The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner Analysis

The Poem (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

A gem of a small poem, Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is often used in classrooms to exemplify the sustained metaphor. One of the poems based on Jarrell’s own experience in World War II, this tiny poem presents a layered message about the waste of war. The five-line highly compressed poem is as deliberately claustrophobic as the setting, the ball turret of a war plane. The brief first-person narrative describes how the young man fell “from [his] mother’s sleep” into the state, which confined him to the ball turret, another womb, another sleep: “I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.” He awakened from the successive wombs, mother’s and state’s, only to die: “Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,/ I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.” The last line provides a chill postmortem observation: “When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”

Jarrell provided a note to the poem for those not familiar with the plane he described. A ball turret was a plexiglass sphere recessed into a B-17 or a B-24. Two machine guns and a small man were fitted inside. When the gunner tracked with his machine guns a fighter attacking from below, he revolved with the turret. “The hose was a steam hose.” Contemporary readers may be familiar with the architecture of the ball turret from such films as Memphis Belle (1990), which shows the small enclosure where the ball turret...

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The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner Forms and Devices (Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is a conceit, or extended metaphor. It was characteristic of Jarrell to see the soldier as a sacrificed child, and he relates this to maximum effect in the poem. The gunner is compared with a fetus, a baby animal in the womb: “my wet fur froze.” The jackets the gunners wore had fur inside, and thus the double image is created of the young man in the jacket and the infant animal. The equation of birth with death is continued throughout the poem, ending with the flat final statement of a life aborted. The machine survives while the flesh dies.

The rhythms of the poem enhance its message. Its first line appears to set up a relaxed, iambic pentameter pace, but this is not sustained. The second line picks up the rhythm, using anapests and other metrical feet; the rest of the poem continues to play with the meter, though the third line too may be read as a flexible iambic pentameter, and the second and fourth lines may be read as containing four stresses each. The last line is longer than the rest, and its blunt horror seems to leap out at the reader.

Another dimension to the metaphor is its sequence of circles and centers: the airman first in his mother’s womb; then in the belly of the plane; then in the air above the earth, “loosed from its dream of life” where he wakens to his own death, “the nightmare fighters.” He is never centered on the earth, autonomous. The dreaming, sleeping, and waking cycle is fused with the life and death sequence. He awakens from dream only to nightmare, never to life.

Every word contributes to the whole in this economical poem. Unlike longer, more discursive war poems, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” gives only a flash into the mind of this soldier victim, just as his consciousness had only the briefest of chances to observe and reflect.

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Burt, Stephen. Randall Jarrell and His Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Chappell, Fred. “The Indivisible Presence of Randall Jarrell.” North Carolina Literary Review 1, no. 1 (Summer, 1992): 8-13.

Cyr, Marc D. “Randall Jarrell’s Answerable Style: Revision of Elegy in ’The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.’” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 46, no. 1 (Spring, 2004): 92-106.

Flynn, Richard. Randall Jarrell and the Lost World of Childhood. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990.

Hammer, Langdon. “Who Was Randall Jarrell?” Yale Review 79 (1990): 389-405.

Jarrell, Mary. Remembering Randall: A Memoir of Poet, Critic, and Teacher Randall Jarrell. New York: HarperCollins, 1999.

Pritchard, William. Randall Jarrell: A Literary Life. New York: Farrar, 1990.

Quinn, Sr. Bernetta. Randall Jarrell. Boston: Twayne, 1981.