William Stafford, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”

With thanks to T.D. For the dedicated.

A Ritual to Read to Each Other (from williamstafford.org)
William Stafford

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 dyke.

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, no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.


We – you and I – don’t know each other. While this looms ominously over our gestures and conversation at the cafe, I don’t know that it makes us accidental conformists (“a pattern that others made may prevail in the world”). We need to know each other to find our uniqueness? That’s a pick-up line I haven’t tried yet.

Stafford’s second stanza cryptically explains the reasoning behind his cryptic claim. There “is many a small betrayal in the mind.” It first makes itself manifest in a shrug rather than weeping or gnashing of teeth. That failure to will brings back the worst sort of nostalgia; indifference leads to paralysis. Stafford, to be sure, is in command of powerful, interesting imagery. The shrug lets a “fragile sequence break,” where the “shouts [of] the horrible errors of childhood” storm “out to play through the broken dyke.” One might think this stanza overblown, but I thought it was just right. Our childhood fears do not typically reside in psychosis, marking us off from everyone else. Instead, they’re manifest in our everyday lives. We’ve shaped ourselves entirely based on what we fear.

Stafford lets this image play out. Individuals form society, conforming through their fears just as elephants parade. For a while, our fears link us, allowing us to be led. But who is leading the way? Becoming lost is inevitable. The really funny thing is how some self-knowledge is in play throughout this awful process. We do know ourselves to a degree. We can recognize how we’ve shaped our experience. Yet this only serves to underline how little control we actually have: “I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty / to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.”

There has to be a solution to the problem posed. Maybe Stafford isn’t entirely in control of everything in the poem, but this does feel like an accurate summation of modern society, of our being individuals in a world continually united by fear of others.

He appeals to a a “voice, to something shadowy, / a remote important region in all who talk.” Not words simply, but something shadowy in a remote place. Not the clarity of reason, but the darkness of reason. The sense that there is something more when we speak, the sometimes artificial weighting of another’s words. This does not constitute an unambiguous good: “we could fool each other” might be better rendered something like “we may fool ourselves overthinking the other.” Still, since we are elephants on parade, we must consider. We may have to lead even though we have no idea how to lead.

In the last stanza, the sense beyond the literal sense has another imperative and complication. We must keep ourselves awake, we whose task is wakefulness itself. Fine, but this means, weirdly enough, that there is less to be wondered at. We have to try for clear signals, not forcing those we address to wander. But what we fashion clear signals from is peculiar. Stafford tells us clear signals are “yes, no, or maybe,” making one wonder if there was any wisdom at all in this poem.

He ends saying “the darkness around us is deep,” and we know now just how far that extends. To try to see clearly into the other is to work with more darkness. The only thing we can really signal, in the end, is how difficult it is to appreciate another for who they are. That alone breaks the conformity, creates the possibility of a star.