Reporting the Realities of War: Loss of Identity and Loss of Life in Randall Jarrell’s War Poetry

Stephen Wilson

In the months leading up to the United States’ involvement in World War II a massive campaign for enlistment proffered the opportunity for boys to become men of a greater cause by enlisting in the service. Recruitment posters suggested a civic duty to the country, or an opportunity to be the face of America; one Army Air Forces poster featured a strong, smiling pilot in front of a red, white, and blue background laden with patriotic pathos. Inspired to help during this turbulent time in world history, or perhaps forced by the draft, droves of young men enlisted in the service. Men from all walks of life were shuttled in, broken down through military training, and built back up all for the bettering of a larger collective and love of country. While many believed enlisting was a duty that would allow them to be a vital unit of the American war machine and, even if they should perish, would result in an honorable legacy of remembrance, author Randall Jarrell employed a new style of poetry, concise, colloquial, and compassionate toward the human condition, to report the overlooked or generalized realities of the war, specifically, the loss of identity and loss of life.

In a letter to Amy Breyer De Blasio in June of 1943 Jarrell wrote that “99 of 100 of the people in the army haven’t the faintest idea what the war’s about. Their two strongest motives are (a) nationalism, pure nationalism… and (b) race prejudice—they dislike Japanese” (Letters 103). Jarrell’s new style would be short, concise, and accurate and would begin to appeal to a wider audience, providing an insight into the conditions of soldiers and the real costs and causes of the war to those back at home. Poems like “A Lullaby,” “The Lines,” “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” and “A War” focus on the loss of identity or loss of life in service to “the State” and each is an example of Jarrell’s newly adopted style and focus.

All four poems were written during, or inspired by, his time in the army during World War II. According to his military service records, Randall Jarrell enlisted in the Army Air Forces on October 29, 1942. His entry into Active Duty began in February of the following year and lasted until his Honorable Discharge, for the “convenience of the government,” three years later. Jarrell served as a Celestial Navigation Trainer Operator training navigators, radio operators, and pilots. Although several sources cite Jarrell’s occupation as a result of being “too old” to fly, Jarrell received three distinctions over the course of his military service: the American Theater Ribbon, the Good Conduct Medal, and the Victory Medal.

Although Jarrell was based in the United States and never saw combat during his time of service, he became one of the most significant voices during World War II, inspired from a variety of sources like poet Allen Tate and, most notably, war correspondent Ernie Pyle. According to Diederik Oostdijk, author of Among the Nightmare Fighters: American Poets of World War II, Jarrell “recognized in Pyle a kindred spirit whose compassion for ordinary soldiers he admired and emulated” and they were both “outsiders because they were observers rather than active participants during this war” (114). During the war Jarrell’s style underwent a drastic change:

Jarrell was “smart-alecky” and “pseudo-funny” in “For an Emigrant,” but tried to become more compassionate. While he was more intellectual than Pyle, Jarrell sought to write in his “plain, transparent, but oddly personal style,” to achieve the same kind of “sympathy and understanding and affection.” Always weary of political approaches to the war, Pyle was interested in “the unexpected human emotion in the story,” as he noted in that memo before the war, and Jarrell thought that war poets should do the same. (114)

Jarrell’s war poetry began to avoid the general in favor of emphasizing the specifics: “the human story rather than the political message” (114). While some saw the loss of identity or the loss of life as a cost of the war, something for the greater good, Jarrell created poetry that reminds readers that these were real individuals with emotions, value, and families. Jarrell’s new style allowed for a newfound accessibility. In an article published in Nation, poet Hayden Carruth states that “When the war came [Jarrell] already possessed a developed poetic vocabulary and a mastery of forms. Under the shock of war his mannerisms fell away. He began to write with stark, compressed lucidity” (“Randall Jarrell”). This new style and focus on the human story is especially evident in his war poetry that examines the lives of soldiers as if they were writing it themselves.

At first Jarrell was not sure he would find the time or space to write while in the service and even if he could, he doubted the significance of the poems. In a 1943 letter to his first wife, Mackie, Jarrell wrote, “Perhaps if I ever have the time, I can write some good, dreary poems about the army; but they won’t be printable while I’m in the army, and they won’t be liked by anybody until [2020]—when [the poems] return” (Letters 72). Despite these initial doubts, Jarrell began revising and writing new poems like “A Lullaby” and “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” in his new style.

In 1945, while still serving, Jarrell published the above poems and others in a collection entitled Little Friend, Little Friend. The title, according to a letter to author Allen Tate, is “how bombers call in fighters over the radio” and the poems included were based largely on his observations while serving in the military (Letters 124). Some of the poems, like “Mail Call,” are easily suggestive of specific bases where Jarrell served, while others like “A Lullaby” and “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” speak more generally in terms of location, but remain focused on the human story and human emotion that began to find its way into Jarrell’s poetry. For Jarrell at this time, “writing and publishing poetry was not only a vicarious escape from the army…but also provided [him] with a sense of personal identity in the homogenous, uniformed army where every GI was expendable and individual identity was shrunken” (Oostdijk 79).

