Canonization or exclusion?: Dorothy Livesay's wayward modernism from the 1940s'.
Inspired by feminist readings of Modernism, in this essay I am interested in reevaluating Livesay's "native" poetry in opposition to a male "cosmopolitan" Canadian modernism. The combination of her very long and accomplished literary career, her commitment to left-wing politics as well as her lifelong commitment to Canadian literature make her a crucial figure for the understanding and rereading of Canadian modernism.
I have been looking in vain, not for "proletarian poets"--we are far from that--but for some genuine expression of experience, related to the way people live and struggle in Canada. (Dorothy Livesay, 1939)
GENEALOGIES OF THE MODERN
Over the last two decades, feminist criticism has revised the literary history of the modernist period focusing on British and North-American writers. Scholarly works like Suzanne Clark's Sentimental Modernism (1991) and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's ambitious project No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century (1988-89) establish that male gender bias was present among writers in the United States and England during the first half of the twentieth century. Gilbert and Gubar state that the code of objectivity located both in male modernists' theoretical writing and in their poetry was formulated in response to the advent of women into literary high culture. Suzanne Clark notes that in the United States modernist writing came under the scrutiny of "the modernist criticism" of the New Critics such as John Crowe Ransom who used aesthetic antisentimentality to make distinctions and to establish a position of authority against mass culture. Clark states that mass culture was a feminized enemy the New Critics saw as dangerous and suggests that they conflated sentimentalism with the traditional, and the traditional with the feminine.
The situation described can also apply to the atmosphere of the times in Canada. In this country the "soft heart" stereotype associated with women writers came to be associated with what A.J.M. Smith called the "romantic" and "conventional bulk" of traditional Canadian verse (Dudek & Gnarowski 1967:18). For an influential poet and critic like A.J.M. Smith, modernist poetry was associated with stereotypically masculine qualities valuing intellect over emotion. Smith wrote in 1936 that "[t]he fundamental criticism that must be brought against Canadian poetry as a whole is that it ignores the intelligence" (1976: xxviii). And intelligence was a quality New Critical writing tended to claim for the male poet. This paper is an attempt to fill in the gaps created by Canadian modernist canonization--a canonization that had no room for female writers.
The rise of modernism coincided and was partially fueled by a revulsion against the preceding century's sentimentalized romanticism, a literary mode in which many nineteenth-century women poets had excelled. Aspiring women writers of the early twentieth century were as invested as their male counterparts in disclaiming all ties and proximity to their Victorian precursors. A new age--hard, technological, urban, ironic, "modern"--had dawned and women authors intended to be part of it.
The rejection of their Victorian predecessors had very different consequences for women poets than it did for their male peers. Joanne Feit Diehl (1990) has framed the narrative of American women's poetry as an Oedipal struggle between individual strong women poets and their great (male) precursors. She analyzes the way in which Emerson's exclusion of women from the intellectual and artistic process of creation led to an "engendered Sublime". Because they lacked their own legitimating source of authority, strong women poets, from Dickinson on, have been forced into wresting power from this "central" Emersonian tradition. If the poet at the center of the drama of inspiration is known by his gender, in Diehl's view, women poets who would assert their own power must confront that conception and redefine the experiential sublime in light of their identity as women; to achieve this end, strong women poets (Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Hath and Adrienne Rich), had to create, as it were, a "counter-Sublime". Diehl's is a powerful thesis; she argues that women poets are unable to claim their sexual identity within the rhetoric of the Emersonian tradition and still employ that rhetoric unchanged. In this tradition woman is the Other. To make otherness a position from which she can speak requires that she either contend with and radically alter the received tradition--as, in different ways do Dickinson and Rich--or that she degender her voice--as do Moore and Bishop.
Many early twentieth-century women poets found themselves in an untenable position vis a vis their art because of increasingly restrictive cultural constructions of femininity. The unhappy consequences of this restriction are all too evident both in the poetry these women wrote and the lives they lived. Given the cultural mix with which they were burdened--part male canonical tradition, part consumerism and media exploitation, part retrenchment of gender roles following World War I--there is no way these poets could have produced a female-identified art that was not also riddled with self-contradiction, blasted by confusion. Cut off from the great mass of poetry that could have validated them, they still wrote as women. Forced to evolve strategies of authenticity in a void--the personae or masks beneath which many of these poets wrote--they moved back and forth between conventional constructions of femininity and their own interior knowledge of their power.
