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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...

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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

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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 forget his dark past as easily as nature I take to be the theme of "London Revisited," and it is expressed more explicitly in "Of Mourners."… (p. 85)

The dangers of imagism are facility and slackness, and one reads through [the retrospective Selected Poems 1926–1956] with mixed feelings. But it is one of the few rewards of writing poetry that the poet takes his ranking from his best work. Miss Livesay's most distinctive quality, I think, is her power of observing how other people observe, especially children. Too often her own observation goes out of focus, making the love poems elusive and the descriptive ones prolix, but in the gentle humour of "The Traveller," in "The Child Looks Out," in "On Seeing," in the nurseryrhyme rhythm of "Abracadabra," and in many other places, we can see what Professor Pacey means [in the book's introduction] by "a voice we delight to hear." (p. 86)

Northrop Frye, "Letters in Canada" (originally published in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XX, No. 3, April, 1951), in his The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination (copyright © Northrop Frye, 1971), Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1971, pp. 1-127.∗

Peter Stevens

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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 objectivity because of the tone of directness amounting in most cases to a starkness. The images are not often over-developed; the poems themselves are generally short and to the point, as if the poet—and this is somewhat surprising considering both the age of the poet when she wrote these poems and the general poetic atmosphere in Canada when these poems were published—as if, then, the poet is determined to get to the root of her emotions in order to express them as openly and frankly as possible without making them too private in their connotation. (pp. 31-2)

Honesty and candour are essential components of the poems she wrote about her later experience of love in The Unquiet Bed, and Plainsongs. These poems, stemming as they do from her maturity as both poet and woman, taking into consideration her wholehearted concern about the position of woman in society and therefore the integrity of woman in a love relationship, are obviously for the most part more compelling statements than those in Signpost.

The poet prepares us for the section devoted to the love poems in The Unquiet Bed by closing the previous section, which as we saw earlier concentrated on the individual liberty of woman in personal life, with two poems ["Eve" and "Second Coming"] about the re-awakening of love within woman. And again she expresses this in an intensely personal manner. (pp. 32-3)

["Second Coming"] prefigures perhaps the insistence on physicality in the love poems which follow. But the titles of both these poems with their general religious implications also suggest that physical manifestations of love, however momentary, may include some spiritual meaning and revelation, and in some of the love poems the spirituality does arise from the physical presences of the lovers themselves, so that the ideas of separation, darkness, silence and distance in these poems take on weightier values because of the context in which they have been placed.

An insistent demand runs through the love poems, a demand that comes from her essential individuality but also a demand that comes from the masculine opposite partner. "Be woman", is the opening line of "The Taming" and in this poem being a woman means being submissive in sexual union but paradoxically that basic feminity has its own strength which will take away some of the mastery of the male. In a way "The Taming" is a poem that emphasizes the give-and-take of love in the strictest sense…. [The] sexual experience makes her face her essential self, her womanhood with both its submissive qualities and its strength. Through the physical experience comes a release from physicality. Woman is not to be considered merely as a physical piece of property. Love must give her freedom to remain herself even within the gestures of submission…. She wants the freedom to be part of a unity, a loss of one kind of freedom in order to release a true individuality. (pp. 33-4)

In spite of the ecstasies and freedom of love, in spite of the joy she experiences in rediscovering love at this point in her life … the poet acknowledges the terrors, failures, and paradoxes of love. She sees its creative joys but also its abysses, gaps, and silences. (p. 34)

Images of dream and sleep figure a great deal in the love poems in The Unquiet Bed. The poet sees the experience of love as something other-worldly and dream-like ("A Book of Charms"), something beyond words as in a dream ("The Dream"), but at times sleep and dream represent loneliness and distance, as in "The Vigil".

Some poems in The Unquiet Bed and Plainsongs attempt to describe the momentary blisses and fearful transient qualities of human love. "Old Song", in The Unquiet Bed, expresses in controlled and resigned tone the passing of love, the impermanence of a human relationship even though it may achieve harmony and union…. In a later poem in Plainsongs, "Con Sequences", Dorothy Livesay uses images drawn from nature to suggest the distances between lovers and also the growth and violent surge of love. (pp. 35-6)

Throughout the love poetry in The Unquiet Bed and Plainsongs Dorothy Livesay emphasizes the physical aspects of human love, so it is not surprising that the poem "The Operation" (Plainsongs), connects her experience of love and her recovery from it, together with a general reassessment of her situation of her life as she found it at that time.

"The Operation" opens with a sense of crisis. The poet has reached a crucial point in her life, this crisis made all the more emphatic in her mind because it happened after her tremendous experience of love…. (p. 41)

Just as she has to rely on herself to effect a complete physical cure after the operation, so she must assess her chances in the aftermath of love, which she now sees as "a sickness" which the lovers attempted to cure in many ways: by separation or even by physical indulgence….

