Livesay, Dorothy (Vol. 4)
Livesay, Dorothy 1909–
Ms Livesay is a major Canadian poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)
Dorothy Livesay begins the foreword to her Collected Poems with the statement: "These poems written between 1926 and 1971 create an autobiography; a psychic if not a literal autobiography," and thus directs our attention rather to the personality than the philosophy of the collection. We are not, it seems, to look for an intellectual schema; we are not to think of the poet as a teacher in the way that we think of Yeats, or Stevens, or Pound; we are not to expect the vatic, the prophetic, the oracular: we are simply to take the poems as the story of a life, its passing thoughts, its occasional intensities, its doubts, its confusions, its sudden clarities.
The book certainly seems to be of this kind. There are many occasional poems, many anecdotes; the language is frequently a little pedestrian, a little too casual, so that we feel the poet's modesty may have led her to accept small returns rather than labour for masterpieces. Many of the images are commonplace; many of the cadences are tired and predictable. A good many poems would be improved by cutting; some miss the target completely. The dramatic poems are often marred by conventional rhetoric…. Lapses of this kind might well destroy one's faith in a poet of less obvious integrity, but Dorothy Livesay's work reveals such passionate honesty of feeling, and such consistent moral courage, that even the grossest defects become, like those of Thomas Hardy, curiously endearing. It is as if the poet were more concerned with the poem itself than with the reputation of the poem, more concerned to spell out the thought and feeling in simple and direct ways than to labour after an elegance of sophistication that might pervert the meaningful into the marmoreal. This is clearly an honest book….
It might even seem that in stressing Dorothy Livesay's honesty I am damning the book with the faintest of praise. Such is not my intention; I am concerned only to suggest that the stylistic defects appear to derive from the same cause as the poetic excellence: an integrity of feeling that distrusts the straining after rhetorical effects, and seeks to explore the texture of human experience in "a selection of the language really used by men".
Such language must necessarily include the platitudes, the clichés and the stock expressions of current speech as did the language of Wordsworth, and it must, like the language of Wordsworth, attempt the impersonation of the unsophisticated memorialist, and the innocent visionary. Dorothy Livesay's poetry is capable, not only of Wordsworthian leisureliness with its attendant subtleties and longueurs, but also of the gnomic clarity which illuminates the Lucy poems, and which is characteristic of those later romantics, Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson, whom Ms. Livesay celebrates in one of her poems….
After 1956 the earlier prolixity and syntactical disarray seem to have been almost entirely conquered. The punctuation remains arbitrary on occasion, but the poems have a new force and clarity, a new directness and sense of form…. In this section of the Collected Poems the passion and the poetry fuse, and the later poems are equally deft and poised and strong. It is as if all the honesty, the sincerity, the courage, of the earlier poems have now come together with a real concern for poetry as an art. The descriptions are more vivid than before, and the technique is more assured.
Robin Skelton, "Livesay's Two Seasons," in Canadian Literature, Autumn, 1973, pp. 77-82.
Because Northrop Frye did so, most of Livesay's critics have labelled her an imagist, but the label is, for me, too sweeping. Certainly Livesay was influenced by the imagists; her affinities to H.D., both in quality and method of expression, are obvious, and have been noted by the critics. But there is much more to Livesay's poetry than her imagism. For me, she is primarily a lyricist, a poet who is deeply concerned and committed to the interaction and fusion of sound, rhythm, and expression in poetry. She has said that "song" (sound) and "dance" (rhythm) are the roots of poetry, that she is "always hearing this other beat behind the ordinary spoken language and I'm always hearing the melody". This is the ingredient which usually distinguishes poetry from prose, but occasionally there are prose writers who focus in on the sound and rhythm of their words; Virginia Woolf was one who did this. Margaret Laurence does it. And so does Dorothy Livesay….
Livesay, the poet, is tremendously aware of the effect which word music can create; she has transferred this aspect of her poetry to her prose. And the best sections of [A Winnipeg Childhood] are those in which sound and idea merge with image into a wholeness of expression….
Livesay's perceptions of the reality of existence—that is, of people trapped and alone in their own minds—is evident in many of her poems, and is the main theme to these stories, presented and structured like the processes of the mind. A Winnipeg Childhood proceeds in flashes of vision and memory, the most obvious example of the mind working. And the stories express the frightening sense of separateness, and of the ultimate uselessness of communication….
Dorothy Livesay [has] moved through her life, looking for certainty, yet recognizing that it is impossible. She realized in her poetry that the process of living results in the endless creation of new myths; many of her poems express an awareness that the humanitarian belief in life, in its unconquerable onward rush and in its possibilities for betterment, can become, in fact has become the new myth.
Donald Stephens, "Words and Music," in Canadian Literature, Spring, 1974, pp. 93-5.