Dorothy Livesay: A Feminist Lyric Socialist by Paulos Ioannou

Dorothy Livesay:  A Feminist  Lyric Socialist


I came across Dorothy’s name a few years back while I was doing some research on the state of Canadian literature. At that time the only thing I knew about her was that she was a poet, a critic and a reviewer  and that in fact she was a  Winner of Governor General’s Awards for her collection  Day and Night (1944) and Poems for People (1947).

I was intrigued of course by the fact that she was twice awarded the Governor General’s Award but at the time my interests were mostly focused on the literary magazine scene.

It was a few years later when I fortuitously obtained her collection “The Woman I am” given to me by a friend, who discovered it in a second hand bookstore along with a copy of “The Self-Completing Tree”. Subsequently, I also came across a number of her other poems along with some of the many interviews she provided that it became evident to me how important she was and how powerful her poetry, remaining  so relevant to to-day.

Dorothy: Life and Work

Dorothy was born in 1909, in Winnipeg and died December 29, 1996 in Victoria, British Columbia. She started writing at a very early age, for as she put it. as a personal expression. When she was around fourteen her mother sent one of her poems, without her knowledge, to the Vancouver Province. It was published and she was paid $2.00.

As far as I can ascertain Dorothy published more than 26 books of poetry and prose. She is considered a social realist, in more simplistic terms, but no less accurate, a socialist.

She studied at the University of Toronto  receiving a B.A  in modern languages with follow up studies at Sorbonne in Paris, France, receiving  a Diplôme d’études supérieures.

While in Paris she got very interested in Marxism philosophy, social justice and fairness which were later reinforced on her during the depression years.

Upon returning to Canada, to study at the School of Social Work at the University of Toronto, she joined the Communist Party.

She worked as a caseworker in Montreal, Vancouver and other locations outside Canada and taught in Zambia between 1959 to 1963.  At the same time, she was active in leftist artist organizations such as the Progressive Arts Club and was regional editor of the socialist New Frontier in Vancouver in 1936-37. In her interview with Doug Beardsley and Rosemary Sullivan, however, she admitted that she got disenchanted in the fifties with communism but she remained a dedicated socialist because in her words “I don’t believe in the capitalist system”

In addition to her Governor General’s Literary Award she was also awarded the Royal Society of Canada’s Lorne Pierce Medal in 1947 for distinguished contribution to Canadian literature and the Queen’s Canada Medal in 1977.

Despite her awards Dorothy remains almost unknown outside academic circles and to a growing but select group of serious poets. But this is the same fate of so many other Canadian greats, even though, in her case, some of her books are still being reprinted and individual poems are presented and analysed in several blogs.

Canada has produced many great poets, both imagists and modernists, and the poetic tradition is very strong and flourishes in the many poetry groups in and around the country.

It is to the credit of Terry Barker and Mosaic Press that James Deahl, with their support, has put together a remarkable selection of Acorn’s work. To my knowledge no such publication exists for Dorothy unless we consider as such “The Self-Completing Tree”, which is a compilation of what she considered her best work.

Dorothy follows a long line of early women pioneers in modernist   Canadian poetry. Her poetic work is permeated with lyrical sensitivity and a revolutionary fervour for social justice, antiauthoritarianism, the predicament of women both socially and sexually and the conservation of nature. Dorothy is not as polemic in her ideology as Milton Acorn but that may be a result of her being more refined and reflective  in comparison to Acorn as well of course in living and experiencing different historical periods.

In several interviews she indicated that initially she was mainly influenced by American poets such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and others stating that it was the whole imagist movement that started her off. Imagism as a poetic movement began in early 20th century and it is characterised by free verse, clear and sharp language thus avoiding excess verbiage which opened the road and formed the impetus to modernism.

Her first collection of poetry, Green Pitcher, was published in 1929 when she was only nineteen. But it was her collection “Day and Night” which won the Governor General’s Awards in1944 that  launched her as a major talent. In 1987 she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Philip Hewrett , minister emeritus of the Unitarian Church of Vancouver,  in his paper on Dorothy, dismisses her early poetry for being “passionately ideological” and considers them as not of high quality. While the quality of these poems may not be as high as her later work in the 60s and 70s what Hewrett does not acknowledge is that these poems cement Dorothy’s entire career  as themes that permeate her poetry throughout, the thematic in fact remains the same except now is done by a mature poet who is on top of her creativity.

