Summary

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428

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In his poem "Burning a Book," Stafford challenges the idea that every book ever published is sacred and worth preserving. The poem, to provide a context, is based on his own experience of burning a book he found both alluring and "misleading."

The first stanza opens with a description of a book actually burning. Stafford uses imagery that helps us visualize the book burning. We can see the pages in the center glowing for "a long time": the cover burns first and easily, and the first few pages "[curl] away." At the same time, the description is minimal—as readers we might be tempted to supply the mental images of the pages turning black and the charred smell of burning paper and glue.

In the second quatrain of the first stanza, Stafford turns from the concrete to the abstract. Truth and lies burn equally well, he says, and fire doesn't discriminate between the two. He uses visual metaphors, comparing "truth," an abstract concept, to something "brittle and faint," likening both it and lies to fire. "Flame" is personified as something that doesn't "care." The stanza ends with the idea that fire doesn't obliterate absolutely everything, noting prosaically that you can "usually find a few charred words in the ashes."

In the second stanza, the speaker turns to opinion. He notes that some books should burn because they are ultimately fake: fundamentally telling a lie. He goes on to ruminate that worse than burned books are the books that nobody ever wrote. Again using metaphors, he compares these to unpopulated towns—cities barren of thought—and a countryside where "wild dogs" roam free to frighten people. Ignorance is concretized in these images of all the books nobody bothered to write. Sheer absence represents all the ideas nobody needs to suppress because they have remained unthought or unexpressed.

In the third and final stanza, the poet says, laconically and casually, that he has burned books. He ends by admitting there are many he has never written and adds that nobody else has written them either.

The poem is written in seemingly casual language, as if the poet is laying out some thoughts. Nevertheless, it is tightly structured, using imagery and metaphor to paint visual images and alliteration to provide a sense of rhythm. One must be careful in summarizing the poem because it leaves so much unsaid. The poem itself invites the reader to supply his or her own thoughts as if they are part of the poem—and therein may lie its genius, for it provokes us to think.

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