"A Thankful Music" : Dorothy Livesay's Experiments with Feeling and Poetic Form

by Lorraine M. York

In "Making the Poem," Dorothy Livesay's speaker reflects with characteristically wry humour that:

Dreams are just
Jack said
like words you keep pushing around
till they fit the room

Beyond this bluff remark lies a further truth, namely that Livesay's poetry, even at its most self-consciously "technical" is much more than mere verbal machinery. In fact, like another of Livesay's speakers, her poetry, too, is "not what you see . . . not just bones and crockery" (UB, p. 39). In spite of the hazy critical assumption that an acute awareness of technical form somehow undermines, cools the feeling which we tend to style "poetic," technique for Livesay fuses feeling and form. Even a gifted and experienced critic of Livesay, Peter Stevens, betrays this critical prejudice; of the selections in The Unquiet Bed and Plainsongs he comments that "some poems fall short of their aims because the poet seems more concerned with poetic theories about form and lining."2  He goes on, however, to acknowledge that the breaking of lines into choppy, breathless fragments may not be entirely inappropriate in depicting the breathlessness and emotional intensity of certain human experiences.

     My argument for the symbiosis of feeling and form in Livesay's poetry derives from some comments made by the poet herself. One notes in particular that she consistently couples observations on technique with considerations of theme and emotional reaction. For example, Livesay's lively enumeration of the qualities which make a successful poem reveals this fusion: "music; dance rhythms . . . speech rhythms; and in tone, a sense of isolation leading to a game of wry wit, a play on words. Behind it all a belief in love, in communication on all levels; and a sense of grace, a call to praise."3   It is this "call to praise" which fuses the music of poetry with the music of feeling and gives rise to the major forces in Livesay's poetry. The struggle between constraint and freedom, after all, exists equally and palpably on the poetic, intellectual and sexual levels, with each level infusing a vigour and resonance into the other.

     Speaking of her 1930 poems, Livesay attested to this co-existence of the technical and emotive, of evolution and dramatic change, in her poetry: "Just the same themes are in those [earlier poems] as in my most recent work; of course tempered by experience and by the grim facts of our life today. On the other hand the techniques have greatly changed . . . ."4  In effect, the simple adoption and abandonment of verse forms cannot form the explanation of Dorothy Livesay's poetic development. Rather, Livesay has refined techniques apparent even in the earliest lyrics in The Green Pitcher. Robert Weaver described these poems as "nervous" and "taut" over thirty years ago,5 and the intensity of lyrics such as "Fire and Reason" and the terse, brittle "Reality" bear striking witness to Weaver's claims:

Encased in the hard, bright shell of my dream
How sudden now to wake
And find the night still passing overhead,
The wind still crying in the naked tree,
Myself alone, within a narrow bed.6

The first word in this brief and powerful lyric, "Encased," strikes the note which pervades the entire poem. As we read, however, we progressively sense that there are two types of "enclosure" operating in the poem — the conventional notion of being encased in a dream as an insect in a cocoon, and the ultimately more terrifying prospect of being encased in an unbearable waking life. After waking from the "hard, bright shell" of the dream (rendered even more palpable and hard-edged by Livesay's triple stress on those words) it is the night, passing significantly "overhead," which oppresses the sleeper as does the sense of her own aloneness. Note, too, the meticulous use of the preposition "within." The speaker is not merely on or in her lonely bed; it possesses and horribly encases her. In effect, there is a third type of "enclosure" operating in "Reality"— our own as readers. Technically, Livesay encases us in her poem; the leaden iambic beats of the final tableau leave us just as trapped and despairing as the sleeper: "Myself alone within a narrow bed." This, then, is the way in which Livesay's poetry must be read — with eye and ear attuned to the special relationship between technique and subject which makes a poem vibrate, resonate in our minds.

     This tense energy is never lost in Livesay's later work, nor are several of the features of what might be called her "Dickinsonian" phase. Phases, in the final event, however, are little more than hopelessly useless labels, unless we place the poetry, in all of its minute works and magic, foremost. "I Saw my Thought," from Livesay's early collection, Signposts, is much more than an artifact from a "phase" — it is a Dickinsonian lyric which reaches beyond its confines to the poetry which Livesay was to write twenty years later and continues to write today:

I saw my thought a hawk
Through heaven fly!
On earth my words were shadow of
His wings, his cry.

How many clouded days
Precede the fair—
When thought must unrecorded pass
Through sunless air (SP, p. 6).

The momentary impression is captured, as it is in Dickinson's verse, in the exclamation marks and in the short, deceptively simple lines. More significant in terms of Livesay's poetic development, however, is her early use of the two-part structure. The visual scene in the first half serves as a prelude (as it certainly does in Dickinson's poems) to the ultimately more troubling considerations of the second half: how many human thoughts (or, for that matter, how many human lives) die unrecorded? This two-part construction will resurface in many of Livesay's later poems — poems in which the principles of opposition and synthesis become the centre of the poem and of human experience.