Dorothy Livesay's poetry is a case in point. As a Canadian female poet, she too had to contend with a pervasive and yet rarely explicit bias against women as modernist poets. Part of her most significant work in this period explored the gender bias of her own time and actively structured the meaning of sexual difference. This meant that her poetry identified areas of concern to women as a group and often worked through several positions regarding these issues. Her poems structure the way her women readers came to see their own experiences, and now, in our time, they may help us to think more clearly about the way cultural constructions of femininity affected certain kinds of women in the first decades of the twentieth century. The stylistic evolution of Dorothy Livesay was undoubtedly influenced by the work of older modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield. Her writing was also influenced by social change pertaining to Canadian women. (2) In Livesay's poetry one finds a commitment to a non-elitist version of modernism which both registers gender difference and explores it.
HOW CRITICS READ CANADIAN MODERNISM
Inside Canada, criticism of modern poetry has often stressed "the renovation of Canadian poetry along modernist lines" (Dudek & Gnarowski 1967: 24) as a matter of shifting formal properties such as flee verse, irregular rhyme, or lack of rhyme, and use of vernacular speech patterns. David Amason has offered this formal definiton of modernism in relation to poetry:
Modernism, as I will use the term, refers to a rejection of conventional nineteenth century poetic structure. It is characterized by a movement away from rhyme and regular poetic feet. It abandons poetic archaisms such as 'thou' and 'thee' and 'wouldst.' It is suspicious of the narrative mode, preferring the lyric. In its earlier manifestations it concentrates on the individual image. Its later manifestations move it toward a concentration on the metaphor, often the tough intellectual metaphor, and towards a highly charged language. Objectivity and irony become its defining qualities, and its chief words of praise. (1988: 6)
I would suggest that "objectivity and irony" became the "chief words of praise" of influential critics of modernist verse such as A.J.M. Smith. However, it is true that in Livesay's Day and Night (1944) and Poems for People (1947) what might be considered markers of "objectivity" are found more frequently than in her first two books. In certain poems in these volumes, references to "man's building heart, his shaping soul" (Livesay 1957:167)and the "infant" as the upcoming "upright man" rising to "[o]ne's certain self-supreme self consciousness" (Livesay 1957:160), seem to turn away from the female as subject in favour of the universal "mankind". However, in other poems such as "Serenade for Strings" and "Five Poems" female subjectivity remains the central concern.
"Properly speaking", writes Brian Trehearne, "Canadian Modernism begins somewhere in [The McGill] Fortnightly, yes; as well as in the Newfoundland Verse of Pratt and the early volumes of Livesay" (1989: 252). In Aestheticism and the Canadian Modernists (1989), Trehearne focuses on W.W.E. Ross, Raymond Knister, F.R. Scott and A.J.M. Smith, as well as John Glassco. Livesay falls outside his analysis, and so, too, evidently, do the women poets of Canadian modernism's second wave. Central to Trehearne's study of the early group of Canadian male poets is the premise that "delayed Aestheticism from the 1920s" influenced them along with modernism. Trehearne sees a division between two generations of Canadian modernists: the earlier one, influenced by the aestheticism of Wilde and the aestheticist theory of Pater; and the second, later generation, influenced by the realism and social activist writing found in the work of Auden and Spender. In Trehearne's analysis, the two generations of writers who were Canadian modernists created different versions of modernism. Trehearne mentions Dudek and Layton as belonging to the second group of "delayed modern[ists]" who represent "a Modernism substantially different from the Modernism of the first group of Modernists" (1989:314). Of the differences between generations, he has this to say:
That they were hostile to one another is natural, given that each generation brought to the Modernist impulse antithetical tastes, the first for the Aesthetic, the second for committed realist poetry. Only by recognizing each generation in a context larger and more complex than inherited literary Modernism can we understand the Modernism of this country; and such recognition can only come when we grow sensitive to the multifarious ways in which influence, whether cultural, artistic, or political, whether mediated by time or immediate, has shaped Canadian literature from first foundations onward. (1989:314)
Trehearne makes the valid point that "literary modernism" changed between generations of the male poets he considers. Yet, Livesay and other women poets tend to present challenges to the male-centred version of modernism he explores --in his book Trehearne refers to Dorothy Livesay only three times.
