The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 423 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.