     This observation is not meant to denigrate the simplicity of those early lyrics. Livesay's own spirited defense puts the objections of many a consciously sophisticated critic to rest: "I insist that the nursery-rhyme and ballad pattern are essential elements in poetry, not to be ignored."7  Certainly, Thomas Hardy, hailed by Donald Davie, among others, as the patriarch of modern British poetry, did not ignore either, and it is the image of Hardy which is summoned up by an early ballad of Livesay's (a ballad entitled, appropriately enough, "Perversity"):

That day I wore a red gown
Because I could not hide
The warming flame in me — But you
Thought scarlet meant my pride.

And so I wore a black gown,
To prove my humbleness:
But you instead took black to be
A sign of bitterness.

I dare not wear a white gown
My honesty to show:
You'd take it for a shroud, no doubt
Uncomforting as snow (SP, p. 10)

Again, an argument for the technical as well as thematic continuity in Livesay's poetry is justifiable. In the progression of this ballad, from scarlet to black to white (from the passion to the deathly stagnation of a love affair) there is a certain care for the movement and construction of a poetic sequence — a care which I shall outline more fully in my discussion of the later "Zambia" and other serial poems.

     It was the exciting advent of free verse (in part a legacy of the Imagists, whom Livesay and her mother both admired) which was a species of poetic liberation for the young Canadian poet: "But I was happier," confessed Livesay, "breaking into free verse . . . This free expression was suited to my own rhythmic sense and was dictated, no doubt by my own breath groups (for I always said the poem aloud; or if that was not possible I heard myself saying it in the mind's ear).''8  The link between free verse and the mind's associations and memories is, as generations of confessional poets have taught us, a strongly-forged one. It is more than fitting, therefore, that the cadences of Livesay's lovely tribute, "For Abe Klein: Poet" should forge this same link. Indeed, the subject of the last stanza of the poem is the creative, associative energy which belongs to the poet and to Klein in particular:

And in the hive, your head
the golden bowl
bees buzz and bumble
fumble for honey amidst empty cells
where the slain poems
wingless, tremble (UB, p. 21).

The internal rhyme, complex sound pattern and associative meanings ("cells" as the partitions of the beehive, cubicles of the prisoner and the minute cells of the brain where the now lost poems "tremble") all formally reproduce the intricate consciousness which Livesay is praising in her poem.

     The interplay between freedom and constraint occurs in Livesay's many experimentations with verse forms. One of the most regulated of these forms is the sonnet. Livesay's "Sonnet for Ontario" is, as the very title suggests, a public utterance. Indeed, she has remarked that "the free verse poems were all solitary, myself talking to the wind; whereas the more structured lyrics envisage a partner."9   Nevertheless, even in this public, structured form, modifications seep in. For example, no regular rhyme pattern exists in Livesay's sonnet. The regularity of the pentameter, too, is broken by the substitution of spondées at the "pivotal point" of the sonnet: "In my quick pulse, an intaking of breath" (SP, p. 5). Both physical acts — the pulse and the sharp intake of breath — are thus poetically figured forth in this otherwise fairly unexciting poetic exercise.

     The poetic constraints of the sonnet are miniscule, however, in comparison with those of a terza rima, for example. Evidently, Livesay was tempted by the challenge offered by such forms, for in "Out of the Turmoil" she constructs what might be termed an extremely modified terza rima, three lines per stanza with a repeating third rhyming line. More significant than the simple labelling of poetic form is the fact that "Out of the Turmoil" is, in effect, a poem concerned with "constraint" in several senses:

Out of the turmoil mustered up by day
We may not free our hands, nor turn our heads to pray —
So tight the knot our sunlight ties. (SP, p. 16)

In each stanza, the third line poetically and emotionally closes off the progression of the stanza: "Or from its song the essence dies . . . Now in her womb corrosion lies . . . Of lightening from encircled skies." Only in the last stanza does any glimmer of hope appear in this evocation of a crumbling post-war world: "Dark remedy for shining eyes. . . ." Yet, the ellipsis poetically warns us that the terrifying sense of enclosure, the shutting off of hope is yet to come with a crashing finality: "Therefore we hide our faces; make no sound." The ultimate enclosure, therefore, the fearful withdrawal into ourselves, is portrayed in the stifling form of the poem itself.