Numerous other critics still pursue a view of modernism--by emphasizing the accomplishment of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and James Joyce--as a strictly male movement. In writing of the second wave of Canadian modernism Frank Davey (1988), too, seems to demonstrate an unavowed preference for male poets of the period, for just as Trehearne writes of the first wave of Canadian modernism as being by and about men, so Davey writes of the second wave as if the men are, once again, the only important contributors. And in the introductory preface of New Provinces: Poems by Several Authors (1936), A.J.M. Smith's version of modernism sought to toughen the image of the traditional Canadian poet, who was characterized in terms of stereotypically female attributes, "the victim of his feelings" with "a soft heart and a soft soul; and a soft head" (1976: xxviii). By contrast, the "modern" male poet has moved smartly away from "the bulk of Canadian verse" with its thematics of nature and love, since "he" is part of a new world, "a man of sense" with "something more important to do than record his private emotions" (1976: xxxi). Smith called for a poetry which was "objective, impersonal, and in a sense timeless and absolute" (Dudek & Gnarowski 1967: 40), and asserted that "the fundamental criticism that must be brought against Canadian poetry as a whole is that it ignores the intelligence" (1976: 39). Very few women--such as Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop--who did not, explicitly at least, focus on female subjectivity, could be considered "intelligent".
High modernists theorized modernist form for their own elite audiences. To the Livesay of the early thirties, particularly after her second book Signpost (1932), this became an unacceptable presupposition. David Amason notes that by 1932 Livesay "separates herself from what has come to be seen as the mainstream of modernist writing ... typified by Eliot--high modernism" (1988: 16). In "Decadence in Modem Bourgeois Poetry", a 1936 radio talk, Livesay spoke against The Waste Land in particular and high modernism in general, proclaiming that "bourgeois art is dead" and that "a new art, the proletarian is being born" (1977b: 67). In reaction against high modernism Livesay's early poetry tends to stay within the lyric from and within the rhythms of speech. She eschewed the aesthetic poets' reverence for "art for art's sake" and she was attracted to the revolutionary impulse in modernism played out in externally referential poetry. In The White Savannahs (originally published in 1936), W.E. Collins commented that "[s]he has developed beyond her egocentrism to devote herself to a human cause" (1975: 153). In praising a shift from the "Narcissus-like posture" of contemplating female subjectivity to political poems which spoke of "Man" and human beings as "brothers", Collins prioritized the thematic concerns of socialism as superior to a nascent feminism. When Livesay wrote poems which spoke of "man" and "mankind" she reverted to a language which was easier for her male critics to read and less objectionable to those influenced by new criticism's admonitions against feminine sentimentality.
In The Auden Generation, Samuel Hynes summarizes C. Day Lewis's account of the "problem of the modern poet". Quoting Day Lewis, Hynes notes "the problem is seen as a personal one: 'how does the individual poetic mind relate to the conditions of the world outside?'" (1976: 43). Livesay read Day Lewis with avid interest. But where Auden's generation of male poets assumed in the common usage of their time that "mankind" encompassed all humankind, Livesay's poems show the additional complexity of a focus on female subjectivity. In her work from the forties and fifties, Livesay also adopted these "universal" terms in her poetry. Her acceptance of this usage in both poetry and critical writing underscores the gender bias of an education within patriarchal culture that was taught to be regarded as neutral.
Where male poets such as F.R. Scott assumed--both by way of polemic and in verse--that the lyric speaker in the modernist poem was the modern male, and that modernism belonged to "the boys", female poets such as Livesay occupied the position of outsiders. They were doubly chastened by a colonial mind-set which took for granted that all the truly great poets in English were born and raised in the Old World. Against the premise that the poetic subject was male, they had the example of Emily Dickinson, as well as a first generation of modernist writers such as H.D., Edith Sitwell and Virginia Woolf and many lesser known others.
As a young female poet, Livesay adopted the modernist impulse to "make it new" within lyric poetry and extended it to her own emerging feminism. The modernist lyric was a central means to explore a rupture with the Old World in her own textual terms. In her journals, she refers numerous times to Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield as a source of inspiration. These writers were especially significant for Livesay since they deconstruct traditional conventions of poetry and fiction which restrict the roles of women. Years later, in 1944, her first mention to Isabella Valancy Crawford appears. In a review of A.J.M. Smith's The Book of Canadian Poetry (1943), she remarks that Crawford "first showed us a pioneer people wresting with nature" (1944b: 21). Although the two poets would seem to have little in common, Livesay's important essay on the documentary poem clarifies the link; the documentary is a genre which she sees as distinctively Canadian and which includes Crawford's "Malcolm's Katie", Pratt's historical narratives, Anne Marriott's "The Wind Our Enemy", and Livesay's own long poems. Clearly, Livesay wishes to define her place not only in modernist literature, but in the Canadian literary tradition.
