Randall Jarrell was hit by a car. Possibly what I remember most from my MFA classes is keeping track of how poets died: head in oven, car exhaust in the garage, getting drunk and walking off a pier, getting drunk and falling down the  stairs, being run over by a beach vehicle on Fire Island, typhoid, Aids, TB at age 25.  Randall Jarrell was hit by a car.

During my MFA, a professor suggested in a workshop something to the effect that not enough poets commit suicide these days and maybe we are all too medicated to write well. That professor loved Randall Jarrell, who was hit by a car in 1965.  Also Randall Jarrell may have walked into the car on purpose.  It’s a mystery!

Randall Jarrell also served in the air force during WWII, which led to some stirring poems about the war experience, including the Randall Jarrell poem you are most likely to encounter in an English textbook: “Death of the Bell Turret Gunner”:

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

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.

As a former English TA, this is a poem I love to see in an English textbook.  First, it is related to World War 2, so a discussion can start just by asking what a Bell Turret Gunner is, and then a teacher can burn off 10 minutes by drawing a bomber on the chalk board and explaining where a bell turret gunner would be in the plane and what that person would.  FACTS impress students.  Also, if the students are 18-19 years old, it’s helpful to point that 70 years ago they could have been stuffed into a glass womb to shoot  at things while 30,000 feet in the air.

This poem is also dense and short so it can be read out loud in class and the whole class can work together on scanning it line-by-line for meaning first and then later for interesting details and devices.  The ending is a rhyme and a surprising rhyme so students can talk about why they were surprised by the rhyme.  Does it seem appropriate to the content of the final line, I’d ask. Then we can talk about rhyme being used for irony and other purposes.  It’s great.  Also, Jarrell’s use of animal and other non-human language is a theme students can track and use to think about what such language says about the gunner.  And then broaden it out to what the language says about the war.

Finally, it’s not an easy poem.  One can read it over and over again and not really know exactly what Jarrell is getting at, but one could come up with a few different plausible interpretations.

Although “The Death of the Bell Turret Gunner” (DOTBTG) is a great war poem, it really isn’t representative of Jarrell’s work. For that, I give you a favorite of my professor who loved Jarrell:

90 North

At home, in my flannel gown, like a bear to its floe,
I clambered to bed; up the globe’s impossible sides
I sailed all night—till at last, with my black beard,
My furs and my dogs, I stood at the northern pole.

There in the childish night my companions lay frozen,
The stiff furs knocked at my starveling throat,
And I gave my great sigh: the flakes came huddling,
Were they really my end? In the darkness I turned to my rest.

—Here, the flag snaps in the glare and silence
Of the unbroken ice. I stand here,
The dogs bark, my beard is black, and I stare
At the North Pole . . .
And now what? Why, go back.

Turn as I please, my step is to the south.
The world—my world spins on this final point
Of cold and wretchedness: all lines, all winds
End in this whirlpool I at last discover.

And it is meaningless. In the child’s bed
After the night’s voyage, in that warm world
Where people work and suffer for the end
That crowns the pain—in that Cloud-Cuckoo-Land

I reached my North and it had meaning.
Here at the actual pole of my existence,
Where all that I have done is meaningless,
Where I die or live by accident alone—

Where, living or dying, I am still alone;
Here where North, the night, the berg of death
Crowd me out of the ignorant darkness,
I see at last that all the knowledge

I wrung from the darkness—that the darkness flung me—
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.

Jarrell poems tend to be longer first-person narrative structures and not nearly as tight as DOTBTG.   Although “90 North”  has more space than DOTBTG, the lines still feels so controlled and perfectly broken. The language more colloquial, but words finely chosen for sound and clarity.  The ending still surprises by ending on a short sentence after several longer sentences.  I don’t want to analyze this one to death because much of the joy (and misery) of it comes from Jarrell’s incredibly personal voice,  but if anything else, this is just a beautiful human expression to commiserate with the next time you find yourself roaming the Arctic passages of your mind.

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