Sunday, July 31, 2011

Randall Jarrell

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Jarrell published "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" in 1945.  A ball turret was a small plexiglass sphere set into the belly of a B-17 or B-24 bomber.  It housed twin .50 caliber machine guns and was usually manned by the smallest member of the bomber's crew, whose environment was incredibly claustrophobic.  The ball turret gunner's job was to protect the bomber from fighter aircraft attacking from below.

A B-17 ball turret

Jarrell was born in Nashville in 1914 and received a B.A. (magna cum laude) from Vanderbilt in 1935, where was edited the student humor magazine, captained the tennis team, and was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.  His first job after college was teaching the freshman composition class at Kenyon College, where he also coached tennis.  While teaching at Kenyon, Jarrell lived with two Pulitzer Prize winners -- Peter Taylor (fiction, 1987) and Robert Lowell (poetry, 1947 and 1974).

Jarrell was appreciated as a literary critic before he was appreciated as a poet.  He feared that he would be remembered solely for "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," which has been widely anthologized.   

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