A Ritual to Read to Each Other by William Stafford

‘A Ritual To Read to Each Other’ by William Stafford is a five stanza poem which is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. The poem does not conform to a perfect pattern of rhyme, instead there are half and full rhymes which appear in the second and fourth lines of each stanza. A good example is within the first stanza with the words “are” and “star.” Additionally, one should take note of the half or slant rhyme, that exist between “talk” and “dark.” 

The poem does not follow a specific pattern of meter, although Stafford has chosen to keep the lines around the same length. The majority of the verses contain somewhere between eleven and thirteen syllables. They also appear structurally similar on the page. 

‘A Ritual to Read to Each Other’ was written as both a warning and reminder for those in relationships of the dangers inherent in the withholding of emotions. It is easy to imagine, especially with the benefit of the title, how these verses could be read ritually, or on a regular basis. You can read the full poem here. 


Summary of A Ritual To Read to Each Other

‘A Ritual To Read to Each Other’ by William Stafford speaks about achieving a world in which relationships are always healthy, balanced, and beneficial. 

The poem begins with the speaker imagining a scenario in which he does not know his listener and they do not know him. If this was the case between them, or between any other couple in a relationship, there is a chance they will “miss [their] star.” One’s shot at creating a fulfilling life can easily slip away if the “wrong god” is followed. 

He goes on to describe how relationships fall apart through the explosion of childhood experiences and the indifferent “shrug.” These things can be avoided if one is only willing to make their own path. The poem concludes with the speaker asking that everyone listening to the text of the poem make their “signals” clear to one another. Human beings should help each other through the “deep” darkness of life. 


Analysis of A Ritual to Read to Each Other

Stanza One

In the first stanza of this piece the speaker offers up the beginning of a scenario. This possible situation serves as the basis for the rest of the text. It is a possibility that deeply troubles the speaker and about which he has spent a great deal of time thinking. 

He describes a world in which the listener does not know the “kind of person” he is. Then, in turn, he does not know the “kind of person” the listener is either. These first lines appear to refer only to one specific relationship, this is not the case though. As the poem progresses it becomes clear that the speaker is laying out a “ritual” which should appeal to everyone. 

If he and the listener do not know each other, then the “pattern” of “others…may prevail in the world.” This strange phrase breaks down to mean something fairly straightforward. He does not want his relationship to be defined by what others say. They must not get distracted by the “wrong god” or wrong impulse. Following this impulse might lead to disaster in their relationship. The two might “miss [their] star,” or their chance to make a successful relationship. 


Stanza Two 

In the second quatrain the speaker goes on to describe through an extended metaphor what a mistake would look like. It starts with “many a small betrayal in the mind.” These undefined, negative moments are made worse by “a shrug.” The first two lines show a combination of different types of disregard. Stafford’s speaker sees these as being that which can trigger “shouts.” 

One’s past, such as the “errors of childhood” can be easily brought to the surface. Even if one does not mean to start a conflict, the emotions are easily able to

storm…out to play through the broken dyke.

The speaker is comparing the human mind to a dam. It is able to hold onto many different traumas, at least until a certain point. 


Stanza Three 

In the third stanza Stafford continues to utilize metaphor in an effort to get his speaker’s point across. He describes a moment in which, 

Elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail.

This is the kind of mindless “following” the speaker dislikes. It relates directly to the lines in stanza one that speak of looking to the wrong god. He states that if one follows mindlessly, and then “one wanders,” then the “circus won’t find the park.” No one will be able to get where they wanted to go if they are unable to choose their own path. The lead elephant steered the entire parade wrong. 

In the second set of lines the speaker describes the same type of mindset. This time though focusing on the mental and moral aspects. He speaks of seeing something, but being unable to know what it is. This is a fault of society which has imbued people with an inability to see beyond what is right in front of them. 


Stanza Four

The fourth stanza marks a change in the narration. Rather than speaking vaguely to an undefined audience, the speaker narrows his focus in an attempt to come to a conclusion. He states that he is talking directly “to a voice, to something shadowy.” This voice resides within one’s body in a region both “remote” and “important.” 

He acknowledges the fact that it is easy to “fool each other.” Many are tempted, and give into doing so everyday. The speaker asks that we “consider” one another instead. If this does not occur, then “our mutual life” could wander off and get lost. Each person has an influence on those they come into contact with and “we” should all do the best “we” can to make that influence a good one. 


Stanza Five

In the final four lines of ‘A Ritual To Read to Each Other’ the speaker describes what the benefits will be to acting in a more positive manner. He states that it will allow one to recognize the importance of people being “awake.” As stated before, they should not be following along blindly.

 If one is not awake and truly able to see what is going on in the world, then a, 

[…] breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;

It is easy to be drawn back into a known way of living. Being a part of the crowd is easier than looking for one’s own path. “We” are able to ease one another’s journeys through life by making our “signals” clear. The words spoken to one another should penetrate through the darkness. It is so “deep” that “we” need all the help we can get. 

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  • Avatar Dean says:

    Good job, Emma. This has been a favorite poem of mine for more than a decade. While it’s risky analyzing poetry as if it means any one thing, any one thing, you’ve brought some simple clarities in your analysis, which are just right for me today. Thank you.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      That is lovely feedback, Dean. I’m sure Emma will be delighted with your kind words.

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