The near invisibility of female poets in Canadian modernism has to do with the failure of writers and critics to assess their work and with the perception of a lack of connection among women poets during both the first and the second waves of Canadian modernism. Gillian Hanscombe and Virginia Stayers suggest that for female modernist writers in England "it is [the] simultaneous breaking with both literary and social conventions which constitutes the radicalism common among them which makes it possible for them to form a network" (1987:11). Within Canada the links between female poets seem to have been more tenuous in the first half of the twentieth century. In part this may have been due to the perception, explicit in life-writing, that "men" would always be the important ones. Alliance with influential male poets and critics was vital to a woman poet's success. In any event, Livesay's long story of exclusion from the makers of Canadian modernism starts with her absence from New Provinces: Poems of Several Authors (1936), a collaborative work of six male poets--Robert Finch, Leo Kennedy, A.M. Klein, E.J. Pratt, F.R. Scott and A.J.M. Smith--from Montreal and Toronto claiming to show the new directions Canadian modernists were taking. Dorothy Livesay had a background in social work and affiliation with radical political interests as well. She was a pioneer in politicizing female subjectivity in terms of gender. Her life-writing and her poetry provide a textual ground from which we may delineate an emerging sense of resistance to traditional femininity. Livesay was deeply committed to her own work and had the development of modem Canadian poetry passionately at heart.
A SOCIAL POETRY FOR ORDINARY CANADIANS
In 1928 Virginia Woolf wrote of how difficult it was for a woman writer to find the modest amount of money and "a room of her own" essential to creativity. Livesay was a privileged pioneer in this, for as early as 1929 she was already enjoying these ideal conditions during eight months in the south of France where she spent her third university year (Universite d'Aix-Marseille), a period she describes as being more rewarding for her creative development and self-knowledge than any previous time. The advent of the Depression, her attendance in Toronto at lectures by the American anarchist Emma Goldman, and her contact with hard social conditions in Paris all contributed to her interest in communism. By the time her second book of poetry, Signpost, was published in 1932, she had lost interest in writing personal poems and was contributing strongly committed marxist poems to the Toronto-based communist paper Masses (1932-34) and working in branches of the Progressive Arts Club. She studied at the School of Social Work at the University of Toronto during 1932-33, did field work with the Family Welfare Agency in Montreal, and then worked for a relief agency in New Jersey. Returning to Canada in 1935, she wrote her long poems "The Outrider" (1935) and "Day and Night" (1936). Then, in 1936-37, she served on the editorial board of New Frontier (1936-37), a left-wing journal concerned with art and the social scene, and contributed several poems and stories to it before moving to Vancouver in 1936. There, in the 1940s, her range of literary acquaintances widened to include other female writers such as Anne Marriott, Ethel Wilson and P.K. Page. The abundant detail of economic hardship and urban squalor, which she observed as a social worker, finds its way into a significant number of poems written in the 1940s and 1950s.
During her youth and in the years which followed Livesay straggled for gender equality both as a committed socialist and as a poet. The image of the female, as equal and fellow traveller, is significant in the writing of Livesay during the second wave of modernism. In her first two books of modernist poetry, Green Pitcher (1928) and Signpost (1932), Livesay characteristically pictures the female speaker either locked up in her room as in "Staccato", or contemplating the male's return as in "City Wife", who states that "even as the tree, I wait" (1957: 45), or, like a ghost, held to a "House" unable to leave as in "Farewell" (1957: 50). However, in Day and Night and Poems for People, the speaker is a citizen of the world with laments such as "Lorca" (1957: 125-27) and meditations on the intersection of international politics in the lives of two lovers "In Time of War": "It seemed no time for love, when the hands/Idled in the empty pockets and coffee was five cents a cup" (1957: 169). The interval between Livesay's first two books, in which women wait and meditate, and the second two, where the female is drawn from reclusive postures to engage with a changed world, seems most marked.
It is crucial to note that in Livesay's poetry, the poem is taken as a vehicle for the speaker's response to experience. In The New Poetry (1917) editors Harriet Monroe and Alice Corbin Henderson called for "concrete and immediate realization of life" quoting Yeats's call for "a style like speech, as simple as the simplest prose, like a cry from the heart" (Rosenthal 1965: 18-19). This new "style", "get[ting] rid not only of rhetoric but of poetic diction" (Yeats, in Rosenthal 1965: 18) is present in Canadian modernism in the work of Livesay, Raymond Souster and Miriam Waddington. This significant element within the modernist lyric tradition has been silenced in Canadian literary history.
