Dorothy Livesay (October 12, 1909-December 29, 1996) was one of the leading Canadian poets of the twentieth century. Her free verse poetry probes the mysteries of existence—life and death, waking and dreaming, love and hate, male and female, being and doing—rejoicing that “small miracles / shatter the facts— / explode!” As a social worker, a teacher and a radical journalist, Livesay fiercely protested social habits and polices of oppression and destruction. She asks in her poem, “Ice Age,”
Now who among us
will lift a finger
to declare I am of God, good?
Who among us
dares to be righteous?
Dorothy was born and spent her first eleven years in Winnipeg. Her parents, both journalists, Florence Randal and John Frederick Bligh (J.F.B.) Livesay, fostered her literary interests. Florence was also a poet and translator, J.F.B. a war correspondent and author of Canada’s Hundred Days, 1919. In 1920 the family moved to Toronto where J.F.B. was manager of the Canadian Press. Dorothy attended a private girls’ school in which, she later wrote, she was isolated from “the pounding pulse of the city.” Even as a child she wrote poetry. Without her knowledge her mother submitted one of her poems to a newspaper. It was accepted and she received a cheque for two dollars.
Livesay was a student at the University of Toronto, 1927-31. Her first slender volume of verse, Green Pitcher, was published in 1928. The onset in 1929 of the Great Depression drew her into social concerns. Soon she was moving in radical circles of the university. The Depression deepened during her year of graduate studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, 1931-32. There she associated with active Communists. She returned to Toronto, enrolled in the School of Social Work and joined the Communist Party. In Montreal, 1933-34, and then in Englewood, New Jersey, 1934-35, she worked among the unemployed. The strain of the work took its toll on her health. She returned to Toronto and in 1936 moved to Vancouver as the western editor of the Communist journal, New Frontier.
In childhood Livesay had accepted without question her mother’s conventional Anglicanism, which was reinforced at school. Her father was a religious skeptic. In her university years Livesay declared herself emancipated from her religious upbringing and prepared to accept Marxist ideology, yet not without a sense of contradiction. She wrote, “At the same time . . . that I was embracing economic determinism and naturalism, I was also taking delight in a study of the seventeenth-century poets—all of whom were writing not in praise of man, but for the greater glory of God!”
Her poetry written during this period was passionately ideological and not of high quality. In 1937 she married Duncan Macnair, a Scottish accountant who had traveled widely before settling in Vancouver. Two children were born to them, Peter in 1940 and Marcia in 1942, and Livesay adjusted to routines of family responsibility. By this time she was disenchanted with Communism. She said, “I was disgusted with myself for having been so duped. But I believe I let myself be duped because no one else except the communists seemed to be concerned about the plight of our people, nor to be aware of the threat of Hitler and war.”
She was greatly disturbed by the “dazzling violence of atomic death,” which she contrasted with the “curve complete” of nature’s order. In “After Hiroshima” she described a world as living in fear and coping only with a divided consciousness. “The picture upon the wall is unveiled, but dare not speak.”
Not any more the visions and revelations:
Only in brief flashes is light received, good news.
Only a child’s belief, rocked in a cradle of doubt,
Can prophesy our safety; illuminate our hope.
Marriage opened for Livesay new avenues of poetic expression and also of religious search. Her husband Duncan was an ardent Theosophist. At the time a number of Theosophists were members of the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, which the Macnair family also began to attend. They were pleased with the church’s freedom from dogma and pleased that the church embraced strong social concerns. Yet Dorothy and Duncan were reluctant to join because at that time the church’s services lacked spiritual depth. As Livesay put it, “I missed there the sense of the mysteriousness of life”. They did not become members until 1955. In a sermon from the church’s pulpit in 1956, she tackled “some present-day problems of religion, and of religion as poetry.” She questioned “the honesty of a position which proclaims faith in man, but which ignores those works of man which have their origin in intuition and in identification with a power outside man.” She called for openness to “the study of creativity—or that ‘moment of insight’ which has always been so vital to the artist, as well as to the mystic.”
Livesay participated in the Vancouver congregation until she left the city in 1958. She also studied the religious thinking and practice of the native people, to which she responded deeply. Her poetry deepened, expressing what she had called in her sermon “the ‘personalist’ position which relates man to spirit.” Poet Robin Skelton wrote that Livesay’s work now flowed with an “economy of language, clarity of vision, suppleness of cadence, and strong sense of form.”
