When you complete your research for an article or book, you'll often find that you can't include all you'd like to because of length limitations. Sometimes the simplest thing is to leave out some information, but when you feel you absolutely cannot leave out certain things, litany is a technique that can be useful.
Litany, because of its vague resemblance to church litany, simply lists single words or short phrases that accumulate in the reader's mind to create and leave the impression of a person, place, or thing. The beauty of this method of compression is that you can accomplish it while simultaneously adding some style. And it may even improve the reader's comprehension and retention.
Saul Pett's litany not only does its descriptive work, it adds style to his newspaper article about former Mayor Edward Koch:
New York (AP)—He is the freshest thing to blossom in New York since chopped liver, a mixed metaphor of a politician, the antithesis of the packaged leader, irrepressible, candid, impolitic, spontaneous, funny, feisty, independent, uncowed by voter blocs, unsexy, unhandsome, unfashionable, and altogether charismatic, a man oddly at peace with himself in an unpeace-ful place, a mayor who presides over the country's largest Babel with unseemly joy.
In The Harder They Fall, Budd Schulberg uses several litanies in describing New York City's Stillman's Gym:
You enter this walled city (Stillman's Gym) by means of a dark, grimy stairway that carries you straight up off Eighth Avenue into a large, stuffy, smoke-filled, hopeful, cynical, glistening-bodied world. The smells of this world are sour and pungent, a stale, gamey odor blended of sweat and liniment, worn fight gear, cheap cigars and too many bodies, clothed and unclothed, packed into a room with no noticeable means of ventilation.
In an Esquire article, Ken Kesey wrote about the big "Round-Up" rodeo at Pendleton, Oregon, partly with a litany about what was in the parade that opened the rodeo:
The governor in a polished Pierce-Arrow, mayor in a buckboard. Round-up committee in a Conestoga wagon that was drug all the way from Independence by matched oxen seventy years ago. Hay wagon floats, tableaux of hairy trappers skinning beaver, pioneer mothers churning butter, Indian men and WCTU women pounding drums. Oxcarts, chuckwagons, six-line skinners, stagecoaches, and goat carts. Young braves on painted pintos, old squaws on fur-heaped travois.
In his book Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon told how he went about deciding where to go next on his odyssey around America taking only the byways that show up blue on the map. He would go to the towns whose names intrigued him for one reason or another:
Had it not been raining hard that morning on the Livingston Square, I never would have learned of Nameless, Tennessee. Waiting for the rain to ease, I lay on my bunk [in his van] and read the atlas to pass time rather than to see where I might go. In Kentucky were towns with fine names like Boreing, Bear Wallow, Decoy, Subtle, Mud Lick, Mummie, Neon; Belcher was just down the road from Mouthcard, and Minnie only ten miles from Mousie.
Slightly more complex are the litanies that use short phrases. Jan Morris, in writing about Bergen, Norway, in the Sophisticated Traveler, used several variations of this type. Writing about Bergen's market, Morris creates a litany through the repetition of the phrase "there are."
All around, the market bustles like an allegory of Scandanavia. There are stalls of prawns, pickled herrings and smoked trout, there are trestle tables piled high with potted plants and cut flowers, there are lobsters scuttling around tanks, there are men gutting huge salmon in the sunshine, there are women selling reindeer pelts and cucumbers and boxes of mountain berries and hideous ceramic trolls for the tourist trade.
In North of the C.P. Line, John McPhee tells the story of cooperation between Maine's airborne and ground-borne game wardens in finding lost hunters. He writes about game warden Sirois searching on the ground for a hunter named Sterling, a man unknown to him. He used variations of "he had no idea" in this litany:
Sirois, who with his wife, Judy, had raised two sons and two coyotes in a warden station so remote it is sixty feet from Quebec—had no idea who Sterling was. He had no idea that a Sterling Drive had been cut into the forest in New Jersey, and that Sterling had built nine imaginative homes there, one with a spiral staircase rising into an octagonal den. He didn't know that after the casinos came Sterling had built houses for Goldsmith of Playboy, Duberson of Harrad's. He didn't know that Sterling drove a diesel Olds with air, or that he possessed an Indy 600
three-cylinder snowmobile which he had driven at speeds up to ninety miles an hour. Sirois, whose own history had become as endangered as Sterling's, didn't know any of that, nor did any of it matter. A man was lost, and another meant to save him.
John McPhee wrote about what an airborne game warden (coinci-dentally and confusingly also named John McPhee) carried in his Super Cub plane. This litany is a variation in that after each element of the litany he inserts a quote from interviews with the warden or some other narrative material the writer is reminded of. Pilot McPhee has just slowed the plane until it's making no headway over the ground below. Writer McPhee had just innocently asked how fast the headwind was blowing to keep the plane hovering:
"We're indicating forty-five miles per hour," he said. "There's your answer. That's how fast the wind is blowing." There were snowshoes on the wing struts—two pairs. He said, "You never know when the airplane is going to refuse to go." He had skis and poles and an M-1 rifle. ("The sound of a revolver doesn't carry.") A five-foot steel ice chisel was mounted on the fuselage. There was some kero dust ("kerosene and sawdust, it burns for quite a while") and strike-anywhere matches in a waterproof steel case. There was some trail mix, but no regular stores of food. ("If I carry a lot of food in the airplane, I just eat it. I carry trail mix the way some people carry chewing tobacco.") There were goose-down warmup pants and extra down parkas that were supposedly good to seventy below zero____
In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion wrote in one of the opening paragraphs about California itself, before she went into the story of Lucille Marie Maxwell Miller's murder. Joan Didion used three litanies, allowing variations within a litany to keep it from getting boringly repetitious:
This is the California where it is possible to live and die without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew. This is the California in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double
Indemnity____ Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer. Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers.
Ernest Hemingway, whose style favored compression, wrote this litany of "definitions" about what living is. The words are put in the mouth of the dying El Sordo in For Whom the Bell Tolls:
Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.
Litany's appeal comes partly from its inherent rhythm. Listen to the rhythmic effect achieved by David McClintick, writing in Esquire about Bill Paley of CBS:
He was determined to overtake NBC and marshaled all the powers of his formidable personality to the task. Paley the persuader, Paley the charmer, Paley the dogged negotiator, Paley the master salesman went into action.
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