Shrapnel and Starships

by Jesse Durovey

Taking a Steam Hose to the Reader’s Heart: An Aristotelian Response to Randall Jarrell

Randall Jarrell’s poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” is evocative of both pity and terror. A world of dread is squeezed into five short lines, and the reader is taken on a journey from birth to death in the life of a World War II era, Army Air Forces ball turret gunner. As this dual-force of pity and terror holds sway over the reader—made all the more palpable by the form of a brave, yet fragile, hero—another force instills itself within the reader. This force is literary catharsis. The Third Century philosopher, Aristotle, who was the protégé of Plato, viewed tragedy as a genre of art which induces sympathy and fear within its audience. It is the audience who would then, upon witnessing a proper tragedy, achieve an emotional cleansing. A close reading of Jarrell’s poem illustrates how plot, heroic character, and poetic mimesis are merged to create a sense of pity and terror within the reader, which ultimately leads to catharsis of the reader’s emotions.

Although the poem is a solitary five-line stanza and a mere fifty-two words, Jarrell had the forethought to include a note detailing the technical aspects of inhabiting a ball turret. The ball turret is the Plexiglas dome that sits underneath certain World War II era bomber aircraft—most notably Boeing’s B-17 Flying Fortress and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator (Jarrell 489). The ball turret gunner would operate twin .50 caliber machine guns which revolved on a track, allowing him to engage fighter jets below his aircraft. The gunner was invariably of small stature and would be hunched upside-down within this bubble so that he resembled a fetus. Adding to the surreal terror of fighting in this manner, the fighter jets would combat these turret gunners by launching explosive shells at the inverted men (Jarrell 489).

The speaker of Jarrell’s poem details the plotline of his journey from birth to death while “six miles from earth” (Jarrell 3). Aristotle, who wrote one of the earliest treatises on literary criticism in his Poetics, insists that plot is particularly significant to this progression of emotion within the reader. According to Aristotle, “Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life” (VI). The finest way to exhibit this action and life through tragedy is with plot.  Pelagia Goulimari offers an excellent summation of Aristotle’s critical work in “Aristotle and Tragedy: From Poetics to Postcolonial Tragedy,” from the text, Literary Criticism and Theory. Goulimari presents Aristotle’s concept that good tragedy must have a clearly defined plot with three distinct parts—reversal of fortune, recognition, and suffering (28).

In “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” the reversal of fortune is seen in the speaker’s description of “falling” from his “mother’s sleep … into the State” (Jarrell 1). There is certainly some ambiguity here, but the imagery of being enclosed in the warmth and love of a mother’s womb is inescapable; however, there is no question as to the negative connotation of “the State.” The capitalization of “State” seems to signify a government or a nation. The speaker has been enlisted in the service of his country to fight in a war. This new environment is decidedly womb-like as well, but it is cold and hostile rather than warm and nurturing.

The speaker recognizes his misfortune while high above the earth. It is as if he has fallen again, completely untethered from his false sense of security, his “dream of life” (Jarrell 3). The reader must imagine the surreal experience of being suspended in an inverted position six miles above terra firma as forest and farmland passes by—in miniature—far below. This bucolic reverie is shattered by the arc of explosive shells aimed directly at his Plexiglas womb—the bursts of flak from the anti-aircraft guns as black as night. The terror of the speaker is palpable as he recognizes the horrible injustice of being trapped—in much the same way Oedipus felt that fate had entrapped him into killing his own father (Goulimari 28).

The speaker’s suffering is carried out by the “nightmare fighters,” who launch their explosive shells again and again until they hit their mark, killing the young gunner. The turret gunner’s suffering is not finished in death; he still has to face the dehumanization of being washed out of his aerial womb with a hose.

