‘A Litany for Survival’ by Audre Lorde is a four stanza poem made out three longer stanzas, made out of 14, 10, and 17 lines. Then followed by a concluding tercet, or set of three lines. Lorde has not chosen to structure this piece with a consistent pattern of rhyme or rhythm. The lines and stanzas generally vary in length. This helps to create a feeling spontaneity to the work. One is unsure what is coming next in A Litany for Survival, just as the main subjects of this piece are unsure of how their lives will progress.
There are also very distinctive instances in which enjambment is used to great effect. Such as that within the first stanza between lines ten and eleven. The white space that is left after the word “futures” hints at the meaning of the word itself. Nothing is defined, listed, or made clear. The future is open to both the good and bad elements of life.
A reader should also take note of the use of repetition in this piece. Lorde has chosen to utilize the phrase, “For those of us who…” a number of times within the first three stanzas. It is a reference to a group that is never fully defined. Through the context of A Litany for Survival, and with knowledge of Lorde’s prior works, one can assume this group refers to any that has been marginalized and experienced suffering in their effort to find a place in the world. She is known today as an advocate for equal rights between races, genders, and classes.
Additionally, there are formal moments of repetition. Especially in the third stanza in which Lorde’s speaker is listing off the contrasting elements of life and how each of these holds something to fear. You can read the full poem here.
Summary of A Litany of Survival
A Litany for Survival begins with the speaker describing how there is a segment of the population who lives at the shoreline and continually suffers through “crucial” choices. These people do not have the luxury of spare time as their choices are eminently important to their own lives. The men and women must focus on maintaining the dreams of their children.
In the following stanza, the speaker describes the various elements of their lives and how they are controlled by fear. They have learned to fear every side of a situation, the good and the bad. A Litany for Survival concludes with the speaker stating that this group must find a way to shake off their fear of speaking and say what needs to be said. Otherwise, nothing will ever change.
Analysis of A Litany for Survival
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by making a number of statements about a group of people. She includes herself in this group and does what she can throughout the four stanzas to make their particular situation clear to the listener. The first stanza contains the extended lead up to a conclusion which does not come until the end of the second stanza. She lists out features of “those of us who live at the shoreline.”
These types of people are always on the “constant edges of decision.” Their lives are in flux and each decision they make is critical to what happens next. From just this first phase it is clear that this kind of life is precipitous and taxing. Additionally, the speaker adds that these people are “alone.” They might be in the same situation as another portion of the population but in the decisions, they make there is no one to help them.
The refrain, “for those of us who…” repeats again in the fourth line. Here, the speaker says that “those of us” cannot “indulge / the passing dreams of choice.” These people do not have the luxury to consider other options for their lives. There is no time or place for dreaming.
This portion of the population is then described as being those,
Who love in doorways coming and going
In the hours between dawns
They are existing in the margins, in a liminal stance that is not quite permanent or out in the open. Love has a place in their worlds, but it is still confined “between dawns.” The men and women of these worlds are always looking in and out of doorways, seeking, trying to find an answer to their questions and a solution to their “crucial” choices. In particular, the speaker says, they are “seeking a now that can breed / futures.”
In the final lines of this section, the speaker gives the example of “bread” in the mouths of children. This is the “now” that people are searching for. While temporary, it helps to stave off the loss of “their dreams.” The parents want to make sure the loss of their own dreams and ideal futures does not impact their children’s dreams.
The second stanza is shorter than the first, containing only ten lines. Here, the speaker utilizes the refrain “For those of us who…” once again. This same group is said to be “imprinted with fear.” It is a “line” that exists within their minds, central to everything they do and think.
These men and women learned from a young age to be afraid of comfort. This is shown through the image of a “mother’s milk.” In this context, it would be a mistake for someone to give in to that peace as it is an illusion. It could become a “weapon.” The milk works in the same way as “heavy-footed hope…” They have learned to avoid happiness and optimism for the fear of its loss.
The final lines give a conclusion to the many statements the speaker has listed out so far. She states that for all of us,
We were never meant to survive.
Those who are still living, suffering, and worrying over their futures should be proud of their “triumph.” Their situations did not make for an ideal youth or adulthood, but they’ve lived through it. That should give one some strength for the future. The speaker seems to turn her back on this strength in the next stanza. Transforming it into a different kind of fear.
In the longest stanza of the piece, the speaker returns to the idea of triumph through a description of what comes after. One might’ve survived to this point but that does not help with the “line” of fear that has always been central. It shows itself as a fear of the rising and setting sun. They are afraid of it never rising or never returning. The same goes for food and hunger. When one is hungry, they are “afraid / [they] may never eat again.”
Both sides of every situation hold something to fear. This emphasizes the statements of the first stanza that spoke of “crucial” and lonely choices. As well as those in the second stanza in regard to going in and out of doorways.
The group Lorde’s speaker has been describing also fears the vanishing and appearance of love. It could leave, or it could never come at all. The final lines of this section speak on the power of words. They are afraid that their words “will not be heard / nor welcomed.” Then lastly, that when they are silent, they have no agency.
In the final three lines, the speaker makes a decision for the entire group. If everyone is afraid of all of these contrasting emotions and situations, “it is better to speak.” They have triumphed by surviving this long and need to use this power to ensure their further survival. These marginalized men and women must remember they were “never meant to survive.”