell
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 10 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Midcentury Quartet: Bishop, Lowell, Jarrell, Berryman and the Makeup of a Postmodern Aesthetic
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