The last section of the poem returns to a key image in Dorothy Livesay's poetry—a doorway—used generally as an entrance to new experience, as a release, a revelation or emergence into some new world. Here, as she stands in a doorway, she takes stock of herself…. (p. 42)

The sequence of the love poems in The Unquiet Bed and Plainsongs are the most candid revelations of the experience of love as seen by a woman in Canadian poetry. Some poems fall short of their aims because the poet seems more concerned with poetic theories about form and lining. Sometimes the structure of lining seem arbitrary, although in most cases the use of broken short lining together with rhyme, half-rhyme and assonance mirrors the changing and breathless quality of the experiences themselves, as well as rendering some sense of the spirituality of the experience, for the best poems in the sequence seem enclosed in suspension, caught in an ecstatic calm. At other times the poet mars a poem by making the reader too conscious of an image, so that it becomes for him a conceit, a rhetorical device that militates against the tone of honesty and directness in most of the poems. There is occasional overemphasis and repetition, even (though rarely) and indulgence in romanticism and sentimentality. But these are only minor blemishes on an otherwise distinguished set of poems. They are examples of the very best in Dorothy Livesay's later work in which she is not afraid to be intensely personal and frank because she is able to express her feelings immediately and yet objectively so that she herself is subjected to the appraising and critical apparatus she uses in her own poetry. (p. 43)

Peter Stevens, "Dorothy Livesay: 'The Love Poetry'," in Canadian Literature, No. 47, Winter, 1971, pp. 26-43.

Munro Beattie

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[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 learned early to use muted rhymes, broken rhythms, tentative stanza forms; all these expressed a particular temperament and vision of life, but they were signs, as well, that she shared the determination of the other new poets to deny to their writings the mannerisms of an outworn tradition. No Canadian poet of the past four decades has been more consistently loyal to the principle of organic form. The other main quality of her work, from the beginning, has been her devotion to actuality. Her first considerable piece of writing, "City Wife," shows that she was learning to be modern in the fashion of Robert Frost or Edward Thomas, by precisely rendering a group of realistic details in the tones of the speaking rather than the singing voice. Other small achievements in that vein were "Prince Edward Island" "Old Man," and "Vandal." Less successful poems—"Sonnet for Ontario," "September Morning"—draw what strength they have from this same commitment to honesty of observation and statement. (pp. 251-52)

"Day and Night" was a product of the most hateful decade of modern times and of Dorothy Livesay's rage and grief over what she saw in the world about her…. In the same years she was responding to the poems of W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and C. Day Lewis, to their message as to their manner. Like them she became a poet of protest and revolution. But she shared also their limitations. The poet of social protest cannot bear to write as an outsider. He must become the chum as well as the spokesman of the worker, a role which class, education, and sensibility make implausible. At the emotional centre of "Day and Night" there speaks a gentle suffering spirit which is clearly the poet's and not the factory-worker's. But the poem powerfully evokes the violence and oppressiveness of industrial labour; anguish and aspiration are expressed in two-stress lines in quatrain, strain in passages in free pentameter. This effective alternation of rhythms and tones is the structural principle of other poems in the 1944 collection: "Prelude for Spring," "Serenade for Strings" (later re-titled "Nativity"), and "Lorca." This last poem most convincingly combines the rage with the grief.

Fortunately, in the books that followed the sensitive reverberator has prevailed over the agitator. The most rewarding way for the expression of her talents is illustrated by "Fantasia" (in Day and Night): the communication of private sensations in precise images and delicately shifting cadences. This is the way that has made for success in the best poems of her later volumes: Poems for People (1947), Call My People Home (1950), and New Poems (1957). The Selected Poems (1957) displays chronologically the evidence of a widening and deepening sensibility with which her powers of expression have admirably kept pace. Poems which most clearly show her sensitivity and craftsmanship are "London Revisited," "Page One," "Lament," "Bartok and the Geranium." (pp. 252-53)

Munro Beattie, "Poetry: 1920–1935," in Literary History of Canada: Canadian Literature in English, Vol. II, Carl F. Klinck, General Editor (© University of Toronto Press 1976), second edition, University of Toronto Press 1965, 1976, pp. 234-53.∗

Michael Greenstein

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 214

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 unities of time, place, and genre throughout the book. Nevertheless the variety sustains interest, the old-young woman effectively recounting the emergence of the poet's talents and political views four decades ago. (p. 134)

[Livesay's] commitment to Marxism is evidenced in the style and content of poems such as "An Immigrant," which describes in clear diction the eviction and murder of Nick Zynchuk.

In the middle sections of the book she … [repeats] her socialist concerns—variations on the same themes—so that few individual pieces stand out beyond the others as examples of excellence. (p. 135)

Michael Greenstein, "Down and Out across Canada," in Canadian Literature, No. 81, Summer, 1979, pp. 134-37.∗

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