What is the message of the poem "Burning a Book"  by William Stafford?

Expert Answers
droxonian eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The idea of book-burning is one usually associated with censorship and acts contravening freedom of speech, a practice most closely associated with the Nazis, who burned anything they felt was ideologically impure. This poem is interesting in that its viewpoint is quite different from what the title might suggest. Some books, the speaker states directly, "deserve to burn." What is up for discussion is how far we ought to feel sympathy for the speaker's provocative viewpoint.

In the first stanza, the speaker describes the image of a book being burned and mentions that truth can be "brittle" and easily destroyed—preserved for a time while the fire rages but ultimately consumed. This is a troubling image and runs contrary to the more frequently cited statement that one cannot destroy an idea.

The second stanza, however, sheds some light on the speaker's meaning. His concern here is that many books have been written that do not deserve to be written—again, an issue worthy of debate. But what the speaker highlights is that so much has gone unwritten, and this has allowed ignorance to grow unchecked—when a book is burned, it draws attention to the truth it contained, whether or not that truth is ultimately defeated.

This is a difficult and thought-provoking poem about censorship, truth, and the worthiness of ideas.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The message of this poem is the damage that ignorance inflicts on the world. While the poet begins with the image of burning books, in the second stanza he writes, "More disturbing than book ashes are whole libraries that no one got around to writing." The destruction of knowledge is dangerous, but the poet states that some books deserve to be burned because they are impostors. However, even more destructive than burning books is the situation in which books that ought to have been written simply never were. The poet compares this situation to towns that exist in desolation in a state of what he calls "unthought." He states that ignorance can exist without burning if no one even bothers to write a book in the first place. In this sense, ignorance is deceptive; burning books seems like the ultimate way to destroy knowledge until one thinks about all the things that have not been written, resulting in widespread ignorance. 

lit24 | Student

According to William Stafford,in his poem "Burning a Book"  the creative process of writing a book  can sometimes  be unsatisfactory. Quite often when a writer begins writing he tends to get carried away by his imaginative  inspiration and  the result may not be just as he had planned or expected.  The result is a poor piece of work which fails to please aesthetically.According to William Stafford it is better that such books are destroyed forever by burning.

The beginning of the poem describes minutely the process of burning one such book. The "truth" value, that is its aesthetic worth is merely "brittle and faint" and it rightly merits the treatment that it gets-it is only fit to be burnt. All that remains after it is burnt are only "a few charred words in the ashes" which have little or no value at all.

In the second stanza William Stafford says that most certainly those books which outwardly appear to be of great value-"character"- but have actually been faked deliberately by their authors deserve to be burnt. More dangerous than an author deliberately faking and trying to fool the reading public is the existence of many false and corrupt ideas which never get to be written out in books. Because if they are written out, at least then these false and corrupt ideas can be permanently destroyed by being burnt. Otherwise,"ignorance can dance in the absence of fire."

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question