the nearest thing to life

Jul 31, 2020 poetry appreciation

In an essay written just before her first published venture into fiction, Eliot claimed that ‘The greatest benefit we owe the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies’. She continues: ‘art is the nearest thing to life, it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot’. It feels worth remembering this at the moment, when so many arts organisations and institutions seem to be staring down the twin barrels of Covid and being insufficiently valued/funded anyway (don’t get me started on what happened to the humanities when Literacy Hour and the National Curriculum came in…). And Eliot’s line rings round my head as I think about this week’s poem, ‘A Litany for Survival‘ by Audre Lorde. (You can find a tantalising trailer for a film about Lorde here.)

The poem is the voice of one experience of life calling to others who experience the same thing—’those of us’—in the knowledge that there are “the rest of them”, “the others”, who do not experience life this way. Safety/fear; privilege/disadvantage; plenty/lack. These are the distinctions, the us/them, with which the poem concerns itself. That the poem is a litany—a formal, communal prayer—suggests that the poet is as it were priest or spokesperson, leading a series of petitions, invocations or supplications both for and with a congregation of readers. The numerous repetitions which pattern the text —’for those of us’; ‘… we are afraid’—echo the rhythms and structures of formal prayer, and have a mesmerising quality which draws us in.

‘Litany’ has a sense of hard truth, clearly told. The pleading for ‘a now that can/ breed futures’ is devastating—so little to ask, you’d think, and yet so much—and we are stopped in our tracks, invited to think about what other “kinds of now” there currently are. The poem evokes what it is to live in a state of fear, not as a response to single dangers but as a baseline position in the world: how you ‘[stand] upon the constant edges of decision/ crucial and alone’. And it conveys the unassuageableness (if that’s a word!) of existing thus ‘imprinted with fear’. Stanza three makes it clear that there is no position which feels ok, no state of safety or sureness. Nothing works. There is no way to avoid ‘being afraid’.

‘A Litany for Survival’ is chilling and sobering and saddening and beautiful—one of those poems it hurts to read but which you are nonetheless so glad to read. Even as it is talking about difference it invites us to understand something which, if we are fortunate, is not our own experience—and, in so doing, gets beyond difference. It ‘exten[ds] our sympathies’. I guess that’s always important, but somehow it seems particularly so at the moment.

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