‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ is frequently anthologized, and as Randall admitted to fearing, most of his reputation as a poet is tied up in it. But, there are certainly worse outcomes for a poet’s career in this poem which has been referred to as the best war poem ever written.
Explore The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
Throughout the lines of this piece, Jarrell’s speaker, a deceased soldier, describes his birth and innocence while juxtaposing it with his job as a gunner and death. The first lines describe how he was born from his mother’s dream into “the State” or a new, more violent understanding of life. There, he hunkers down inside a new womb, the ball turret. His days are filled with black flak and nightmarish scenes of life and death. The poem’s final line reveals that the speaker is dead, and his remains were washed from the “womb” with a hose.
You can read the full poem here.
In this short poem, readers will come across themes of war, death, and innocence. The last two themes are connected in that they form the beginning and end of life. The speaker takes the reader through powerful images that depict the relative peace of birth from a mother’s womb and a new kind of birth, one into death. The plane’s ball turret took on the role of the soldier’s new “mother.” It is only because of the war and what was seen as necessary violence that the speaker finds himself in the situation that he’s in. By writing this piece and creating the conclusion that he does, Jarrell is very clearly trying to condone war and the way that lives are lost so frequently and purposelessly.
Title Analysis: ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’
The title of this poem is one of its most complicated features. The words “turret” and “gunner,” especially together, are likely to confuse the majority of readers. The title refers to a ball turret, a feature of a bomber aircraft. This was like the B-17 or B-24. The ball turret was made of plexiglass and inset at the bottom of the plane. The gunner set inside the sphere and fired machine guns. His seat could rotate all the way around, allowing him to focus on the enemy no matter where they were.
When speaking about his poem, Randall described the ball turret as a “womb” and the gunner as the “fetus” inside it.
‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ is written in the first person. This means that the speaker uses first-person pronouns like “I,” “me,” and “mine.” What’s interesting about Jarrell’s choice to use this specific narrative perspective is that the speaker is not someone recalling what happened to a ball turret gunner, but the gunner himself. He spends the five lines of the poem giving the reader a brief insight into his life and then concluding with a graphic and distressing line about his death.
Structure and Form
‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ by Randall Jarrell is a five-line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. Jarrell chose to write this piece in free verse. This means that the lines do not contain a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, that being said, there are some examples of meter throughout. For example, in the second line, the first nine syllables are anapaests, while the final is a spondee. This means that the last three syllables, in particular, have a great deal of stress on them. By using the meter in this way, the poet allows some rhythm to come through while also not restricting himself to a specific pattern.
Jarrell makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.’ These include but are not limited to alliteration, personification, and internal rhyme. The latter is an interesting literary device that is often used in order to increase the feeling of rhyme and rhythm in a piece that does not make use of a specific rhyme scheme. Sometimes the internal rhymes are only half-rhymes, while other times, they are more obvious. The latter occurs in the fourth line of the poem with the words “black flak.”
Alliteration is a formal device that’s concerned with the repetition of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words. For instance, “fur froze” in line two. The word “fell” in line one might also be included in this example due to the text’s overall brevity.
Personification is one of the literary devices that readers will likely notice right away. The deceased speaker describes the “belly” of a beast he hunkered down into in the second line. When reading the poem, it’s immediately clear that he’s using these words to allude to the ball turret’s shape and feel. This feels similar to Jarrell’s description of the feature as a womb and the gunner as a fetus.
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
In the first line of the poem, the speaker opens with a surprising and confusing like about his “mother’s sleep” and “the State.” The “mother” in these lines is a reference to the speaker’s mother as well as a metaphor used to represent the origins of life itself. The image of the mother sleep, and the speaker falling comes next. She sleeps and dreams, and he falls “into the State.” This immediately reads as something negative, something that’s not in his control.
“State” is another metaphor that has to be analyzed. The capitalization of the first letter makes it at once more and less complicated. The “state” is a new way of being and a new understanding of the world. In this case, an understanding of war, death, and loss. He was once young and innocent, nothing more than a mother’s dream. But now he’s in a different “belly” where he’s fighting for his life. By referring to the bomber’s “belly” as something he’s inside, the speaker is connecting the plane back to the word “mother” in the first line. It, too, is serving as a conduit into a new world. The second line concludes with an image of the speaker hunching and huddling in the belly till his “wet fur froze.” This brings to mind the image of a newborn animal, fur still wet from birth. It is one of the most poignant images in the poem.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
In the third line of ‘The Death of a Ball Turret Gunner,’ the speaker starts a new sentence. Here, he describes flying “Six miles from earth.” In this terrible new world, he is entirely separate from the “dream of life” going on below him. Everything there, everything he once was, feels very far away.
In the new world, the speaker is inhabiting, death is ever-present. There’s no way to escape from it or put it out of one’s mind. He describes himself as waking up and seeing “black flak” (or exploding shells) “and the nightmare fighters.” This is another interesting juxtaposition that contrasts with the word “dream” in the previous line and relates back to “sleep” in line one.
In the final line of the poem, it’s revealed to the reader that the speaker has been dead all along. He died in his ball turret, and when the plane landed, they had to wash him out “with a hose.” This is a terribly gruesome and disturbing end to the poem and to the man’s life.
This line should be connected back to the womb imagery in the previous lines. He was once born into life from his mother’s womb. Now he’s born into death from the womb of the plane. In both instances, a mess is associated with the process. Beyond the metaphor, Jarrell is trying to draw attention to the fact that this man’s death, just like thousands of others, was not noble or dramatic. He died, and his remains were disposed of in the most concise way possible.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ should also consider reading some of Jarrell’s other best-known poems. These include ‘A Country Life’ and ‘In Those Days.’ The first of these provides the reader with a deeply felt depiction of the impacts of life, death, and loneliness on one’s life before death finally comes. The latter, ‘In Those Days,’ focuses on memory and the past.