Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
Jarrell Poet, critic, and teacher of literature, Randall Jarrell was born in Nashville, Tennessee on May 6, 1914. Jarrell had a “difficult childhood marked by the separation of his parents and by being moved around from place to place; the desire for true ‘home’ is a topic for much of his poetry” (McCann). Jarrell attended college at Vanderbilt University where he met a major influence on his poetry, John Crowe Ransom, who was “active during the 1920‘s and 1930‘s in reinvigorating Southern poetry” (McCann). Through Ransom, he also met Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson; who were part of the waning Fugitive movement.
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Jarrell followed Ransom to Kenyon College, where he began a lifelong association with Robert Lowell. He completed his M. A. degree in literature and began his career as a professor at the University of Texas in Austin. In 1942 Randall Jarrell enlisted in the Army Air Corps and went to war. He worked as a control tower operator which gave him “plenty of knowledge and war experience to lend authority to his poetry and reinforced his sense that the commonality of human experience was a sense of loss” (McCann). His experience working as a control tower operator provided much of the material for his poetry.
Jarrell was recognized as the poet of World War II. After the war Jarrell went back to teaching in Sarah Lawrence College, where he became literary editor of the Nation. As editor of the Nation, “his tendency to rip authors to shreds was well known; his statements on poetics were direct and peremptory. ” He traveled widely the following years and received several honors and awards. “In 1958, he accepted a position as professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, where he was to remain more or less for the rest of his teaching career” (McCann).
Jarrell was struck and killed by a vehicle in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on October 14, 1965. Jarrell had a well known reputation as an artist and critic for thirty two years. His most well known work was “The Woman at the Washington Zoo,” which was written in 1960. It won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1961. Jarrell also received a Guggenheim Post-Service Award in 1946. “Jarrell’s chief contribution to the poetry of the twentieth century is his insistence that the experience of ordinary people is worth exploring to discover truth.
His work reflects a determination to communicate everyday experience in a language and a form that speaks to the general reader as well as to the literary scholar” (Petty). “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” by Randall Jarrell, is a poem about a soldiers death in the ball turret of a fighter plane in World War II. Although it is brief, this poem has a powerful message behind it. I believe it is about the dehumanization of war. It tells the fear of young soldiers being drafted into war and their thoughts of dying. I read it in the point of view of a young soldier.
The first line, “From my mother’s sleep I fell in the State,” tells that the soldier was drafted into the war at young age, almost like he was taken away from his childhood and thrown into the war where he is likely to be killed. The second line, “And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze,” tells how the soldier was hunched in the ball turret, which is in the belly of a fighter plane. (The ball turret gunner had a very dangerous job in the war because it was on the bottom of the plane and was easily hit by gunfire.
In some fighter planes the ball turret gunner could not get out of the ball turret while the plane was in air so if the landing gear malfunctioned and the plane had to make an emergency landing, the gunner didn’t have a chance. ) The fur on the soldiers flight jacket was freezing because of the altitude. This shows how war deprived these soldiers of human qualities. The third line, “Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,” tells that the fighter plane was six miles high above the earth, where the soldier realized that his life dreams are gone.
This also shows how war deprives soldiers of human qualities, especially those that didn’t even choose to go to war. The fourth line, “I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters,” I believe, he had so much on his mind on the way to fight he was in a state of daydreaming. I imagine that he was scared to death at this point because he knew he probably wouldn’t make it out alive. He woke into a nightmare, which is usually the other way around; that was anti-aircraft fire coming at him and no way to escape.
The fifth line, “When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose,” pictures such a gruesome image of the soldier’s death. He was so torn up from the gun fire that there was nothing left to pick up, he had to be washed out with a hose. I believe this also shows just how sickening war really is. When a soldier died like this in WWII they had to wash them out and replace them with another soldier that would, more than likely, end up the same way. I believe the soldier telling this felt that the army did not care about him nd that he was nothing.
They took away his dreams and choice in life. I believe this poem was very personal for Jarrell, from his experience in the war. He expresses his attitude with despair and sorrow. Jarrell proves his point in very few words that, in war, human life is not valued. This is a sad truth taken on during war that Jarrell does an amazing job portraying.