Livesay married Duncan Macnair in 1937 and promptly lost her job with the B.C. Welfare Field Office, since "at that time no married woman could be legally employed in the profession of teaching, nursing or social work" (1991: 156). She recalls that, because of the lack of paid work after her marriage, she became "deeply depressed" (1991: 156). Biographer Lee Briscoe Thompson tells about her writing in the 1940s and 1950s in largely negative terms:
In personal poetry of the 1940s and 1950s ... an increasing sense of stricture and confinement ... weighted her feet, saddened her song. It was a predictable condition in one who was the mother of two; wife of an authoritarian and flinty older man; working woman beset by financial and professional anxieties; western Canadian female writer in a national culture dominated by an eastern male elite; and citizen of a nation with a self-image of reserve and caution. (Thompson 1987: 8)
In the 1940s, Dorothy Livesay kept up her search for a poetry that would be accessible and appealing to ordinary Canadians. Not a political poetry in the narrow sense but a verse which linked a "social concern" and a "commitment to change" to a "search for roots", a people's poetry had to reflect the realities of the everyday lives of Canadians while speaking to their deepest concerns in a language that was clear and compelling (Livesay 1977b: 255). An authentically Canadian poetry had to express the spirit of the country; but needed to be, to use A.J.M. Smith's description of Earle Birney's verse, "'Canadian' in the only way that is worth anything, implicitly and inevitably" (1943: 30). Such poetry would have to begin, if not end, with the issue of the war. A poetry in response to war-time realities had already begun to grow up in Canada, and from precisely those roots set down by Livesay and her committed contemporaries in the previous decade. As she observed some years later: "The Thirties poets stated the case, but the Forties poets carried the message further through the Second World War" (1977b: 255). By the time the war was in full swing, the social revolutionary writings of the Marxist 1930s had, indeed, issued in a tradition of politically-oriented social criticism, largely in the form of satire. Montreal was the scene of this most recent development. At its heart were two groups of young poets who clustered around the new poetry magazines, Preview and First Statement.
If Livesay was unsure how she might achieve the new goals which she had set herself as a poet, there was one thing about which she was entirely certain: the poetry springing up in Montreal did not lead in the direction she herself wanted to go; the Preview mixture of the social conscience of Auden with the new surrealism bred, in her view, a sickly hybrid. As she saw it, their flourishing verse was only a symptom of the ill-health of a still very colonial Canadian poetry. Her rejection of the Preview style and sensibility was bluntly and unequivocally expressed in a 1944 article on recent trends in Canadian poetry and a radio review of a collection of their verse. Indeed, the former was so harsh that it led to a heated debate between Livesay and Patrick Anderson, the unofficial head of the group, who accused her of betraying a "'colonial' fear of cosmopolitanism". (3)
Published in the 1944 issue of The Canadian Forum, "This Canadian Poetry" embodies a broader consideration of the problem. Livesay bases her critique on the distinction made by A.J.M. Smith (1943) between "native" poets like Waddington, Birney and Marriott and "cosmopolitan" ones like Page, Neufville-Shaw, and Anderson. The latter, she argued, were writing "about the country of their own heads" and "in a language, a 'manner', out of someone else's head" (Livesay 1944b: 20-21). In her view; the Preview poets were imitating in their poetic style the current trend towards a psychological symbolism begun by Thomas and his "satellite" Barker. In doing so, they had become both derivative and obscure. The "native" poets, as Livesay would clarify in her response to Anderson's attack on her article, solved the problem of "distortion of language" and its root cause, "preciosity of thought", by a simple dose of "mental honesty". Such honesty, she had said, found its basis in the poet's recording of the immediacies of his world--"the feel awareness of the devastating legacy of the war--bombed-out cities, homeless and impoverished people, and the massive destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki--cast a dark shadow even on her romantic faith in the ultimate freedom of the individual. The war had been nothing less than what Maxim Gorki had warned it would be: "a second world massacre" (1977b: 278). And in the face of that massacre, all hope paled. As a Canadian, Livesay had not been assaulted with the realities of war in quite the same way as her European and especially British contemporaries. But now her travels through England, France and Germany as a reporter were giving her an intimate acquaintance with, at least, its terrible aftermath.
