Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538
In his poem "Burning a Book," Stafford challenges the idea that every book ever published is sacred and worth preserving. The idea of “book burning” connotes a sense of erasure and destruction and connects to some of the darkest parts of human history. As such, Stafford’s nonchalant dismissal of the process and argument readers should not treat every book as if it is sacrosanct or a work of irreplaceable art are shocking claims that readers might struggle to accept.
The first stanza begins with a description of the physical process of a book burning, an unsavory image that the speaker fleshes out with great care. Indeed, it is an unsettling and imagery-laden scene in which the speaker carelessly undresses the book, describing the process of flames paring away its contents, page by page. The cover burns first and easily; the first few pages “[curl] away,” almost as if retreating inward from pain. “Protecting each other,” the speaker writes, personifying the process of immolation and making the burning book appear human in its suffering. For “a long time,” the pages “glow,” and the sparse-but-poignant imagery conjures scenes of blackened cracks in leather spines and the charred scent of burnt paper and glue.
Where the first quatrain of the stanza focuses on the physical effects of burning, the second quatrain turns from the concrete to address the abstract. Truth and lies burn equally well, says the speaker, and fire doesn't discriminate between the two. The speaker 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, noting that some books should burn because they are ultimately fake: fundamentally, their contents do little more than promote lies. While the speaker degrades these false literary works, the focus quickly shifts to a rumination on something worse than burned books, turning to those books nobody ever wrote. Again using metaphors, the speaker 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, a brief and pessimistic couplet, the speaker laconically admits that he has burned books. He ends by naming himself complicit, for there are many such books he has never written and never will.
The poem is written in seemingly casual language as if the speaker is merely pondering an unimportant concept. 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 invites the reader to supply their thoughts as if they are part of the poem—and therein may lie its genius, for it provokes readers to think differently about a difficult topic.