Death of the Ball Turret Gunner: Lexical fields

I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze…

In honor of National Poetry Month…

In a book about war poetry, I once read a striking point: poetry about love tends to be pro-love, while poetry about war tends to be anti-war.  This observation is probably related to the American military’s low level of support for Trump (under 50% overall, as it has been for a long time; about 30% in the officer ranks): he seems to feel virile when orders a bombing or a missile strike, while the military people who have to carry it out are much more likely to just feel guilty. (The link goes to a list of articles on the subjects of guilt and shame in combat veterans from the National Library of Medicine’s PubMed/MEDLINE database of biomedical journal articles.)

Randall Jarrell, the author of today’s poem, was a professor at the University of Texas-Austin when the Second World War started.  He left the university in 1942 to join what was called at the time the Army Air Force.  His poem The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner is widely anthologized, and most Americans will have read it in college (université in French, where collège is the American middle school).  A ball turret is a small sphere of metal and glass containing a heavy machine gun, some ammunition, and the smallest guy possible.  (No parachute.)  The ball turrets to which Jarrell refers were mounted on the underside of an aircraft.  As Wikipedia puts it:

The gunner was forced to assume a fetal position within the turret with his back and head against the rear wall, his hips at the bottom, and his legs held in mid-air by two footrests on the front wall.

Other than a ball turret, the belly of a bomber is unprotected, and the tendency at the time was for fighter pilots to attack bombers either by diving down and firing from above–or by climbing and firing into the belly from below.

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.

English notes:

It wasn’t until I started writing this post that I noticed for the first time–bear in mind that I’ve certainly read the poem tens of times since college–how much the lexical field (le champ lexical) of sleep is woven through it.  To wit:

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.

lexical field is a set of words that are grouped by subject.  For example, in the poem, we have sleep, dream, to wake, nightmare.  This is an odd kind of grouping in linguistics, where we tend to group words by structural characteristics (e.g. sleep and dream can both be either nouns or verbs, and their nouns and verbs have the same form; phosphorylate and phosphorylation are a verb and a noun that are related by the addition of -tion to the former) or by semantic characteristics (e.g. to nap is a way of sleeping, pail is a synonym of bucket).  Subject, the grouping characteristic of a lexical field, is thus an odd sort of concept from a linguistic perspective–to the extent that a language is a structure, it is difficult to see how subject would be an element of that structure, rather than, say, an element of the world that we use a language to talk about, or an element of how we talk about that world.  In my profession–natural language processing–the concept corresponding to lexical fields is the lexical chain, which can serve as an indicator of the structure of a text and creates a context for disambiguating and otherwise interpreting the words of that text.  See this paper by Jane Morris and my colleague Graeme Hirst for more information on the topic:

How I used lexical field in the post: It wasn’t until I started writing this post that I noticed for the first time how much the lexical field of sleep is woven through it.

French notes

la tourelle: turret.  In a submarine, it is the conning tower.

la tourelle boule: ball turret.

 

 

 

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