Livesay's poetic experiments since 1944, when Day and Night was published, had been prolific and varied. When she returned from London late in 1946, she gathered them together in Poems for People (1947). The book emphasized the diversity of Livesay's poetic endeavours of the 1940s, while underlining their common purpose: the creation of a poetry which in theme and form was accessible to ordinary people, especially to Canadians. Three separate sections entitled "Poems of Childhood", "Poems for People", and "Poems as Pictures" map out Livesay's major areas of concern, personal and social: the portrayal of feminine experience, the documentation &various responses to the social scene, and the evocation of place. Livesay had gone a long way towards resolving the debate raging on the Canadian scene regarding the relative merits of "native" and "cosmopolitan" poets. In a review of the volume, Miriam Waddington, for example, defended Livesay's difference for her supposedly "cosmopolitan" contemporaries:
Although we find no echoes of Auden and Spender, Thomas and Barker in her poems, it is not because she has failed to appreciate these writers. Rather, she has matured beyond the need to imitate, and has assimilated whatever identification she once had into her own strong poetic individuality. It is Livesay's ability to affirm nativeness, to take into herself her immediate environment, however imperfect it is, and utilize it creatively, which puts her well ahead, in terms of poetic development, of those who are still writing from the citadel of "cosmopolitanism". (Waddington 1947: 37)
In the same vein, Howard Sergeant praised Livesay's recognition that the growth of a Canadian literature depended solely upon the "inevitable creative function". He elaborated:
Her fourth book, Poems for People, for which she has been awarded (for the second time) the Governor-General's medal, reveals her as a poet who, whilst maintaining a firm root-hold in the Canadian soil, has avoided the maple-leaf mentality. This is not to suggest that she has concentrated her attention upon specifically Canadian subjects; her themes are taken from a wide field, but she has an inherent capacity for spotlighting those human characteristics common to us all ... and an awareness ... of the underlying implications, so that her work is more universal than that of the "cosmopolitans" themselves. (Sergeant 1949: 14-15)
Finally, Livesay's 1947 volume pointed to the emergence of a vision capable of filling the void left by her erstwhile Marxism. The social protests contain a richer feeling for humanity, for tolerance and affection. Livesay's Day and Night and Poems for People deploy lyric poetry to explore female subjectivity and the consequences Of World War II during a period when North American women seemed to retreat en masse to the anonymity of the domestic realm.
READING LIVESAY'S DAY AND NIGHT AND POEMS FOR PEOPLE
The two books Livesay published in the forties present a balance between a socially-engaged poetry--which most often refers to "mankind" and "man"--and an exploration of female subjectivity. Day and Night (1944) is a book of connected lyrics, modernist long poems broken in a fragmentation which lends itself to expressing a break with traditional verse. Formal discontinuity, featured in modernist poetry, mirrors a society in crisis. In this respect, in her poems from the 1940s Livesay eschews the formal markers of poetic order such as even feet and unity of poetic theme.
She begins Day and Night with her series "Seven Poems", an announcement of the devastation which occurred in the period between 1934 and 1940 while she had been working on these poems. That devastation is broken up in discontinuous brief lyrics which escape organizing narrative and any clear line of thought:
A shell burst in my mind Upheaving roots since birth, perhaps, confined Before I dreamed The devastation there outlined And so my body now Owes no allegiance to the scythe and plough: I, dispossessed Count no blossoms on the bough. I build no man's land A city not my own, with others planned By others dreamed, And with a new race forged and manned! (Livesay 1957: 108)
The speaker neither owns the heroic past of battle, nor feels part of the new features of the city. The use of the generic "man" and "manned" reminds one that women play a secondary role in this new order, and that fact may be central to the alienation of the speaker.
"Prelude for Spring" may be read as a modernist poem which uses metaphor to tell a story about fascist aggression: the "Proud prowler" (1957: 128) resembles a "bird of prey", and Hitler was often represented as such while Western democracies were viewed as pursued. One can imagine that in the forties, people might have identified with the fawn fearing the lethal prowler:
He comes. Insistent, sure Proud prowler, this pursuer comes Noiseless, no wind-stir No leaf-turn over; Together quiet creeps on twig, Hush hovers in his hands....
The poem ends with an ominous tone:
And now the chill Raw sun Goes greener still-- The sky Cracks like an icicle. Frozen, foot-locked Heart choked and chafed Wing-battered and unsafe, Grovel to ground! A cry Lashes the sky--
These dreams abound. (Livesay 1957: 128, 130)
But we might also venture that "Prelude for Spring" speaks to a world in which the patriarchal order has held the fawn [female] self "frozen, foot-locked" (Livesay 1957: 130), tying her to nature. By contrast, the "Proud prowler" carries with him the conviction of his own entitlement to the very 'life of the female he hunts. This poem provides a picture of female subjectivity that is menaced because it is seen as the "Prowler's" natural prey.
