January Poem of the Month: A Ritual to Read to Each Other

JV Icon Poem of the Month

US Poet Laureate William Stafford was known for his commitment to community and his passion for peaceful conflict resolution. This gem has been one of my mentor poems for nearly 20 years. After the Columbine shootings in my community, I realized that Stafford embedded a directive in the title: This poem is a ritual, and we should read it to each other. Please read it out loud to yourself and others, and imagine my voice reading it to you.

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

–William Stafford


Journal Prompts

  • What “kind of person” are you?
  • How do you get to know a person authentically? What are the circumstances or environments that support you in authentic relationship? What hampers authentic relationship?
  • Write about any line or image or symbol in this poem that grabs you. What does it say to you?
  • What does it mean to be awake? What are you awake to?
  • With regard to your awake-ness, what are the signals–“yes or no, or maybe”– that you give?
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