Dorothy Livesay Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Livesay, Dorothy 1909–

Livesay is a Canadian poet, critic, editor, scriptwriter, and journalist. Her poetic concerns vary from the political to the intensely personal and psychological, and reflect her years as a social worker, as well as the strong influence of T. S. Eliot and the imagists. Her verse is lyrical and sensuous; characteristically perceptive, musical, and rhythmically inventive. Livesay was awarded the Governor General's Award in 1944 for Day and Night, and again in 1947 for Poems for People. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Northrop Frye

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dorothy Livesay is a poet who has remained within a single convention, though with modulations…. Miss Livesay is an imagist who started off, in Green Pitcher (1929), in the Amy Lowell idiom:

I remember long veils of green rain
Feathered like the shawl of my grandmother—
Green from the half-green of the spring trees
Waving in the valley.

The virtues of this idiom are not those of sharp observation and precise rhythm that the imagists thought they were producing: its virtues are those of gentle reverie and a relaxed circling movement. With Day and Night (1944) a social passion begins to fuse the diction, tighten the rhythm, and concentrate the imagery…. From "Prelude for Spring" on, the original imagist texture gradually returns, and is fully re-established by the end of the book…. (pp. 84-5)

Imagism tends to descriptive or landscape poetry, on which the moods of the poet are projected, either directly or by contrast. The basis of Miss Livesay's imagery is the association between winter and the human death-impulse and between spring and the human capacity for life. Cutting across this is the irony of the fact that spring tends to obliterate the memory of winter, whereas human beings enjoying love and peace retain an uneasy sense of the horrors of hatred and war. That man cannot and should not...

(The entire section is 405 words.)

Peter Stevens

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In her social poetry of the 1930's Dorothy Livesay is concerned principally with human fellowship and the poems call for freedom from capitalist tyranny. There is no mention of the problem of freedom for each individual: the question of the roles played in society by man and woman is not raised….

Her later poems, however, show a greater interest in woman's individuality, her need for freedom, her right to exist in her own way. Woman as herself is very much a part of her love poems…. The love poems in The Unquiet Bed are preceded by a section of personal poems in which the poet concentrates on various aspects of herself as woman. (p. 26)

[Most of the poems in the second section] are directly concerned in an unpretentious way with the problem of woman's position in modern society. Dorothy Livesay still insists that woman is involved in the natural cycle of growth. In "Sunfast" she sees herself as part of the whole life force symbolized by the sun. She takes in the sun like food; the sun refreshes and re-orders the world just as human beings try to establish patterns….

The feeding on nature, the immersion in it as well as the recognition of one's place in it, is expressed in several poems in the second section of The Unquiet Bed, for instance, "Process". "Pear Tree" has the same notion at its centre. (p. 27)

The question of individuality in relation to the male-female principle Dorothy Livesay herself finds so prevalent in her poetry crops up humorously in the poem "Flower Music", particularly in the section titled "Peony."… [The] sense of opposition and contradiction between male and female, expressed somewhat obliquely in the poem, is very much a part of Dorothy Livesay's view of human love, and it turns up in the next section of The Uniquiet Bed which is devoted exclusively to love poems.

But these love poems were not the first that Dorothy Livesay wrote. There are quite a number of love poems in Signpost, and it is interesting to look at them now to see how her views on the role of woman have changed. The love poems in Signpost are attempts to express the changing moods and emotions of a love affair. They are personal poems but they are also objectified to make more universal statements about love…. I think that Dorothy Livesay is much surer of herself as a woman in the later poems so that she can afford to be more open, direct and honest, make the poems in fact much more personal. The early poems still have some romanticism clinging to them, although some of the poems are admirable statements of the way-ward passions, misgivings, deceits and contradictions of love. And certainly they are the first attempts in Canadian poetry to express a modern approach to love, even though they are not always successful. (pp. 27-8)

[In these early poems Dorothy Livesay], in talking of the immense external reality in terms of an outer darkness, often used the image of enclosed space within which she kept the darkness at bay. But even in erecting a shell around one, one senses that it is futile. In the same way, love seems to be an enormous force in the love poems in Signpost and defences against it are fragile, particularly as love demands frankness and searches out the private sanctities of personality. Even if one of the partners takes refuge in nature, as the poet suggests in "Sun," recognizing the naturalness of love, then the other partner can uncover the whole, can see everything open to his eye as he looks at nature. (p. 29)

The notion … of distance, a notion that crops up time and again in Dorothy Livesay's poetry, a distance between people,… is part of the poet's concept of love. She seems to be suggesting that union through love is only momentary and that it includes struggle for dominance. The release from individuality through complete union seems to be too open a position, may bring about such a thorough nakedness of soul as to threaten the very basis of the personality. (p. 30)

The [early love] poems are attempts to express the varying moods occuring during the course of a love affair with images pointing to psychological states and conflicts. Not all the poems dealing with love in this volume are successful. Some retain a kind of adolescent vagueness of romantic feeling, some strive for ambivalence of meaning which results only in obscurity or, conversely, over-simplification…. [But on the whole, these poems] convince as personal statements; they are believable as notations on personal experience. At the same time, however, they reach a certain...

(The entire section is 1901 words.)

Munro Beattie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The poems of Green Pitcher and Sign Post] give testimony that Dorothy Livesay belonged to the new dispensation. She had felt the effects of the free-verse movement and of the work of several American poetesses. Affinities of attitude rather than imitation explain the echoes of Elinor Wylie, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, and Emily Dickinson…. Probably, in first working out her own way of writing, she had no conscious intention more deliberate than to be unlike the Canadian poetesses of her mother's generation.

This required, for one thing, complete avoidance of facile metrical effects. Dorothy Livesay never indulged in the glib appeal of lilting stanza or coy anapaest. She...

(The entire section is 619 words.)

Michael Greenstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The title [of Dorothy Livesay's Right Hand Left Hand] points not only to the political polarities of the [thirties]—fascism and communism—but also to the physical activities involving both hands of the working class…. The subtitle, "A True Life of the Thirties: Paris, Toronto, Montreal, The West and Vancouver. Love, Politics, The Depression and Feminism," seems to indicate the variety of territory covered, yet in addition Livesay devotes chapters to New Jersey and Spain. Indeed, everything and the kitchen sink find their way into this book.

The opening chapter, covering 1928–32 and the trans-Atlantic experiences of Toronto and Paris, is characteristic of a less-than-strict adherence to...

(The entire section is 214 words.)