Many of the lyrics in Dew and Night which explore female subjectivity have beep_ passed over by critics in preference for discussion of documentary poems such as "Day and Night", "The Outrider" and "West Coast". In this respect, we should mention "Serenade for Strings", the sequence "Five Poems" and "Fantasia", as instances where a female imaginary is widely explored. "Serenade for Strings" is dedicated to Livesay's son Peter and celebrates his birth in April of 1940. The poet tropes the realities of birth and motherhood in a context totally bound to the body:
Now double wing-beat Breasting body Till cloudways open Heaven trembles: And blinding searing terrifying cry] The final bolt has fallen. The firmament is riven. (Livesay 1957: 133)
In "Five Poems", dedicated to Livesay's daughter Marcia, the subject of the poem is never explicit. It suggests five lyric approaches in which the reader is also challenged to dream. The speaker uses the image of two trees, which can be read as self and child, alluding to the space both of them will need to contemplate the world and to grow. This can be read as a symbolic landscape, free from the cliches of traditional motherhood and concerned with "child" and "self" as distinct persons. It ends with an affirmation that opens up a space for the answer of the new:
ii Your face is new; strange; Yet infinitely known Loved in some century Grass swept, tree sown.... Early in the late Moon-tossed night Your face a flash Foreruns the light.... v Not burials; not dust and ashes' crumbs But world's own cry resounding! The spacious, the distant, army of your answer The fast approaching drums. (Livesay 1957: 134-35, 137)
The final poem in Day and Night, "West Coast", shows absence of the female in favour of what E.J. Pratt called "fine muscular poetry" in which it seemed women had totally disappeared. By praising reconstruction of a nation of men, Livesay herself could assume an androcentric power as "world-welder", creator of the poem. But with that power came the persona of the male poet: a Canadian hero-poet, yet like Auden, as at home on the mountain as with the classics:
He who knew heaven is coming down the mountain Is stirred with wonder; curious even he, Who sat with Horace at Socrate's heeles Lulled to the murmur of Virgilian bees, who bent his eyes bookward in the earliest days Suckling sunlight from a world of words Dreaming to be a word-welder, builder of these. (Livesay 1944a: 41)
In Collected Poems, "West Coast" appeared with some revisions and the addition of a dedication to Earle Birney (Livesay 1957: 140). "West Coast" is, perhaps, an attempt to prove that Livesay could write like the best of the boys. Critic Lee B. Thompson notes:
The poem's narration concerns a young, farm-born outsider who moves from 'dreaming to be a world welder' to singing with his comrades the 'song from the hearts of men at labour/welding their words to the ship's side,' which can be seen as Livesay's own agenda. (1987: 49)
In "West Coast", history is dominated by a great world of moving men and moves back to affirmation of a male-centred order intent on "straddling new day" (Livesay 1957: 145).
Like Day and Night, Poems for People won the Governor General's Award. Both books were justly praised for their commitment to a larger world. But today, their liberal humanist emphasis on "mankind" and "man" seems dated. When Miriam Waddington reviewed Poems for People she focused on gender as a positive element in the book and recognized what she called "the problems of the ... many-sided feminine self' within the volume: "Livesay is preoccupied with the problems of expressing and perhaps reconciling the many-sided feminine self. This self continually appears in all its varied guises of child, wife, mother, and finally as the socially concerned human being" (1947: 165). Poems for People is grounded in the subjectivity of a female "I" living in a particular time and bound to a father-dominated past, who struggles not to be erased within patriarchal culture. Thus, in "Inheritance", the lyric speaker faces an old man. The father is presented as an intransigent figure which is kept in the "rooms of my heart":
In the rooms of my heart you race Fiery father of us, your kind, Your burdened brood; who yet will face The day, the dark; housed in a quiet mind. (Livesay 1957: 160)
In "Preludium" the poet faces the new male child: "The infant, like and invalid/Is slow aware of worlds to win" (Livesay 1957:160). The trap gender roles represent for the female within patriarchal culture is nowhere more apparent than in "The Mother". This poem balances the constriction of motherhood within patriarchal culture with elements of the natural world and the promise for a day of play:
She cannot walk alone. Must set her pace To the slow count of grasses, butterflies To puppy's leap, the new bulldozer's wheeze To Chinese fisherman, balancing his pole. She cannot think alone. Words must be Poised to the smaller scope, immediates Of wagon's broken wheel, a battered knee, The sun's high promise for a day of play. (Livesay 1957: 161)
The poem "Of Mourners" once again returns to the liberal humanist male as subject: "Not on the lovely body of the world/But on man's building heart, his shaping soul./ Mourn, with me, the intolerant, hater of the sun:/ Child's mind maimed before he learns to run" (Livesay 1957: 167). The sonnet "In Time of War" conveys a sense of the impotence of the poetic act before the fact of the war, a feeling which stands in contrast to the spirit of revolutionary romanticism in "West Coast" and to that poem's affirmation of the power of words to change the world. The shattering of the world is an experience shared by the soldier, the poet and all others living through the war.