     In terms of rhythm, this same drama of freedom and constraint is evident in the middle poems. Livesay's tribute to Garcia Lorca, in particular, reveals her energetic experimentation with a pattern not unlike Hopkins' sprung rhythm:

You are alive!
O grass flash emerald sight
Dash of dog for ball
And skipping rope's bright blink
Lashing the light! (SP, p. 25)

This feature, too, emphasizes the close marriage of form and freedom in Livesay's poetry; although Paul Fussell in his Poetic Meter and Poetic Form dismissed Hopkins' sprung rhythm as "a parochial prosodic technique" belonging to "the history of British personal eccentricity,"10 it is, in fact, more than an escape from form. The use of the spondée as the base foot is a substitution of one rule for an even more rigorous, emotionally demanding one.

     This movement towards human speech under conditions of intense emotion not too surprisingly creates a greater movement away from the balanced phrase towards fragmentary syntax. In "The Child Looks Out," the balanced, prose-like cadences of the first stanzas ("The child looks out from doors too high and wide for him," SP, p. 17) is fragmented as dramatically as is the child's complacent sense of the "rosy nave" of the world:

          The child leans on the future:
Slender tree ungainly rooted there by private worlds
Who knew a private ecstasy unshared by him
But let the memory slip and reared a hedge
Of bristling phrases, last year's bills, and week-ends
In secret hate; his room laid waste when radios
Are tuned, when rumour's blatant voice hits nerve,
Dries tissue, brittles down
The new unmoulded bone (SP, p. 17).

     To this constant experimentation, this desire to expand poetically, to test the boundaries of poetic expression, Livesay brought in her maturer poems an increasing willingness to mix and contrast verse forms. When, for example, she impressed Canadian literary circles with Day and Night in 1944, it was this very innovation which lent a haunting power to her keen social study. Consider, for example, the title poem, in which the rapid, mechanistic cadences of "One step foward / Two steps back / Shove the lever, / Push it back" (SP, p. 19) provide the poetic backdrop for the miseries endured by the men in the steel factory rendered in the longer, more discursive lines:

We move as through sleep's revolving memories
Piling up hatred, stealing the remnants
Doors forever folding before us — (p. 20).

Moreover, the parodic variation on a negro spiritual included by Livesay reveals the atrocities visited on black workers with a trance-like, grisly horror which is difficult to forget:

Boss, I'm smothered in the darkness
Boss, I'm shrivellin' in the flames
Boss, I'm blacker than my brother
Blow your breath down here (p. 21).

The insistent first word of each line, the harsh alliterated "s" 's and "b" 's and the vivid terms "smothered" and "shrivellin'" all contribute to this palpable vision of a modern industrial hell.

     Again, in the more recent "The Emperor's Circus," the halting description of the despotic ruler, "cold recalcitrant / old in a dying court" (UB, p. 17) is interrupted by the fall-and-tumble rhythms of a remembered trip to the circus:

Pulling his pencil out
his laughter caught the tumbler's leap
the circus master, elegant with whip
the acrobats half taken by surprise
mastering the air

This escape into a world of variety (albeit ordered, "elegant" variety) reveals a tension between constraint and freedom which has both political and psychological overtones.

     This attention to the parts of the poem and their logical progression is, as I suggested earlier, a constant concern in Livesay's poetry. The long poem, "Zambia" originally appeared as "The Colour of God's Face," and some of the sections of the poem appeared in different order; Section Two, "The People," contained the segments "Village," "Funeral" and "Wedding.''11  In the later version contained in The Unquiet Bed, a new section, "Initiation," is added, and, as though reflecting the socializing process to which each of us is subjected, the order has now become "Village," "Wedding" and "Funeral." Moreover, the last two sections have been reversed so that "The Prophetess" follows the worldly themes of "The Leader," and more effectively projects the poem outwards, from this world to the mysterious next. Certainly, such attention to progression is not merely in the mind of the critical beholder; Livesay's increasing concern is embodied at its self-conscious height in "Making the Poem":

The serial poem is a
not a repetition
a movement
          breaking through
splashing the shore (UB, p. 22)

As though to reinforce her argument, Livesay has spatially placed these lines of her poem in the actual form of a rolling and receding wave.

     The relationship in Livesay's mind between projectivism and the serial poem resurfaces in later poems such as "Winter Ascendant" in Ice Age. The description in Part One of the plane moving

through fog
over three provinces

is juxtaposed with Part Two, the portrait of a three-year-old Indian child whose life is doomed to remain, unlike the plane, static:

"But there's something wrong
With his enzymes"
the stewardess explains:
"has a 3 months' old mind
will never grow" (IA, p. 53)

In Part Three, this motif of progression and development is explicitly related to the growth of a poet's mind:

To be a pilot
is to be explorer
artist and poet
skimming across chasms where
a man toiled with axe and rope
years ago
seeking a way through (p. 54)

Both connotations of the word "pilot" are invoked in the final section of the poem, as the airplane, the poem and, by implication, human life all make the final descent:

But in the end
as we descend
the pilot is alone:
no one can share his banner
carry his load (p. 55).

