Just because a poem is short, that doesn't necessarily mean it has less going on in the sound department than longer poems. Just look at our friend the haiku—only seventeen little syllables, but sound often plays a big part.
Here are some ways sound is working in "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner":
First up, we have alliteration. The F sounds a the end of line 2: "fur froze." The sound echoes the f-f-f-f-f sound we make when we are chattering cold.
Next, try this: say, "black flak" ten times. Really, go ahead, no one's listening. Fun, wasn't it? Well, we have internal rhyme to thank for that. Those harsh, repeated, rhyming sounds in line 4 mirror the sound of machinegun fire or the explosions that the gunner was hearing during battle.
Of course, this poem doesn't have a regular rhyme scheme, but the end words of lines 2 and 5 do rhyme. This makes a very strong auditory connection between the two lines of the poem that include the womb/birth imagery. Randall wants to make sure we connect that "belly" in line 2 with the "turret" in line 5 and he relies on sound to make that happen.
As poem titles go, it doesn't get much clearer and straightforward than this one. Jarrell wants us to know right away exactly what is at the core of this poem. He sets us up for a poem about war and death, and he delivers it. But the title works on another level, too (yeah, you're right, that seems to happen a lot with this poetry stuff).
You probably noticed that the stark clarity of the title feels really different than the poem's more figurative first line. This sharp contrast between the stark reality of the title and the more figurative, almost surreal, quality of the first line gets the reader's mind ready for all the contrasting elements that we are confronted with in this very short poem: life and death, dreams and nightmares, nurturing and destroying.
The poem gets its power, its impact, from these contrasts. Life seems more precious, delicate, and fleeting in the face of death. It's like how putting Milk Duds in your popcorn makes the popcorn pop-ier and the Milk Duds, well, Dud-ier. The sense of life in the poem and the sense of death in the poem both gain power from their proximity.
In that way, then, the title sets us up to think in one straightfoward direction, knowing all the while that the poem will soon be zagging our minds another way
As we mentioned in our "Speaker" section, the gunner is speaking to us from beyond the grave. But most of the action he describes takes place in and around a WWII bomber. More specifically, in the bomber's, "belly."
This setting is crucial for the poem because it develops the birth imagery that the poem relies on. Without the turret/womb, without the setting, this poem would lose some of its punch. The poem relies on this birth imagery to show the futility of the state as nurturer or protector. The poem would lose the sense of the machine-womb birthing the soldier into death rather than life.
The setting is what creates the feeling of tension and conflict and confusion. It mirrors a place that is supposed to be all warm and nurturing, but the bomber version of Mommy is far from nurturing. A womb should be a warm, safe place that holds the anticipation of birth and life. But the turret/ womb is the opposite: cold, dangerous, and with only the anticipation of death.
Imagine the poem set in the cockpit, at the plane's head rather than in its belly. Different poem, right? The pilot, sitting in the cockpit, has some sense of control. He can change directions. He can order the crew to bail out. The gunner, though, is stuck in the turret. He has no control. Fighting and dying are pretty much all turret gunner has left.
Jarrell wants us to feel war at a very base, gut level. This poem is not cerebral. It's not about the causes of war or what can be done to find peace. It is about life and death and the brutality of war. The belly is where this poem has to happen.
The most significant thing about the speaker is the fact that he's dead. He tells us the tale of his own death. It is also important to think about how he tells us the story. He doesn't seem too worked up about it—quite the opposite, really. He tells us part of the story in a fairly dry, matter-of-fact way, and he tells us other parts in a kind of mysterious, figurative way.
So, what are the advantages of having a dead speaker? It gives the poem a very different tone than it might have if the speaker were recounting the death of a friend or fellow soldier. It is unusual for us to be able to discuss something as dramatic and emotional as a violent death in such a detached or metaphorical way as our speaker does.
Imagine you had witnessed a very emotional, dramatic scene like the one in "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," and then imagine yourself telling your friends about it: "We were, like, flying along and then all of a sudden there were all these planes and I was like WHOA! It was totally intense…" A survivor's story, even if it is about the death around them, is also at some level about their own survival. By writing this poem in the voice of a dead soldier, Jarrell is able to make every aspect of the poem contain the element of death, even the parts that are about living.
The living are always going to have a very different perspective on death than the dead. Just ask a zombie. Okay, bad example. You're right, zombies are technically undead, Shmoop was just testing you to see if you were still awake.
This is a pretty easy (very short!) hike. The clarity and directness of this poem's title and last line make it quite simple to catch what is happening at a basic level. But beware of low hanging branches as you approach the tree line. Understanding the poem at a figurative level requires a bit more work.
Being a veteran of WWII, Jarrell wrote a great deal about the experience of war. Another well-known poet, Robert Fitzgerald said Jarrell was, "practically the only American poet able to cope with the Second Great War." So, if you come across a great poem about WWII, think Jarrell first—it's a pretty safe bet.
(Warning: If you thought you just found your new favorite poet because this guy writes, "wicked short poems!" you are going to be disappointed. Most of Jarrell's poems are normal poem length. Sorry.)
Jarrell was very aware of meter and form in his poetry, so it is a good bet that he didn't write this poem in free verse—lacking any set structure of rhythm or rhyme—just by chance or out of laziness. Likely he felt that following strict metrical patterns or rhyme schemes didn't properly reflect the randomness and chaos of battle. In any case, this poem does contain some interesting metrical moments. For example, take a look at where the stressed syllables fall in line 2:
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
The last three words are all single-syllable, stressed words. This gives the end of the line a very strong, almost harsh sound in comparison to the rest of the line, even the rest of the poem—almost like the beating of a drum.
Thinking about this sound along with the line's content, we can see that this metrical element is heightening or emphasizing what is happening in the line: the turret/womb is a cold harsh place in contrast to the mother's womb, and the end of the line sounds harsh, meter-wise.
Another note on the poem's form: When this poem walks into a room, what's the first thing everyone notices? Okay, the fact that it's walking. But let's imagine a world where walking poems are the norm. Then what? You got it. This poem is short. Really short. It is written in one, short stanza. Here again, it would probably be a mistake to chalk this up to laziness on Randall's part.
By making this poem so short, everything (life/death, innocence/war) gets squished together. This also heightens those contrasting elements we've been talking about. For example, by having "mother" so close to "died," the contrasting emotions and ideas in the poem become intensified. Another thing added by this poem's vertically challenged form is a sense that the poem, like the gunner's life, has been cut short.
And you just thought Jarrell wrote a short poem because he wanted you to like him more than all those other long-poem-writing poets.
"Mother" is the third word in this poem and the image of the sleeping mother, and the idea of motherhood itself (life giver, nurturer, protector) stays with us throughout the poem. Let's face it—there's not much that's more important than Mom. Without her, where would we be? In fact, without her we wouldn't be at all! Which brings us to another big element in this small poem: birth imagery. Jarrell himself said the gunner in the turret was like a child in a womb and he relies heavily on that imagery in the poem.
"The State" is a lot of different things in this poem. It is the bomber, a nation, and a condition of the mind. Yes, Randall is getting a lot of mileage out of these two little words. No wonder he only needed 5 lines for the whole poem.
Nothing sexy about this one, folks—but Shmoop is going to hit it with a PG for the graphic nature of the poem's last image.