Her children out in the world, Livesay moved to take up a teaching career. For a year she studied the teaching of English at London University. Early in 1959 she received at the university news of Duncan’s sudden death from a massive stroke. She worked for UNESCO in Paris and then at a teachers’ training college in the newly emerging state of Zambia, 1959-63. In her Zambia years she continued to mature as a poet, as may be seen in the little collection called The Colour of God’s Face, 1964, published to benefit the Unitarian Service Committee.
When Livesay returned to Canada, she again enrolled as a graduate student, 1963-64, and earned an M.Ed degree from the University of British Columbia. For a decade, then, she was engaged as writer-in-residence at a series of Canadian universities. Having already received several honours for her work, she was granted honorary degrees by several of those universities, beginning with a D.Litt in 1972 from the University of Waterloo.
Her writing now began to emphasize the experience of being a woman, especially the 1967 collection, The Unquiet Bed. She listed as the concerns to which she had dedicated her life and work “the destruction of the environment, the danger of nuclear war, the plight of women politically and socially, the mistreatment of children, and also the need for improved health and dietary standards.”
The stages of life, aging, and death were among the primary themes of Livesay’s poetry. She envisioned the afterlife as “a possible / breathtaking landscape” and expressed tentative “belief in the heart’s everness / endlessly beating / its way home.” In her poem, “After Grief,” she wrote,
And still, some say
death raises up
gathers the soul strong-limbed
above the common tide
to catch a glimpse
(over world’s wailing wall)
of an exultant countryside.
In retirement Livesay was appointed to the Order of Canada, 1987, and the Order of British Columbia, 1992. For a number of years she lived on Galiano Island, a rural retreat between Vancouver and Victoria. Eventually she moved to Victoria, where she was a regularly attending and well loved member of the Unitarian Church. Her death in 1996 occurred during one of the city’s infrequent snowstorms. She had been born 87 years earlier in a Winnipeg snowstorm, an event she took as a symbol of her early identity.
Reared on snow she was
Manacled in ice.
Livesay once wrote, “[E]very decade we become a different person,” a sentence which could be taken to describe her career. Yet an essential continuity of character shaped her many changes of occupation and style. As the literary critic George Woodcock put it, “I cannot think of another Canadian poet whose work has advanced with such assurance into a mature self-sufficiency where almost every poetic statement is memorable and complete and, however brief, somehow enlarged with the grandeur that comes from the hard-won concord of language and intent.”
There are collections of Livesay papers and recorded documents at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba; the University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia; Grant McEwan College, Edmonton, Alberta; University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, New Brunswick; and in the British Columbia Archives, Victoria, British Columbia. Among Livesay writings not mentioned above are Day And Night (1944); Poems for People (1947); Call My People Home (1950); A Winnipeg Childhood (1973); Ice Age (1975); The Raw Edges: Voices from Our Time (1981); The Phases of Love (1983); Beginnings (1988); and Journey With My Selves: A Memoir, 1909-1963 (1991). The Self-Completing Tree: Selected Poems (1986) is her own self-selected anthology, “the selection of poems that I would like to be remembered by.” Dean J. Levine has edited Archive for Our Times: Previously Uncollected and Unpublished Poems of Dorothy Livesay (1998).
There are several biographies of Livesay: Alan Stuart Ricketts, Dorothy Livesay (1983); Lee Briscoe Thompson, Dorothy Livesay (1987); and Peter Stevens, Dorothy Livesay: Patterns in a Poetic Life (1992). Much useful information is in the the Dorothy Livesay issue of Room of One’s Own (Vol. 5 No. 1/2, 1979). The author also uses personal recollections and the records of the Unitarian Church of Vancouver, Vancouver, British Columbia. Studies of Livesay’s work include Paul Denham, Dorothy Livesay and Her Works (1987) and Nadine Mcinnis, Dorothy Livesay’s Poetics of Desire (1994). A comprehensive list of her writings and writings about her can be found at the website of the University of Calgary (www.ucalgary.ca).
Article by Phillip Hewett
Posted January 7, 2003