"London Revisited: 1946" is probably Livesay's most important post-war poem. In it, the task of the poet is to record and to remember, and thus to prevent such horror in the future. To record is also to try to understand. In the poem, the speaker seeks reasons for the madness of war (Livesay 1957: 170-71). In the third section, the speaker has to confront the shock of the bitter realities of war. This shock is troped in terms of a "fall" into a new awareness:
Coming with guide and gift, I fell Blundering through dark, around No builded wall I fell and heard my fall Echoing through the tall Rubble of rift and wreck Down to the low unreaching wretched wall Through the last door hung On naked nail And the stairs flung Up to the gap of hell: And above, no ceiling And below, no wall. (Livesay 1957: 172)
In "London Revisited: 1946" and most poems of this time, whether in sonnets like "In Time of War" or in longer, structurally more varied poems, the effects of Livesay's journalism on her poetic style are apparent. The meditative impulse is still present, but one can also find a colloquial way of speaking, a powerful phrasing, and a strong attention to detail that is journalistic. At the same time, it can be perceived that Livesay's view of the function of the poet was shifting from interpreter to observer of reality. I would suggest that these poems be read as works which explore female subjectivity and its commitment to the world in the modernist form while conveying a complex mood of ambivalence and disjunction, formally reinforced by the lyric sequence's refusals of simple harmonies in rhyme and meter.
Dorothy Livesay's widening vision changed her from a political to a people's poet. In Livesay's poetic exercises of the late 1940s (Call My People Home 1948-50), her imagination would project itself onto a new poetic landscape, one which would symbolize clearly her growing sense of personal isolation as that of the 1940s had mirrored the deepening of her confidence in the community which was Canada, a thriving young nation seeking its place in the world. In Canada, as throughout the Western world, the 1950s followed a decade of depression and six years of world war. With this now behind them, Canadians were generally imbued with a sense of optimism about life and the future. The tension between rising expectations for women, and a return to traditional middle-class ideal of woman as homemaker after World War II, was also an added impetus for breaking with old ways of writing. But the 1930s and 1940s would remain an important foundation for a poetry that would continue to express concern and love for the Canadian people, a poetry that would, over the years, become itself "'Canadian' in the only way that was worth anything, implicitly and inevitably" (Smith 1943: 30). A growing young nation being built up--as Whitman's America had been--on a democratic and humane ideal in which each person, man or woman, found dignity in the labour of their own hands, Canada truly was becoming a "harmonious community, here and now" (1977a: 274). All were joining together to contribute through the war effort to a cause that might "change the world", ridding it of fascism forever (1977b: 279).
In Livesay's poetic work from the 30s and 40s there are shifts out of female subjectivity--noted particularly in Day and Night--toward a poetry of and for the liberal humanist "Man". However, the two genders interweave throughout Day and Night and Poems for People and are present again in her Selected Poems. As I said before, as a Canadian Livesay had not been assaulted with the realities of war in quite the same way as her European contemporaries. As a woman, as a poet and as a reporter writing journalistic pieces from abroad, she captured better than ever before the spirit of place and the complexities of synchronicity. In such a work and in her willingness to write for ordinary Canadians, for children, for women and for all those who had suffered the devastation of the war, Livesay rewrites Canada and its margins in a profound awareness of its intimate and constitutive relation. Throughout her lyric poetry, a nuanced register of the tension between traditional gender roles and feminism, between poetic form and experience, between aestheticism and commitment, constitutes an essential part of the intimate and unresolved contradiction that marks Livesay as a major modernist writer.
(1) This essay was made possible through a research visit at the University of Toronto in 1999. Support from the Canadian Government (Faculty Enrichment Program, International Council for Canadian Studies) for this visit is gratefully acknowledged.
(2) The work of Nellie McClung (1873-1951) and Emily Ferguson Murphy (1868-1933) helped make a previous generation aware of maternal feminism, which Janice Newton describes in terms of an emphasis on "women's special maternal role (not women's autonomy" (1995: 9).
(3) Some of this debate was carried on in the pages of The Canadian Forum. In a response to the criticism she levelled at the Preview in her April 1944 article, Patrick Anderson claimed in a letter published in the May 1944 issue of the magazine that Livesay betrayed a "colonial fear of cosmopolitanism, a provincial carping at those derivations and early dependencies which are inevitable in young writers" (1944: 44). In the July 1944 issue, Livesay replied: "If I betray a 'colonial fear of cosmopolitanism', how is it that while those of Mr. Anderson's generation were attending English public schools, I was observing at first hand the rise of fascism in France and Germany; and while they were being psychoanalysed, I was doing everything possible, through organization and through written poetry, to aid in the liberation of Spain?" (1944: 89).
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Universidad Complutense de Madrid
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|Publication:||Atlantis, revista de la Asociacion Espanola de Estudios Anglo-Norteamericanos|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2000|
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