The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
by Randall Jarrell
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner Introduction
In A Nutshell
We know what you're thinking—How am I supposed to write 3 pages on 5 lines? Don't worry, Shmoop has you covered. Trust us, there is plenty of juicy content here to talk about.
The action in this poem is pretty straightforward. A soldier goes into battle in the ball turret of a WWII bomber. (Technical note: a ball turret is a rotating ball with mounted machine guns located underneath the aircraft. The gunner sits inside the ball). He is killed. The poem is written in the voice of the dead pilot. Kind of creepy? Yes. Effective in the context of the poem? Very.
This is poet Randall Jarrell's most anthologized poem, due in part, perhaps, to the fact that it manages to be stark and surreal at the same time, almost like a kind of grim fairytale. And that's no small feat for such a short poem. The complexity of the poem is in the imagery and figurative language. By using the ball turret as a metaphorical womb, Jarrell is able to create (in just 5 lines) an incredibly poignant poem that deals with big issues like life's fragility, the inescapability of death, the power and role of the state in our lives and, of course, the horrors of war.
In the New York Times Book Review, critic Robert Weisberg called "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," "the ultimate poem of war." It's no wonder, really. Jarrell was the perfect guy to write the ultimate war poem. He wasn't just some poet that decided to write about the brutality of war from the outside looking in. He was the real deal. He wasn't a ball turret gunner, but he was a WWII veteran who served with the Army Air Corps as a control tower operator working with bomber crews.
But Randall wasn't all about war. His work as a literary critic and essayist is as well known as his poetry. He even wrote a children's book or two. Jarrell was definitely not your garden-variety poet. From bedtime stories to bombing runs, Randall had it covered.
Why Should I Care?
In this age of the sound bite and on-demand entertainment, who has time to trudge through a 300-page book to be entertained or informed? Never fear, poetry is here to save the day!... You're not buying this, are you? We'll explain.
"The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" obviously deals with big, dramatic, important subjects (birth, death, war) that certainly deserve our attention. However, there is something else going on with this poem that makes it especially noteworthy: it's super short. We know, we know. That's what attracted you to the poem in the first place. But consider this: how can a poem that deals with such big subjects be so small?
"The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" is a fantastic example of what poetry is capable of. Think of it this way. If you had to write something in prose dealing with the complexity and emotion of big subjects like life, death, and war, it would take you way more than 5 sentences to get it done. In fact, someone could write 5 pages, 5 chapters, or even an entire book in prose and still not capture what Randall Jarrell captures in those 5 little lines.
Because poetry doesn't have to follow the same rules as prose, because poetry often uses images and figurative language to present ideas, and because poetry doesn't necessarily need to present ideas in linear or cause and effect kinds of ways, it's possible to squeeze tons of feeling and description into a very small package. This poem functions as an extreme example of the condensed communicative power of poetry.