A Summary and Analysis of Audre Lorde’s ‘A Litany for Survival’

‘A Litany for Survival’ is a 1978 poem by the American poet Audre Lorde (1934-92). Lorde was a self-described ‘Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.’ In the poem, Lorde addresses other people who are voiceless and marginalised in society, observing that fear rules their lives but it is better to speak up and use one’s voice rather than remain silent.

You can read ‘A Litany for Survival’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Lorde’s poem below. The poem takes around two minutes to read.

‘A Litany for Survival’: summary

The poem is divided into four stanzas of unequal length. In the first stanza, Lorde’s speaker addresses those people who, like her, live on the edge of a constantly changing society: people who are on their own, not sure how, or whether, to act. These people do not have the luxury of choosing to follow whatever fleeting dreams they have; they are the sort of people who love in doorways at night, on the threshold of accepted society.

Such people are always looking inside themselves, as well as looking out at the world, in order to try to understand their place in it. They are waiting for a moment when they can act in order to bring about a better future: a future for that will sustain their children, as bread does, so that their children’s dreams will be realised, unlike the speaker’s own.

The second stanza sees the speaker continue to address this community of people. They are marked by fear, as though they had been branded as such with a line in the middle of their foreheads. Ever since they were suckled, as infants, as their mothers’ breasts, they have learned to live in fear.

This is because the authorities who had power over them (whom Lorde’s speaker calls ‘heavy-footed’, summoning the image of a boot stamping down on something – or someone) used such fear as a weapon in order to silence them into submission. She tells her addressees that they were never meant to live through such treatment, and yet here they are, triumphant at last.

In the third stanza, the poem’s speaker points out that even when the sun rises to herald a new day, they cannot help being afraid in case this promise of a better world proves short-lived. And when the sun sets every evening, they are afraid in case the sun doesn’t rise the next morning. Even when they have enough to eat, they are afraid that they will get indigestion, and when they are starving, they are afraid in case they never eat again.

The same is true of love: when they are loved, they are afraid that they will lose that love; and when they’re alone, they’re afraid in case they never experience love again. When they speak, they’re afraid in case nobody listens or welcomes their voices, and when they’re silent, they’re still afraid.

The fourth and final stanza, which is much shorter than the preceding stanzas, sees the speaker asserting that it is therefore better to use one’s voice and speak anyway, bearing in mind that nobody expected people like the speaker – the marginalised and formerly voiceless – to survive.

‘A Litany for Survival’: analysis

How should we analyse ‘A Litany for Survival’? One way into Lorde’s poem is that distinctive word, ‘litany’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as follows: ‘An appointed form of public prayer, usually of a penitential character, consisting of a series of supplications, deprecations, or intercessions in which the clergy lead and the people respond, the same formula of response being repeated for several successive clauses.’ Certainly, Lorde’s call utilises the same formula at the beginning of its first two stanzas (‘For those of us …’), and if we regard Lorde, or her speaker, as the ‘clergy’ in this secular litany, the clergy are leading and the people – other marginalised people – are being invited to respond.

Indeed, at the end of Lorde’s prayer, she appears to hand the baton – and the microphone – over to her fellow travellers in the struggle, urging them to speak out (and speak up) and use their voices.

Such a conclusion is in keeping with what Audre Lorde writes elsewhere about the importance of voice, the importance of poetry as a means of creating and indeed preserving one’s identity, and the role that poetry can play in making a difference to one’s place in society. Poetry, for Lorde, can be a form of activism: unlike W. H. Auden, she really does believe that poetry can make things happen.

In her 1977 essay ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’, published a year before ‘A Litany for Survival’ appeared in The Black Unicorn, Lorde had argued that poetry is an essential component of women’s struggle to liberate themselves from patriarchal oppression and control. But she also makes it clear that she specifically had Black women in mind: if women are marginalised and oppressed, Black women are doubly so, by virtue of both sex and race. And although ‘A Litany for Survival’ has one speaker, she clearly wishes all women to speak and use their voice as a means of survival.

‘A Litany for Survival’: form

‘A Litany for Survival’ is written in free verse, meaning that it’s written without a regular metre or rhythm, and no rhyme scheme. Its line and stanza lengths are also irregular: compare the length of the second and third lines in the opening stanza, for example. However, no ‘free verse’ worthy of the name of poetry is truly free from artistic restraint and control, and Audre Lorde uses a number of literary devices in place of these poetic techniques to lend a structure to her verse.

For example, as well as repeating ‘For those of us’ at the beginning of the poem’s first two stanzas, Lorde also ends no fewer than eight lines in the third stanza with the word ‘afraid’. This is in keeping with the repetitions we often find in religious litanies and prayers, but the choice to repeat the word ‘afraid’ is laden with significance: it underscores the fear that marginalised and oppressed peoples feel.

And this obviously makes the rousing final stanza – brief and concise as it is – all the more potent, since Lorde argues that being afraid is no reason not to speak out and use one’s voice to bring about change. Quite the opposite: fear engendered by the realisation that you have nothing to lose can, paradoxically, be empowering.

The other word which Lorde repeats the ends of lines in ‘A Litany for Survival’ is ‘survive’ itself. This ends not just lines but whole stanzas: specifically, it is the last word of both the second and fourth stanza. This word almost stands at odds with ‘afraid’, arguing as it does for an ability to outlive the fear, and the various oppressions which are the source of that fear. But it is used in the negative form: Lorde reminds us that she, and people like her, were never intended to survive. But they have done so.

Curiously, in his ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’, the poem in which he had expressed the opinion that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, W. H. Auden had described poetry as nevertheless something which ‘survives’ as a ‘way of happening’. For Lorde, poetry and poet are one, because our language and our voice defines who we are. If our voice survives, we survive.

This enables her poem to be free from the shackles of an overly restrictive or artificial rhyme scheme or metre, while nevertheless having a rhetorical force and power which these repetitions and other features provide.

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