Litany is a poetic form that typically uses repetition to catalog a resonant series of invocations or supplications in resemblance to or actually serving as a type of prayer.

History of Litany

Litany comes directly from the medieval Latin word letania which means a “solemn prayer of supplication,” and from the Greek word litaneia meaning “prayer, an entreating.”  Since the 13th century, litany has served as a type of prayer in which there is a series of repetitions, and where leaders, as well as members of the congregational faith, would alternate reciting lines back and forth.

Litany used as a poetic form parallels its historical elements in which litanies often contain a chant-like quality, using repetitious movement and evoking a call-and-response within the poem.

One example of litany making its way into poetry is “A Litany in Time of Plague” by the Elizabethan poet Thomas Nashe where in the first two stanzas the form is established:

            Adieu, farewell, earth's bliss;
            This world uncertain is;
            Fond are life's lustful joys;
            Death proves them all but toys;
            None from his darts can fly;
            I am sick, I must die.
            Lord, have mercy on us!

            Rich men, trust not in wealth,
            Gold cannot buy you health;
            Physic himself must fade.
            All things to end are made,
            The plague full swift goes by;
            I am sick, I must die.
                Lord, have mercy on us!

Another example is by sociologist and poet W. E. B. Du Bois in “A Litany of Atlanta” where he opens the poem with:

                 Done at Atlanta, in the Day of Death, 1906.

            O Silent God, Thou whose voice afar in mist and mystery
            hath left our ears an-hungered in these fearful days—
                Hear us, good Lord!

            Listen to us, Thy children: our faces dark with doubt
            are made a mockery in Thy sanctuary.   With uplifted
            hands we front Thy heaven, O God, crying:
                We beseech Thee to hear us, good Lord!

Over time, distinct qualities of litany, such as its length, call-and-response movement, and repetitive chants, began to arise and morph. Many poets have abandoned the religious origins of litany and use the form for its repetitious qualities and evocation of social justice themes, such is the case with Mahogany L. Browne’s “litany” in which she begins each stanza with the use of the phrase “today i am a black woman…,” employing the use of anaphora:

            today i am a black woman in america
            & i am singing a melody ridden lullaby…

            today i am a black woman in a hopeless state
            i will apply for financial aid and food stamps…

            today, i am a black woman in a body of coal
            i am always burning and no one knows my name…

In “a litany for the possessed,” Jaki Shelton Green lists a series of actions, names, and images. Other examples of litany include “A Political Litany” by Philip Freneau, “A Litany” by Gregory Orr.