Of particular note are her collections “The Unquiet Bed” “Ice Age”, “Call My People Home”, “The Woman I Am” and the “Self-Completing Tree”. Certainly different researchers and readers may compile a different set.

“The Woman I Am” deals mainly with poems of love and female sexuality.

Dr. Perm Varma believes that “The Unquiet Bed” is most central to the undererstanding of Dorothy’s  love poetry as  “the protest of a woman who refuses to be subortinated  simply because she has a submissive role in sex”.

Dorothy tells us that prior to writing “The Unquiet Bed” she fell deeply  in love and the poems spang out of her loins”. The book  includes her Zambian poetry for which Antje M. Rauwerda  in her contextual  analysis writes that the “Zambia” cycle  raises questions about a white Canadian’s apprehension of Zambia and it elucidates Dorothy’s use of nature/culture, man/woman, sun/moon, light/dark and black/ white oppositions as a whole, and especially in “Zambia.” Antje proceeds further to suggest that ” These binaries evoke racial and gender stereotypes, but, by considering Livesay’s use of them as part of the development of her ideas about binaries themselves rather than about colonial or gender politics, one can assert that they are not as reductive as they may first appear”.

The  “Call My People Home”  collection published in 1950 is a long documentary dealing with  the mistreatment of Japanese Canadians during World War II.

In the Ice Age the theme is mostly dark the idea of life, death, loneliness, enviromentalism.

“The Self-Completing Tree” was first published in 1986. It encapsulates the essence of Dorothy’s poetic creations and remains to my opinion the best of what she had to offer without devaluing any of her poems that were left out.

Tanya Butler  on her paper  about  “The Self-Completing Tree” suggests that Dorothy uses the metaphor implied by the title — a tree, half verdant, half in flames — to symbolize the androgynous self”. Furthermore, that ” this is the theme of much of Livesay’s work and a central metaphor for the most definitive collection of her poetry. The result is a spiritual autobiography charting the fascinating domains of her own life and the universal struggles we all share”.

British Columbia’s major poetry prize is named in Dorothy’s honour.

Dorothy’s Saying

I had high hopes for the grass roots poets in Canada like Milton Acorn, Al Purdy and Pat Lane. And Pat Lowther was certainly very much a committed poet before her murder. And Tom Wayman. It would seem to me that these poets and those that follow with them are speaking out, but there isn’t anything like the commitment of the writers in the thirties. We were so stirred up by what was happening in Spain. The takeovers by Mussolini and Hitler created an anti-Franco situation in Canada which was very strong.


An Interview with Dorothy Livesay, conducted by Doug Beardsley and Rosemary Sullivan

Politics, Gender, and New Provinces: Dorothy Livesay and F.R. Scott by Peggy Kelly

Interview/ DOROTHY LIVESAY #2 by Twigg, Alan , 1978,  Athabasca University English-Canadian Writers Dorothy Livesay.

Dorothy Livesay: CANADIAN CREATOR OF LITERARY CULTURE Phillip Hewett, Emeritus Minister, Unitarian Church of Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Ken Moffatt: Poetics of Social Work by University of Toronto Press, 2001.

The Love poetry Of Dorothy Livesay  by  Dr. Perm Varma

The task of  poetic mediation: Dorothy Livesay’s early poetry by Diana M. A. Relke

Upsetting an Already Unquiet Bed: Contextualizing Dorothy Livesay’s “Zambia.” by Antje M. Rauwerda

Dorothy Livesay’s Poetic Re/vision: Reading Binaries, Lesbian Love, and Androgyny in The Self-Completing Tree by Tanya Butler

The Self-Completing Tree: Livesay’s African Poetry by Fiona Sparrow

University of Manitoba Libraries

The Writing Livesays, Connecting Generations of Canadian Modernism by Ann Martin in Wider Boundaries of Daring, The Modernist Impulse in Canadian Women’s Poetry, edited by Di Brandt and Barbara Godard

A New Genealogy of Canadian Modernism by Di Brandt in Wider Boundaries of Daring, The Modernist Impulse in Canadian Women’s Poetry, edited by Di Brandt and Barbara Godard

Paulos Ioannou