The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“A Litany for Survival” is a short poem in free verse containing three dense stanzas and a concluding three-line stanza. The title refers to a type of communal prayer involving alternating speakers, usually a leader and a congregation of petitioners. The form of the poem enacts the title’s scene: The lead speaker begins the prayer, directly addressing the other petitioners yet speaking as if also one of the petitioners. The first two stanzas could be delivered by the leader’s solitary voice, as both stanzas give prolonged descriptions of the petitioners’ needs and circumstances. The petitioners’ multiple voices then deliver the third stanza, which proceeds in parallel phrases with succinct repetition similar to the rhythmic verses that a congregation would chant in unison. The leader’s and the petitioners’ voices blend together in the concluding stanza in which a resolution is given for the grave situation that has prompted the ceremony.

As in most ceremonies in which prayer is offered, the petitioners recognize their own insignificance and their defenselessness in relation to powers greater than themselves. They know that those with greater power desire to terrorize them into deathly silence—a silence that will erase their memories and extinguish their children’s dreams for the future. Although the petitioners face their own obliteration, their prayer does not, as prayers normally do, request divine intervention. Engaging in the communal ceremony represented by the poem is itself a means of resisting the will of the powerful. The act of self-expression and the communal sharing of their own desires, all of which are embedded in their meditation, enable the petitioners to resist those who desire their defeat.

The vocality of the poem derives from the oral literary traditions of Africa. Audre Lorde lures the reader into a ceremony that promises to be a common prayer. After joining the ceremony, however, the readers find themselves in unfamiliar supernatural territory where the power being summoned is not the distant, omnipotent Father of Christian faith. The readers discover and the petitioners remember that the power being summoned lies within themselves in their own communal voice.