To achieve catharsis in the reader, this triumvirate force of plot cannot be simple—it must have complexity (28). Aristotle says, “A perfect tragedy should … be arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation” (XIII). To reinforce this concept, Goulimari draws another allusion from Oedipus. Just as the protagonist in Oedipus the King follows an intricate plot in the killing of his father, the reader sees complexity woven through Jarrell’s poem (Goulimari 28). The ball turret gunner has been plucked from his peaceful life to do violence on behalf of his country, and he dies in the process. He then suffers the indignity of having his compatriots give him the funeral rites of a pair of muddy combat boots so that they may continue fighting and bombing the enemy.

Just as Aristotle affirms that plot is the “the origin and … soul of tragedy,” the soul of the hero must also be considered (Goulimari 28). He must be pure enough to conjure these emotions of pity and terror within the reader, but if he is completely blameless the reader will be disgusted. While tragedy “is the imitation of an action,” an “action implies personal agents” (VI). It is these personal agents within tragedy that must possess the appropriate character to evoke pity, terror, and ultimately catharsis within the audience. In other words, the hero’s character must be so entirely human that the reader sees his own reflection within the hero (Goulimari 31). Witnessing a villain receive his comeuppance would be satisfying in a moral sense, but it would not arouse pity or terror within the audience. Likewise, a moral saint who suffers without some cause du jour would only result in the audience being disgusted (Aristotle XIII).

The heroic character must then dwell between these two extremes of virtue and vice to reflect true humanity (Aristotle XIII). However, it is not enough to be a decent human being. Aristotle believes the tragic hero must be “highly renowned and prosperous—a personage like Oedipus” (Aristotle XIII). Jarrell’s speaker is a young man who has been thrust into a war that is not of his own making. He has fallen into the service of “the State” to sit in a ball turret and engage enemy fighters, protecting the crew of the B-24 or B-17 he flies in. While none of these factors could be construed as prosperity, the fact that he is bravely serving his country in a time of war is worthy of renown. In addition, being a ball turret gunner puts Jarrell’s hero in hallowed company. Very much like the “tunnel rats,” the U.S. servicemembers who would descend into Viet Cong guerrilla tunnels during the Vietnam War, ball turret gunners were chosen for their small size and stature—it was the only way to ensure they would fit into their Plexiglas domes (Gorner). Jesse Bradley was a ball turret gunner during World War II and recalls his experience flying in his B-24 while writing “The Ball Turret.” Bradley lends credence to the idea that the ball turret gunner was an extremely valuable position, as well as one to which many servicemembers feared to be assigned, which implies to the reader the level of bravery it took for these men to fulfill their duties. A mere thirty-thousand of the approximately sixteen-million U.S. military servicemembers were ball turret gunners (Bradley 22). The gunner could do so much damage to enemy fighters, and the bomb-laden planes he flew on were such priceless objectives, that he would be specifically targeted with explosive shells. Most courageously, the gunner would also be positioned in the least-defensible, and most difficult to escape, area of the plane.

Poetic mimesis is the means by which the author disguises reality through expressive language to affect the reader’s emotions (Goulimari 28). In this way, Aristotle claims that tragedy seeks to imitate a unified and grim action in “language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament” (VI). Jarrell utilized his experience and expertise as a World War II-era Army Air Force flight instructor to craft a poem that is both realistic in its imitation of actual events and beautiful in its poetic imagery (Pritchard). Just as the character of the tragic hero must be deemed appropriately brave and heroic to achieve pity in terror in the audience, poetic mimesis must neither be too graphic nor too subdued in its imagery if the poet’s wish is to arouse pity, terror, and eventual catharsis within his audience.

Through poetic mimesis, Jarrell is by turns explicit and reserved, alternately realistic and metaphorical. The speaker begins as a literal infant, but by the end of the poem is given the unceremonious farewell of the afterbirth when he is washed out of his turret. The speaker is a baby, a soldier, and an animal— it is unclear whether the “wet fur” described in line two is the fur lining of a flight crew bomber jacket or the frozen coat of some amniotic fluid-soaked, simian creature which is freezing in its aerial womb. The turrets of the B-24 were low to the ground, so they were designed to be retractable through the use of hydraulics (Bradley 22). The turret would be raised on takeoffs and landings, and then lowered with the gunner in position when the bomber was over its target. The gunner would literally be “hunched in [the bomber’s] belly” until they reached their target (Jarrell 2). Although not a gunner, Jarrell had firsthand knowledge of the military—its aircraft and how men lived and died. He was able to weave this realism into his war poetry while employing powerful imagery, metaphor, and symbolism.

This poetic mimesis continues as the speaker is “Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life / [as he] woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters” (Jarrell 3-4). The reader envisions the bomber flying over its target, the gunner using the hydraulic valve to lower his turret from the guarded position inside the belly of the plane. Lowered to fighting position, exposed and isolated, the gunner lets go of any presumption of survival—he is “loosed from [earth’s] dream of life” (Jarrell 3). Bradley says, “Sitting alone in the hardest-to-exit position, suspended in space below the plane, seemingly more exposed to flak and fighters, and having no visual contact with your comrades all combined to create a terrible sense of isolation and vulnerability” (23). Jarrell’s lyrical imitation of reality takes the reader on a roller coaster of emotion until crashing him to the ground with the final gritty line: “When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose” (Jarrell 5). Whether the gunner is burst apart by shells or—when his turret’s hydraulic system stopped working and he would not be able to raise himself back up into the plane—sacrificed by the pilot to make a safe landing, the turret gunner risked a gruesome death that no whimsical words could abate (Bradley 22). The reader, so invested in the gunner’s struggle after a mere four lines, is forced to imagine the horror of his death in the speaker’s reserved, yet undisguised, language. Jarrell closes with an emotional “gut-punch” to the reader, serving catharsis on a blood-soaked runway.

Tragedy is a curious mixture of plot, character, and poetic mimesis. The tragic poem is able to transcend history, parsing through myriad details to find the unifying theme and action—a universal truth that should be shared (Goulimari 28). Aristotle confirms that poetry is “more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular” (IX). War poetry tells the universal truths of soldiering and dying in battle. By speaking of all soldiers who fight and die, Jarrell’s poem transcends mere historical account into the philosophical realm of truth and forms. Dying in combat is horrible, and men and women are turned into children in the face of war’s gruesome machinations. With this realization, the reader is scraped clean and raw of all emotion, helpless but to admire the heroism and valor of the ball turret gunner and cursing the brutality of war. Through his use of tragic plot, heroic character, and poetic mimesis, Jarrell takes a metaphorical steam hose to the reader’s heart and makes him a witness to a bizarre and gruesome funeral rite. The earth which once held the young gunner’s “dream of life” soaks up his very life’s blood—the reader cannot help but be left as raw, shattered, and clean as the ball turret itself.

Works Cited

Aristotle. The Poetics of Aristotle. Trans. S. H. Butcher. Vol. EBook #1974. N.p.: Gutenberg,       n.d. Project Gutenberg, 3 Nov. 2008. Web.

Bradley, Jesse N. “The Ball Turret” World War II 20.4 (2005): 22. MasterFILE Premier. 22-23     Web. 14 Oct. 2015

Gorner, Peter. “Life Of A Tunnel Rat: Fighting Fear In `nam.” Chicago Tribune. N.p., 28 June     1985. Web. 12 Oct. 2015.

Goulimari, Pelagia. “Aristotle and Tragedy: From Poetics to Postcolonial Tragedy.” Literary         Criticism And Theory. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2014. 25-48. eBook Collection   (EBSCOhost). Web. 28 Sept. 2015.

Jarrell, Randall. “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” The Norton Anthology of American           Literature. Ed. Nina Baym, Wayne Franklin, Philip F. Gura, and Arnold Krupat. 7th ed.         New York: W. W. Norton, 2007. 489. Print.

Pritchard, William. “About Randall Jarrell.” Modern American Poetry. University of Illinois, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2015.

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