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...

(The entire section is 473 words.)