Texas Studies in Literature and Language 46.1 (2004) 92-106
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Randall Jarrell's Answerable Style:
Revision of Elegy in "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"
Marc D. Cyr
This paper is concerned with the position of Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" in the elegiac tradition, but to define that position I must begin with another genre and another poet: the heroic epic and John Milton. In the preamble to Book IX of Paradise Lost, Milton anatomizes and scornfully rejects both the style of traditional epic—"The skill of Artifice or Office mean" (39)—and the heroic ethic of personal courageous acts, proposing instead "the better fortitude / Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom / Unsung" (31-33). This proposal of a "higher Argument" (42) and prayer for an "answerable style" (20) come after he has demonstrated the inadequacies of epic style and heroic ethic in his account of the war in heaven in Books V and VI, an account many readers find ridiculously funny, with, for example, angels wearing armor and throwing mountains at each other (not to mention Satan inventing the cannon). Arnold Stein calls this episode a "mock heroic" (17-20), but William Riggs points out that that mode derides everything to which it is applied, and therefore would tar the loyal angels with the same brush used on the rebels, something Milton wishes to avoid. So Riggs proposes a modification, seeing Milton as writing not mock heroic, but "mocked heroic in which poetic manner is intentionally depreciated by its inability to answer adequately to the demands of a heavenly subject" (120). 1
In "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," Jarrell is engaged in a similar project of revising, indeed rejecting the style and ethic of a traditional genre, elegy, to make his poetry more adequately address and render the conditions of twentieth-century life in general, and twentieth-century war in particular. In writing what amounts to an anti-elegy (see below), however, he manages to avoid mocking his elegiac subject, and with this avoidance writes mocked elegiac.
Elegies traditionally have offered to their readers some form of consolation for a particular death and often, by extension, for death itself. If, as Peter M. Sacks puts it, ". . . mourning is an action, a process of work" [End Page 92] (19), traditional elegies are a part of that process, allowing mourners to find solace in the transcendence or transfiguration and persistence of the elegiac subject. Indeed, the long history of the elegiac tradition is part of that solace; centered on "The vegetation god [who is] the predecessor of almost every elegized subject and provides a fundamental trope by which mortals create their images of immortality" (26-27), ". . . the elegy takes comfort from its self-insertion into a longstanding convention of grief. And . . . an individual elegy may borrow the ritual context of consolation. . . . The unique death is absorbed into a natural cycle of repeated occasions" (23-24, Sacks' emphasis).
But Jahan Ramazani argues that the modern era produces a revolution in elegy. He sees most good modern elegies as being "not a guide to 'successful' mourning" (ix), but "melancholic," "mourning that is unresolved, violent, and ambivalent" (4). They are "anti-consolatory and anti-encomiastic, anti-Romantic and anti-Victorian, anti-conventional and sometimes even anti-literary" (2)—that is, they are anti-elegies and the poets who write them "attack the dead and themselves, their own work and tradition; and they refuse such orthodox consolations as the rebirth of the dead in Nature, in God, or in poetry itself" (4). However, this anti-elegiac movement "does not disprove the existence of the conventions or the genre; 'the transgression requires a law,' as Todorov writes, and the norm becomes visible in being transgressed" (25). Further citing Derrida and others, he argues that in perceiving something as violating a form, we simultaneously perceive the form that is being violated: The new form is embedded in various ways, sometimes by noteworthy absence of...