“Aside” Summary

Aside” is a poem by American poet Karl Shapiro about soldiers receiving correspondence while at war.

  • On mail-day, the soldiers are able to forget the war while they read their letters, which briefly return them to the world they knew before they were deployed.
  • The soldiers’ experience of reading the letters is compared to watching or being in a movie, rather than in the unreal-feeling newsreel footage the soldiers appear in.
  • The speaker advises the reader not to look for the soldiers on a map, but simply to pray for them and to avoid dwelling on the future.

Summary

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

The speaker opens the first of six stanzas by saying that it is mail-day. The mail to which he refers, however, is not ordinary civilian mail, but the letters and parcels sent to soldiers, which are “dumped on the docks and beaches” in drag-nets to be picked up and distributed. When their mail arrives, the private concerns of the soldiers are paramount once again for an hour, as they stop thinking about war and become totally absorbed in the news from home, which surrounds their consciousness closely, like iron filings clustering around a magnet.

When the soldiers read their letters, it is as though they have suddenly been demobilized, released from their duty, if only for a moment. In their minds, the world returns to the time before they were soldiers, though things are not exactly as they used to be then. Instead, the time when they read their letters seems altogether detached from both the present and the past, a thing “of its own creation.” The experience is like watching a movie, or being in one, a contrast to the newsreel footage of military action in which they participate while on active duty and which principally contains reports of death. The speaker contrasts the purposeful atmosphere of the movie with the sense of unreality produced by the newsreel.

Like patients in the hospital who are well on the road to recovery, the soldiers receive gifts such as candy, pictures, and books in the mail. However, more significant than these is the proof contained in the letters that life goes on elsewhere as it always has and that the abnormal life of the soldiers in combat will end one day. The poet compares this ending to a performance which will end when the lights come up, the actors bow, and the audience leaves the theater. There is a life of fact and certainty that takes place away from the theater, and the letters demonstrate this by giving details of the other life.

The speaker describes various moments in which people often experience intense emotion: joy in conflict, tears caused by advertisements, the sense of involvement in watching movies, the repetition of psalms in church on Sundays. However, the speaker himself is detached from the emotion of these experiences, remarking noncommittally that they “may move us or not” and that they may or may not recall earlier experiences, such as a kiss or the feeling produced by Sundays in the past. New recruits arrive, “like our letters,” with fresh memories of what it was like to experience both kisses and tears so intensely. However, the veteran soldiers have forgotten the effect of such emotions since they have been irrevocably changed by their experience of active duty.

In the penultimate stanza, the speaker directly addresses the reader, imagined as a parent or elderly relative of one of the combatants, advising them not to try to follow the progress of the soldiers too closely, but simply to pray for them. Do not try to trace their whereabouts on a map, he says, since the soldier you are trying to find is already there, close to you “in the map of the chart of your elderly hand.” He further advises the reader not to think too much about the future or wish that it would come more quickly. Some great spiritual growth may eventually come from the greatest pain, but this will take time.

There is no sense of past and future life for the soldiers, only themselves as they are in the present. They cannot plan for the future or think about tomorrow, as they exist only in the present moment, with their current surroundings. However, mail-day changes this, giving them a sense of the wider world each time it arrives. Where they are going and when they will get there are unimportant, but the matter of how they will arrive at their destination is vital and pressing. The speaker ends with the line:

How to love and to hate, how to die, how to write and to read.

He reflects on how lives differ in these matters as they are lived, regardless of how similarly such lives may end.

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