Many of the poems in the collection provide a glimpse into the everyday life and events experienced by a solider. In “A Lullaby,” Jarrell provides an overview of ordinary events at an army base with a focus on the sacrifices, especially in terms of the suffocation of identity. Critic J.A. Bryant Jr. states that the poem “gives a quick succession of such glimpses…and pronounces these irritations [as] the mottling that stains ‘the lying amber of the histories’” (58). It begins with a back story of the soldier’s life and what sacrifices have been made “for wars.” Such sacrifices include the soldier’s “life,” “family,” and “days” (1-2). The speaker also invokes a theme of alienation noting that the soldier is “half a world away” (1) before listing what is gained from the sacrifice: sleeping with “seven men within six feet” (4) and being “lied to like a child, cursed like a beast” (6).

Further, the glimpse of duty that the speaker provides is not the idealized heroism of the enlistment posters, but rather one of a “dull torment” (11). This soldier is given mundane tasks like picking up matches and cleaning out plates. He is changed and molded to their form after “they crop his head” and give him dog tags that “ring like sheep” (7). The use of sheep is important in exploring Jarrell’s examination of identity in his war poetry, for the soldier is like an obedient sheep, part of a herd that follows blindly. In many instances, sheep blend in with one another and can easily be led to danger. The combination of “dog tags” and “sheep” animalizes the soldier (7). In the poem, the military-issued dog tags are a ringing reminder that he must follow and fade into the flock; he has not only lost his identity, but perhaps also a part of his humanity.

The loss of identity is further explored as the speaker recalls “dreams and letters, else forgot” and the poem ends by comparing the soldier’s life to a “grave”; he is immobile, stuck, and forgotten (9-10). His whole existence has been “smothered” like dirt on a gravesite (10). The speaker ends by saying this “torment,” the mundane tasks and constant uniformity, is what stains the “lying ambers of histories” (11-12). These duties, these sacrifices are often forgotten in the face of history, but Jarrell’s poem allows for a space of remembrance with short and simple lines containing clear similes that create a vivid glimpse into the life of a soldier.

In his next collection of poems entitled Losses, which was published in 1948, Jarrell again visits the theme of suppression of identity in the army in “The Lines” that was similar to the themes in “A Lullaby.” Jarrell wrote to Philip Rahv in November 1945 that this poem was “the armiest army poem” he had written and coincidentally, the focus is on the loss of identity (Oostdijk 80).

In this poem, there is a total loss of identity; the soldiers have been dehumanized and are referred to throughout as “files,” “numbers,” and “things” that are required to do mundane activities like form lines and simply wait (1,11). The poem also connotes a very vivid cycle of such mundane activities, and Jarrell uses repetition to show that when the speaker claims they wait “to form a line to form a line to form a line” (5). The constant lining up shows the dehumanization that occurs in even the simplest exchanges in army existence and on human beings’ resistance to it (Bryant 63). Just like the trapped solider in “A Lullaby,” the soldiers featured in “The Lines” are trapped in the everyday routine that the army requires, which often seems pointless.

There are many instances of the loss, or suppression, of identity throughout and it forms, in many ways, another cycle. The “things have learned that they are things” then they are “used up” and finally they “die as if they were not things” (6-7,10). By using “things” Jarrell applies an abstract object void of form, shape, or identity. These are not humans, nor animals, but moldable and disposable “things.” Similar to the sheep imagery in “A Lullaby,” the lines represent the uniformity and suppression of identity in the service which causes what Vernon Scannell calls the “inescapable reduction of man to either animal or instrument by the calculated process of military training and by the uniformed civilian’s enforced acceptance of the murderer’s role, the cruel larceny of all sense of personal identity” (“Randall Jarrell”).

In addition to Jarrell’s exploration of the loss or suppression of identity in the army, he also examines the theme of death, or loss of life. Continuously employing his new style of writing, Jarrell examines the ultimate sacrifice with simple similes and stark imagery that provides a portrait of loss.

Undoubtedly his most recognized and most frequently anthologized poem, “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” is another example of a poem written in what Jarrell would later call his “army style.” The poem consists of five short, concise lines which discuss a soldier’s entrance into the military as a ball turret gunner and his subsequent seemingly inconsequential death. The poem ultimately presents “a convincing psychological sketch of the young and tiny airman who experiences an epiphany in his dying seconds” (Oostdijk 110).

