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Last Updated on August 6, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 301

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Burning a Book is a short poem by William Stafford, composed in fewer than 20 lines, that outlines the poet's actions in burning books—an act of censoring unsafe material. His poem is a critical look at every man and woman's role in censoring information.

He first makes the claim that he has burned books and that he has burned the truth because it burns more easily than lies with just as strong a flame. This statement carries the theme of the overall poem: that everyone is guilty of lying to others and of destroying the truth—both of their own actions and of major truths in society—to make their own lives easier. He reasons that it is easier to live in a world of comfortable lies than a world of inconvenient truths, and so humans are guilty of creating a world full of easy lies and burning truths.

Later in the poem, he speaks of a different kind of censorship: the words never written, or the idea of missed opportunities. The stilted nature of the poem, breaking up sentences between multiple lines, gives a disappointed, disheartened mood, as if heaving through sighs or tears. The poet is lamenting his lost opportunities and chances—ones that he chose never to take, which is a worse crime than destroying the truth, because it is preventing it from ever coming about. His poem reflects this both in word choice—he selects deeply sad and painful phrases about the frailty of truth and the desolate libraries void of works never written—and in design.

He finishes the poem by both taking personal responsibility and laying it on all of humanity. He says that he has burned books and that he has left many unwritten, implying that all humans have done the same as well.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442

“Burning a Book” is in free verse, its nineteen lines divided into three verse paragraphs, units of thought of eight, nine, and two lines, respectively. Book burning is often seen as a symbol of censorship and ignorance, but this poem looks at book burning from a unique viewpoint. It is unwise to assume automatically that the poet and the speaker of a poem are speaking with the same voice, but very often such is the case. “Burning a Book” so closely identifies with William Stafford’s own views on writing that one can conclude there is no distinction between the two.

The poem begins with a detailed, even graphic description of the burning of a book; it recognizes the destructive nature of book burning and apparently supports the conventional symbolism associated with it. Yet there is a hint of the direction the poem will take when the reader is told that lies are burning as well as truth. Apparently, book burning may not be all bad. The last sentence of the first paragraph sets a conversational tone and includes the reader in the process: “You can usually find a few charred words in the ashes.” Within the first few words of the second verse paragraph, the poet’s viewpoint is stated directly: “some books ought to burn.” Stafford’s poems often state opposing attitudes. It is almost as if he wants to speak both for and against.

The latter part of the second verse paragraph speaks metaphorically of the perceived danger: Worse than the act of burning books (or, by symbolic association, rejecting written ideas) deemed failures is the fact that some books that should have been written were never written at all; some subjects—good or bad, weighty or insignificant—were never explored. There are “whole libraries” of undiscovered subjects, worthy and unworthy, in towns, cities, and countrysides. The ironic crux of the poem’s message is in the last sentence of the paragraph: “ignorance can dance in the absence of fire.” The implied viewpoint is that fire is needed for knowledge, even the fire of burning books; for even a burned book has had something to say, whether truthful, controversial, proved wrong or dangerous, or simply poorly stated. How could its worth be determined if it had never been written?

The final paragraph, which opens with a challenging, defiant tone, unites the reader and the speaker. The poet has burned books and perhaps, as has the reader, has found “a few charred words in the ashes.” More important to him are the books he has not written, that “nobody has,” whole libraries of potential fuel for knowledge, testing, even controversy.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423

An openness to the possibilities in language characterizes Stafford’s poetic method. He is eager to explore unique modes of perception in language in order to express meanings in objects and ideas. Figures of speech allow the poet to say things in new ways. Stafford uses figures of speech—personification and metaphor—to great effect in “Burning a Book.”

Nearly every object and idea in the poem seems alive. The pages protect each other, truth and lies both burn, the flame’s attitude is one of indifference, some books are “trying for character but just faking it,” and ignorance dances. Personifying these things, attributing human characteristics to the nonhuman, causes the poem to bristle with energy. The effect supports the concept in the poem that what the words say in a book is not as important as the creative energy, the impulse, that takes the writer through the process. If the process leads to a failure, so be it, implies the poet, but one never knows unless the process is brought to life and new ideas and methods are explored. Only ignorance has energy in the absence of creative exploration, and it dances gleefully.

Pages that contain both truth and lies try to protect themselves from the fire. They appear victimized, and the reader is pulled, by the personification, into empathy for the writings being destroyed. One can easily visualize a repressive society burning books that threaten conventional and acceptable standards.

Some of these personified books, however, are fakes whose ideas have no validity. Put simply, books are, like people, all different. Like people, all deserve at least the chance to have their say. As well as infusing energy into the poem, then, the personification also highlights the poem’s pragmatic outlook, which explores the abstract, conventional symbolism of book burning in terms with which the reader can identify—and even participate in—by realistically examining it from all sides.

The extended library metaphor in the second paragraph of the poem indicates the vastness of the material that could be written about. Books represent ideas, and libraries are the places where those ideas are found—in towns and cities and countrysides, anywhere there is life. If writers do not explore these places, even the evils—“wild dogs” who terrorize the countryside and who “own anything that moves”—will not be identified. The comparatively small fire a few books make (shown by the description of the burning of one book) cannot compare to the enormous waste and potential danger of not writing at all.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 92

Andrews, Tom, ed. On William Stafford: The Worth of Local Things. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

Holden, Jonathan. The Mark to Turn. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1976.

Kitchen, Judith. Writing the World: Understanding William Stafford. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1999.

Pinsker, Sanford. “William Stafford: ’The Real Things We Live By.’” In Three Pacific Northwest Poets. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Stafford, Kim. Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 2002.

Stitt, Peter. “William Stafford’s Wilderness Quest.” In The World: Hieroglyphic Beauty: Five American Poets. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985.