A litany is a form of poetry that repeats and repeats, repeats and circles. I’ve been trying to make friends with it lately, both through reading and writing. Here’s a little annotation essay of mine on some of Joy Harjo’s litanies:
Exploring the Litany: Poetry by Joy Harjo
After reading Joy Harjo’s How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems: 1975-2001, I realized that I slightly regretted not choosing to read a single collection of Harjo’s poetry for this annotation, rather than a selected-poems volume, because the three poems that I had the strongest reaction to were all taken from a single one of Harjo’s books, She Had Some Horses. This is, of course, a signal that I need to find that book and read it in its entirety. And there were plenty of other lovely poems elsewhere in the compilation, so my time reading the whole volume was not at all wasted. Then I noticed another similarity between my three favorite poems-all three were heavy on repetition. Two of the poems, “Remember,” and “I Give You Back,” are both litanies, although the latter may be more accurately termed a modified litany. The third poem, “The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window,” I wouldn’t call a litany, but rather a story told in a non-linear manner, with the use of circling and repetition. I want to focus here on the litany form, but keeping in mind that the way a litany makes use of repetition could be used in any sort of poem, to some degree.
A litany is more than just a list of repeated words and phrases; it is a form of repetition in which each new line increases a poem’s tension until the meaning and emotion of the poem reach a climax. Then the reader is released, feeling changed by the experience. Take the poem “Remember,” for instance. Already, with just the title, the reader’s emotions are engaged. Remembering is something we all do. Sometimes we fear to remember and sometimes we fear not to remember. The title puts the word in a form of a command, and this command is carried through the entire poem. The reader is instructed to remember whether or not she wants to. The poem is also framed by this word-it stands alone as the title, and it stands alone on the last line of the poem. Within this frame is the list of all that Joy Harjo wants her readers to remember. The list begins with a personal tone: “Remember the sky you were born under” and “Remember your birth, how your mother struggled/ to give you form and breath.” By the end, the ideas have expanded to the universal: “Remember you are all people and all people/ are you. / Remember you are this universe and this/ universe is you.” And perhaps one of the things that made this poem particularly memorable to me was the fact that it ended with the idea of language, and I love language. Joy Harjo says, “Remember the dance language is, that life is. / Remember.” And I do. I try to remember everything the poem has told me to remember, and I definitely remember the poem itself.
The other litany poem by Harjo that I wanted to explore, “I Give You Back,” also deals with something that all people experience, but this time it is fear rather than memory. This, of course, gives the poem a darker tone. And I think the darkness and heaviness of its subject matter is perhaps the reason that Harjo chose to modify the repeated phrases throughout the poem. Each place in the poem where there is a change gives the reader a chance to take a breath, to step back for a second, and then square her shoulders to go forward. The first repeated phrase of the poem is “I release you.” “I release you, my beautiful and terrible/ fear.” The phrase then changes briefly to “I give you back,” then returns to “I release you.” The first half of the poem concludes with “I release you” repeated four times.
Next, there is an eight-line stanza where each line begins with the phrase “I am not afraid.” This feels like a natural change; it is logical that someone who has released her fear would not be afraid. The last line of this stanza, “I am not afraid to be loved.” is followed by a space break, and then the isolated line, “to be loved, to be loved, fear.” This line returns the reader’s attention to the fact that the poem is not just about the speaker, but it is about the speaker directly addressing her fear as a character, someone or something very close to her, her “beloved and hated twin.”
After this come three stanzas that bring the poem to its powerful conclusion. The use of repeated phrases to begin lines becomes less important in this part of the poem, but there are several instances of repeated sentence structures. And there is one use of repetition towards the end of the poem that I found especially poignant: “You can’t live in my eyes, my ears, my voice/ my belly, or in my heart my heart/ my heart my heart.” The obsessive, punctuation-less repetition here shows clearly how emotional the speaker’s voice has become by the end of this poem.
The poem concludes with the words, “But come here, fear/ I am alive and you are so afraid/ of dying.” The speaker has moved all the way from releasing her fear to welcoming it back into her arms. But to me it does not feel like the way the poem ends is a betrayal of anything that was proclaimed earlier in the poem. Instead, I believe the speaker has realized that she is not afraid to be afraid, a significant realization. The use of repeated phrases in the litany style allowed Joy Harjo to elevate the emotional level of this poem, and by changing those phrases throughout the poem she allowed the speaker to have an epiphany. Although the poem may not be a true litany, it was my favorite of the two poems I’ve been discussing, and the one that affected me most.