Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In nineteen lines divided across three stanzas, William Stafford discusses the meaning of censorship, the value of literature, and the tragic decline of authorship and writing in the modern day. His 1986 poem “Burning a Book” takes up the controversial subject of book burning as a metaphorical outlet to condemn disingenuous literature and call for more writers to pursue the craft.
Stafford composed the poem in free verse, meaning the poem does not follow a set rhyme or metrical structure. The first stanza contains eight lines and describes burning as a physical and philosophical concept. First, the poem focuses on the concrete aspect of a book burning and then discusses the abstract meaning behind the curling pages and smoking spines. In this first section, Stafford focuses heavily on imagery, using the words “protecting” and “curling” to imply a sense of almost-human suffering. Personifying the burning books grants them a sense of personhood and implies that they understand the suffering they experience.
From this strangely humanizing image, Stafford moves to the fire. He writes that it “does not care” whether a book is honest or if it lies. Neither does the fire care if a book has value or not. It simply burns. This first, imagery-heavy stanza prioritizes the scene of burning and, in doing so, reveals the poem’s overarching theme: everyone is guilty of lying and of destroying the truth, not just book burners. He reasons that because truth and lies burn just as hot, it is easier to live in a world of comfortable lies than a world of inconvenient truths, so humans are guilty of creating a world full of easy lies and burning truths, a fact that modern literature, with its false character, too often reflects.
These books, he claims, “ought to burn.” There is a falseness to them, a feeling of inadequacy and disingenuity. At their core, they are little more than attractively-packaged lies. As such, they do not deserve the sacrosanctity of real literature, because burning them is just as meaningless of an act as reading them. It is not censorship, the speaker argues, if nothing of value is lost. To be censored, a work must contain something novel or meaningful that cannot be found elsewhere; it must represent something so powerful or depict something so meaningful that its loss would be mourned. Stafford lingers only briefly on these less valuable works, only mentioning them in three sharply enjambed lines before moving to a different and more insidious type of censorship.
And so the poem reveals itself, its core exposed, as Stafford turns to address the words never written and the ideas and opportunities thus lost. 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 he chose never to take, which is a worse crime than destroying the truth. His poem reflects this 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.
The speaker finishes the poem by both taking personal responsibility and laying it on all of humanity. He says that he has burned books and left much more unwritten, implying that all of mankind has done so as well. Everyone is guilty of censorship, if only of their thoughts and valuable ideas.