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A Ritual to Read to Each Other by William Stafford

Posted on Aug 30, 2014 by


I came across this poem thanks to Daniel Sperry, a cellist who has been working on a CD of William Stafford poetry combined with cello music. In his Kickstarter campaign, which I stumbled across (and which is now fully funded) he includes a few lines from William Stafford’s poem, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” which I don’t believe I’ve ever heard before. It inspired me to go find the whole poem.

The poem begins:

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.

I like the way this poem calls us to responsibility. We may not know much, but the little we do know we have some responsibility to share, if even in conversation—to share something of ourselves, at least now and then—to say something true, perhaps, rather than what is expected, or might be approved of. Or to simply make the effort to show kindness. Even when it’s a risk. Even when we can’t know how it will be received.

The poem continues:

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.

Here he seems to be talking about the listening piece of conversation. How we receive what is offered to us—what is shared with us in conversation. a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break. How important it might be not to shrug or look away in response. How fragile the sequence can sometimes be. The pain that can be let loose on the other side when we turn away—those horrible errors of childhood storming out to play through the broken dyke. And we are the ones, at least some of the time, who can keep that dyke from breaking? Simply by paying attention? And looking for opportunities to keep the sequence from breaking?

Two more stanzas and then the poem closes:

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.

Ah, such urgency. I appreciate that.

And I’m wondering now why he gives this poem the title he does. So that we might realize this is something we may need to read and understand not once, but over and over, like a ritual, or a practice? Maybe?

The full poem can be found at, a site set up by the Friends of William Stafford.

Daniel Sperry’s Kickstarter can be found here.

The photo was found at

See also: A piece on Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye