Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Burning a Book” is a poem about taking risks—specifically, taking risks in writing. Stafford has always admired, and practiced in his own writing, the quixotic approach of plunging into the unknown. He maintains that no subject, as long as it involves the heart and intuition of the writer, is too small to write about. As Stafford himself says, “[L]ike Don Quixote you must expect some disasters. You must write your bad poems.” (Perhaps one must write some poems worthy of nothing better than “burning.”) Not to write intuitively, on impulse, is “to guarantee that you will not find the unknown, the risky.”

Following a creative impulse may lead to something worthwhile or it may lead to windmills in the sky, but one thing is certain in the poem: Neither truth nor lies will be found without the attempt. Stafford’s sense of irony admits that “Truth, brittle and faint, burns easily,/ its fire as hot as the fire lies make,” and his wisdom says that if neither is accessible, there is no way to distinguish between truth and lies.

Although book burning is conventionally associated with ignorance, in his usual attitude of openness to both sides of an issue, Stafford observes that, ironically, ignorance dances equally well in the absence of fire. He takes a wry look at the whole concept. Where there are books being burned, there is something with which to disagree; there is knowledge, however faulty. To be judged unworthy, a book...

(The entire section is 423 words.)