A veteran of the armed services during World War Two, Randall Jarrell was by all measures an accomplished artist. Using the meticulous method that is English metrical verse, Jarrell is able to conjure up images that are incredibly real, and yet still fit within the confines of the chosen mode of delivery.
English metrical verse is not exactly known for its ease of reading, which is what makes Jarrell’s work on The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner so incredible. The words manage to carve an image into the mind, of the searing kinds of death that waited for an Army Air Force crewman. All of this is done in five lines of reading. The poem is incredibly short. Why then, review or even bring up a poem that short, even if it does such wonders at evoking mental imagery? Because Randall Jarrell washed out of bomber school and spent most of the war stateside.
For me, as an initiated reader and avid historian, The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner brought to mind an image from a previous experience. While in Newport News, Virginia, serving ironically enough in the United States Navy, the last flying B-29 Superfortress flew into town. Operated today by the Confederate Air Force, it was still taxiing to a stop beside the general aviation terminal at Newport News International Airport as I pulled into a parking space nearby. The crew chief needed help with repairs, and since I was serving as a machinist’s helper in the Navy, I was rather bluntly drafted and put to work.
After replacing an entire radial engine cylinder and oil pump, I crawled out of the number two engine (of four) and got a few instructions about that plane I never knew before. And then the crew chief showed me the lower ball turret. Placed in the belly of the plane, it was able to rotate 180 degrees, and its guns could cover almost all of the space below the plane. There was one problem: if the ball got stuck in an odd position, the hatch that allowed the gunner in and out locked from the outside. A gunner stuck inside would have to break the plexiglas shield and bail out over England, or bravely hope the landing gear would hold up at landing and not squash him flat if the plane went onto its belly and skidded out. That’s a brave hope indeed for a person trapped on the outside bottom of a damaged plane. It’s a lost hope if the turret gunner forgot to take a pistol with him to be able to break the plexiglas shield, or worse yet, was wounded.
Somehow, for me, Randall Jarrell recaptured that lost image of horror. The last B-29 couldn’t do it; it was manufactured two weeks after the war ended. Jarrell captured that image for me in just five lines.
Read it yourself, click the link: The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
Not content with those five lines, Jarrell further developed a poem along the same lines, in Losses. At a length of 32 lines, also written in the painstaking English metrical verse, Jarrell again conjures images so crisp and clear that the reader is captured by the flow of the work and carried along, to the work’s completion. Jarrell is able to maintain the structure and the flow of the work, according to English metric, with the words rhyming at the right time, and still managing a strong sense of voice for the work. A writer with the ability to use English verse and manage strong voice throughout is quite skilled indeed.
Losses takes us through the journey of a bomber crew during World War II. It begins in training, where everyone is told they are dead men. A veteran myself, I was able to catch what Jarrell was talking about in the poem; because of the training I received myself in while in the Navy. We were told “Training is where you screw up!” and “Get all your dying done here, in training! It takes us less paperwork if you die here! Here we just clean up the mess and move on!” Jarrell’s work in Losses relates the same, except there, it was actual aircraft, which occasionally did crash on routine training missions, and the losses counted against the wartime total. You begin quickly to get the sense of the dehumanization that Jarrell felt as he trained. As you read further, the transition to actual combat duty over Europe happens.
A curious thing happens: the manner changes in which losses happen. In training, losses were accidents. In combat, losses were mistakes. The treatment of the superiors changes, as well, but anyone not a veteran of the service may not catch the change. In training, accident rates rose because of the trainees. It was the trainees fault, not the instructors. It was a classic case of “yours, not ours.” But in the combat zone, when bomber crews died, the leadership called the casualties “ours.” The men were not really allowed to claim their own losses, you see.
As a result, the sense of frustration comes right through from the bomber crews that the leaders stayed at home while the boys in blue went over and burned the cities down. It for me relayed that classic sense of any fighting man: the leaders just give orders, and the grunts do the dirty work. And in the end, a few grunts get medals, all the leaders get medals, and friend and foe alike are left wondering: Why? Why so many losses?
Don’t just take my word for it, a short additional biography can be found at Poets.org, from the American Academy of Poets.
For an experience in poetry, take a moment and open the text of Losses.
Once you have that open, open this audio reading of Losses from a professor and follow along.
April is National Poetry Month, and it’s your loss if you don’t!
Sources for this Article:
Seamus Cooney, A Small Anthology of Poems, http://homepages.wmich.edu/~cooneys/poems/index.html, 2000, English Department, Western Michigan University
George and Barbara Perkins, Contemporary American Literature, pp 367-369, 1985, New York, Macgraw-Hill, New York.
Internet Archive, Losses, Randall Jarrell, http://www.archive.org/download/audio_poetry_174_2007, 2001, Open Source Archive
Randall Jarrell, Losses, http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/losses/, 2009, PoemHunter.com