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.)