It begins with the transition from a “mother’s sleep” into “the State,” which connotes a youthful image of a young, small soldier (1). Jarrell’s capitalization of state is reminiscent of Karl Marx, who believed “the State” was devoid of individualism and is in keeping with Jarrell’s examination of the loss of identity. A sense of danger is presented forcing the speaker to “hunch” in the “belly” of the turret, which is high above the earth and away from “its dream of life” (2-3). The soldier is confronted with imminent danger as he wakes to “black flak” and the “nightmare fighters” (4).

The words contained in the final line of the poem are some of the most haunting and memorable of any World War II poem. The speaker now speaks postmortem commenting on the unceremonious events after his death stating, “When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose” (5). Jarrell uses simple imagery that delivers the stark reality of death in a time of war. In original versions, Jarrell titled the poem as “The Life and Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” but the final and published version focuses more so on the death. Critic John Whittier-Ferguson claims the poem “achieves much of its grotesque power from its monstrous revision of a scene of birth, a return to origins that finds, rather than a baby in its mother’s belly, pieces of a corpse in shattered glass” (113). Readers are left with this haunting imagery that dramatizes the stark reality of “the soldier’s youthful naiveté, his doom, and the wisdom he gathers, paradoxically only at the moment when he dies” (Oostdijk 235). This soldier leaves his childhood, enters the service, and experiences death with no heroic send off or 21-gun salute, but with a hose that washes his remains out of the belly of the ball turret, experiencing both a loss of identity and loss of life.

The theme of death would continuously be featured within Jarrell’s poetry in later years. Much of his later poetry features an aspect of death, but it is the loss of life in service that is most vivid and haunting, and would continue to find itself into his poetry even after the success of “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.”

In 1955, Jarrell published Selected Poems which included poems from former collections in addition to some newly developed and never before published poems such as “A War.” Although the poem was written years after he completed service, the loss of identity and loss of life are clearly present, along with the continuance of his “army style” of poetry writing. In an undated holograph version, housed in the Stuart Wright Collection, Jarrell titled the poem “Another War,” but shortened it at the time of publication. In keeping with the style and focus first developed during his time at war, the poem goes from just “Another War” to “A War,” another instance of Jarrell condensing and focusing in on the specifics.

The poem begins as a sort of journey setting out “for a Different World” (1) This may be a nod back to Jarrell’s capitalization of “the State.” The next line consists of conditions, “four, on winter mornings” on “different legs” (2). Next, the author includes an italicized reimagining of the old saying, “You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs” (3). In the poem, Jarrell rearranges the words to reverse the sentiment. Critic J.A. Bryant Jr. claims that this suggests a reflection on the loss of life stating the speaker believes “you can’t have disrupted all these lives without accomplishing something” (65). The final line brings back the stark lucidity that Jarrell adopted in his other war poetry, stating this sentiment is “what they tell the eggs.” In this context “they” would be “the State” and, similarly to “the things” in “The Lines,” the “eggs” are soldiers.

Using his short and concise “army style” of writing, Jarrell leaves the reader to determine whether all of the broken eggs, or the shell of those left behind, were worth the metaphorical omelette. Perhaps the poem asks the reader to consider if an omelette, or greater good, really exists at all, or if it something that has been invented by the “they” in the poem or “the State.”

The human condition, specifically issues regarding the loss of identity or loss of life, is found in so much of Randall Jarrell’s poetry during and subsequent to his service during World War II. As stated before, he was already an accomplished and skilled writer, but the war changed him and his writing, ultimately for the better. He was able to look into the specifics of the human story, the human emotion that he found intriguing and important to explore. His time in the service allowed him to create a new style that would be short, concise, and appealing to a wider audience while also exploring important topics that would inform readers of some of the more generalized or overlooked tragedies of war. Long before his estimated year of 2020, Jarrell’s war poetry is read and revered by many as his short, vivid lines provide glimpses into the lives of ordinary soldiers, reporting on the harrowing realities of the loss of identity and loss of life during the war.

Works Cited

Bryant, J.A. Jr. Understanding Randall Jarrell. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 1986. Print.

Jarrell, Randall. Little Friend, Little Friend. New York: Dial, 1945. Print.

—. Losses. New York: Harcourt, 1948. Print.

—, Mary Jarrell, Stuart T. Wright, and Stephen Burt. Randall Jarrell’s Letters: An Autobiographical and Literary Selection. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2002. Print.

Oostdijk, Diederik. Among the Nightmare Fighters: American Poets of World War II. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 2011. Print.

Randall Jarrell.” The Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2013.

Whittier-Ferguson, John. “Always a War Poet: Randall Jarrell and the Returns of Twentieth-Century War.” War, Literature, & the Arts. 21.1/2 (2009): 109-123. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.