Litany by Carol Ann Duffy

Within ‘Litany’ Duffy exports themes of childhood, societal standards, and women’s lives. Though the subject matter is always serious and important, the mood varies between feeling solemn, serious, and humorous. The speaker’s awareness of the absurdity of certain aspects of her youth comes through, making it easy to dismiss what was once the only accepted way for a woman to act.  

 

Summary of Litany

‘Litany’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a moving, complex depiction of a childhood marked by society’s troubling standards for women. 

The poem takes the reader through a variety of images associated with a speaker’s youth. Some of these are very obviously referential to a time and place and others are more vague and personal. The speaker depicts her mother’s influence on her, as well as that of the other women around her at the time. By the end of the poem, the speaker is able to talk back and use the language her mother never would. She pushes against the world she’s grown up in and has her mouth washed out with soap. 

 

Structure of Litany

‘Litany’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a four stanza poem that’s separated into uneven sets of lines. The first and fourth stanzas contain six lines, the second: seven, and the third: five. These lines are written in free verse, meaning they are unrhymed and do not conform to a specific metrical pattern. The length of Duffy’s sentences varies as do the position of the line breaks and use of punctuation. 

 

Poetic Techniques in Litany

Duffy makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Litany’. These include alliteration, enjambment and caesura. The first, alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “air” and “accident” in line seven of the second stanza and “mother’s mute” in line six of the final stanza. 

Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might come before an important turn or transition in the text. For example, line six of the fourth stanza that reads: “My mother’s mute shame. The taste of soap”. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transition between lines four and five of the first stanza and two and three of the second. 

 

Analysis of Litany 

Stanza One

In the first stanza of ‘Litany’, the speaker begins by saying that a specific soundtrack, outlined in the next lines, was a “litany” in her life. The word litany refers to a series of prayers used in church services. They are usually of a call and response type. They are prescriptive, just as the soundtrack to this speaker’s life was. The next lines inform the reader of what made up that soundtrack. There was a “three piece suite display cabinet” and “stiff-haired wives” and their “red smiles”. These lines suggest an upper-class world that values money, social standing, and possessions. 

Additionally, the outline of the scene provides the reader with some information about when the speaker grew up. Considering what’s listed out in stanza one, it was likely the 1960s. The lack of punctuation in these lines makes the objects merge together into one long, hard to distinguish list of meaningless possessions. “Pyrex” is one item set apart, marking the end of this list of items. It is a kind of cookware that was supposed to be stronger than glass. It is an implicit metaphor for this entire way of living. The bowls appear strong, but can still shatter if dropped. 

In the last lines of this stanza, the speaker mentions “Mrs. Barr’s American Tan”. This is in reference to a type of very obvious tan that one character, Mrs. Barr, was fond of. The speaker sees something deeper in Mrs. Barr’s choice to get this tan. It is as if she’s trying to cover something up or hide beneath a new, socially approved exterior. 

 

Stanza Two

In the second stanza, the speaker alludes to unhappy marriages. She uses a metaphor to compare them to the cellophane that’s wrapped around shirts. It kept up the appearance of the shirt but was really just hiding the truth. It “crackles” revealing flaws in the marriage itself. 

Over the next few lines of ‘Litany’, the speaker discusses “The Lounge,” a place of wealth and social climbing. As the hard consonant sounds in these lines suggest, it is not a pleasant place. There are hard eyes and “bright stones in engagement rings”. People are there displaying themselves, trying to get attention. Even the hands are “sharp”. 

The last lines allude to the social rules of conversation and the inability to broach an uncomfortable topic. An “embarrassing word” can stop the room like, the speaker adds using a simile, “an accident”. 

 

Stanza Three 

A turn occurs in the next lines of ‘Litany’ as the speaker recalls how “this” world she’s been describing is the one that she learned “at [her] mother’s knee”. The transition into first-person comes less as a surprise and more as a purposeful transition into the more personal, emotional part of the narrative. 

Duffy’s speaker explains how all this information was conveyed to her as a child. She did not know enough to care about real things in life, like “cancer, or sex, or debts”. There was a concerted denial of reality on her mother’s part. This is seen most clearly through the inability to say, or even spell, “leukaemia”. 

In the last two lines of this stanza, the poet uses a metaphor to compare the year to “a mass grave of wasps”. It “bobbed in a jam-jar”. The juxtaposition between the descriptor “mass grave” and the “jam-jar” is impactful. It alludes to the general strength and weakness of these women and the lives they lead. 

The last image of the stanza is of a butterfly that “stammered” itself in the speaker’s “curious hands”. The word “stammer” is used to describe its sudden, worrying movements. A reader should also consider how the word is related to speech, or an inability to speak, and how this might connect to how the child was raised. 

 

Stanza Four

In the final six lines of ‘Litany’, the soundtrack of the speaker’s life is expanded. Other children enter into it and the speaker pushes back against the norms of speech and action she was taught by her mother. The following lines are a list of names. In these lines the speaker’s tone is polite, but in a sarcastic way. She’s mocking the way she learned to speak.

Lastly, the poem ends with the phrase “The taste of soap”. This is a reference to the traditional punishment of washing a girl’s mouth out with soap. It represents a physical and spiritual cleansing. By treating her daughter this way, the speaker’s mother is trying to get rid of the girl’s desire to break out of her mother’s world and move beyond her mother’s “mute shame”. 

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