Source from Kirszner & Mandell. Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. 8th Edition. Pages 1128-29 “Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed. Notes from professor as follows: This week you will write an explication essay on Henry Reed’s poem “Naming of Parts.” Explication essays essentially attempt to explain what a work, in this case a poem, is about. The essay should examine the poem’s surface meaning plus any deeper meanings that may be present. “Naming of Parts” is not the most complex poem that we have read, but it is far from the simplest as well. You will have to put everything you have learned this semester to use while crafting this essay. To help you get a feel for what I’m looking for, I am including in this week’s notes a short explication essay written by Patrick F. Basset about the poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” Basset makes some mistakes in his essay like using the pronoun “we” instead of “the reader,” and I personally don’t agree with all of his interpretations, but I don’t have to, and neither do you.
When you write your essay on “Naming of Parts” you should attempt to give an in-depth explanation of the poem.You should not look for help from outside sources while attempting to interpret the poem. Instead you should give me your interpretation of the poem just as Basset gives his. It doesn’t matter if we don’t interpret the poem the same way. What matters is that you give your explication in a well written essay.
What follows is Basset’s essay on “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”:
Jarrell’s ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’
Patrick F. Bassett
Explicator 36.3 (1978): p20-21.
Poetry Criticism. Ed. David M. Galens. Vol. 41. Detroit: Gale, 2003. From Literature Resource Center.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning
[(essay date 1978) In the following essay, Bassett analyzes the imagery of “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” underlining a thematic link between “sleep, animality, and
death” in the poem.]
Randall Jarrell’s poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” synthesizes three apparently dissimilar images to convey an anti-war message. Jarrell links the imagery of sleep, animality, and birth as he awakens the reader to the nightmares of a man/child at war.
The poem, an evocation of the horrors of airwar battle, opens ironically with an image of sleep. The poet fashions his sleep image to work in two ways: First, sleep is a state of benumbed consciousness; secondly, sleep is the agent of a nightmare consciousness. Jarrell suggests that only a mother who is “asleep,” caught unawares and undefensive, could allow the State to take her child to war. Similarly, only a sleepy, fatigue-wearied turret gunner could battle enemy fighter planes and yet not awaken until hearing the ack ack sound of the antiaircraft guns’ “black flak.” The irony of the sleep imagery emerges when the reader realizes that life for the soldier is but ephemeral fantasy, a “dream,” whereas reality surfaces in the form of “nightmare fighters.” Hence, the usual connotations of sleep, its release and rejuvenation, are thematically perverted to connote both defenselessness (of mother and soldier) and nightmare horror.
One of the nightmares of war is its tendency to make animals of men. By the inclusion of a single detail, the poet evokes via animal imagery the theme of dehumanization. Perspiring heavily, the soldier finds that his Air Force issued leather and fur jacket cannot keep him warm; his “wet fur froze.” Yet the image of fur associated with man is intentionally anomolous because we are expected to understand that only animals suffer the tortures of unsheltered cold: That is to say, only animals and men at war.
The third figurative pattern of the poem suggests an image of birth.
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
We see a soldier, fetally positioned, in the sac-like turret under the aircraft’s “belly.” Yet the pronoun its of “its belly” refers to the aircraft only because of image-correspondence: the antecedent to the pronoun its is either the State or the mother. Are children born for the State? Are the State’s offspring its aircraft? The birth imagery of the poem symbolically suggest the answers to these questions; the soldier is “wet,” floating in amniotic fluid; he is visually attached to his “mother,” the plane, via umbilical cord-like machine guns and “hose” (line 5). He is even washed as a newborn would be cleansed upon emergence from the womb. The traumatic shock of birth, of separation from the womb, is overwhelming. For the speaker’s birth is a miscarriage; he “falls” from his mother, hurtled unprepared for his new and harsh environment, the state of war.
Jarrell’s poem is perhaps unequalled in the compacted power of its suggestive imagery. In five short lines the poet asks us to consider sleep that is not sleep but semi-conscious numbness and nightmare; he asks us to contemplate men who are not men but animals subjected to the outrageous conditions of fear and harm; he asks us to understand birth that is not life but birth that is death.
Bassett, Patrick F. “Jarrell’s ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’.” Explicator 36.3 (1978): 20-21. Rpt. in Poetry Criticism. Ed. David M. Galens. Vol. 41. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Literature Resources from Gale. Web. 6 July 2011.