In the serial poem, therefore, Livesay once more fuses poetic technique and meaning. Her poetic "units," when read in sequence, vividly suggest the outward-reaching, indestructible energy of the creative act and of life itself.

     A further element in Livesay's poetry which I have been only hazily intimating in my discussion of poetic rhythm and verse form is the overwhelming importance of song and dance. Indeed, a statement considered by many to be her artistic "manifesto" appears under that very title. At the basis of her poetry, from the earliest lyrics onward, song and dance from the enduring thread linking poetic technique with the pure joy of living. Livesay herself humorously remarked in an interview that "as an adult, I found I couldn't sing and I couldn't dance; but I suppose I might have put the childhood joys into the poetry to compensate.''13  Livesay's compensation reaches much deeper; the concepts of song and dance are inextricably bound up with the powers of freedom and constraint already noted in Livesay's poetry.

     One might look to a nineteenth-century study of freedom and constraint — George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss — to further elucidate this use of song and dance. The concerns shared by the earlier novelist and the contemporary poet are strikingly similar: the life of the imagination versus the overwhelming practicality of the world, and the fervent feminist concern. Indeed, Livesay comments in Right Hand, Left Hand that "Perhaps The Mill on the Floss, Maggie Tulliver's trials in relation to her brother, roused me against the injustices of family life, so male-dominated."14  Moreover, the elements of song and dance, the outlets for the teeming imagination and passions of Maggie Tulliver, play essentially the same role in Livesay's poetry. Maggie confesses to Lucy Deane, "I think I should have no other mortal wants if I could always have plenty of music. It seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain. Life seems to go on without effort when I am filled with music.''15   Similarly, music and poetic creation have long been associated in Livesay's life; in "Song and Dance," she admits that in composing a poem she is constantly hearing "this other beat behind the ordinary spoken language, and I'm always hearing the melody." Even as "a small child," claims Livesay, "I felt words as being linked with music.''16  For Maggie Tulliver, we recall, music is continually associated with her own lack of suffocating self-restraint. "But Maggie," writes Eliot, "had little more power of concealing the impressions made upon her than if she had been constructed of musical strings.''17

     These same tensions between emotion and constraint in Livesay's poetry reach our ears and minds through the medium of song. Livesay's Garcia Lorca, like Maggie Tulliver, releases emotion in vibrant song and dance and, significantly, shares a similar fate:

For you sang out aloud
Arching the silent wood. . .
You dance. Explode
Unchallenged through the door
As bullets burst
Long deaths ago, your breast (SP, pp. 25-26).

In the aptly-named "Ballad of Me," the celebratory music of the autobiographical poem further comments on the artist as a lonely singer: "I go disarrayed / my fantasies / twist in my arms / rufffle my hair" (UB, p. 7). Moreover, Livesay couples this musical awareness with her acute sense of poetic progression in "Flower Music," in which the three "movements" contributed by Cyclamen, Geranium and Peony form a symphonic rise to a visual, sexual climax:

Suddenly, out of gloom
underneath the hanging
scrotum cluster
          red buds bursting
to blaze the room (UB, p. 35).

Continuing the sense of progression already noted in "Perversity," Livesay modulates colours in the poem, from white, to intense red, to the "white with spilt blood at the centre" found on her neighbour's peonies. Indeed, the fact that the speaker owns none of these glorious flowers is the final, undercutting note of the symphony — a note which includes a Hopkinsian touch:

What spite: the flowers
I have grown tyrannically
that never blossom
         he fathers forth
so light
         so silken

Thus, as in George Eliot's depiction of the temperamental opposition of Tom and Maggie Tulliver, Livesay, too, uses song and dance to comment on the human temperament that fathers forth — or obstructs — creativity.

     Opposition, as I earlier suggested, becomes a distinct element in the more recent poetry of Dorothy Livesay. The two-part format of the earlier "Dickinsonian" lyrics reaches a fuller maturity in a poem which is one of Livesay's most successful: "Bartok and the Geranium." Again, the elements of music and flowers are the representative "voices" in the poem, but this time they are in marked opposition. The geranium (significantly female) remains stationary at the window: "She has no commentary / Accepts, extends" (SP, p. 73), whereas the Bartok music is unleashed and furious: "And all the while he whirls / Explodes in space, / Never content with this small room." Like Maggie's existence in The Mill on the Floss, the reign of the Bartok music is exhilarating but brief: "And when he's done he's out." In this sense, there is no final synthesis possible between the freedom of the music and the "rooted" practicality of the earth-bound.

     Another two-part poem from the same period, "Other," moves this dilemma onto a clearly sexual plane. The opening thesis, "Men prefer an island," (SP, p. 74) is countered in the second section of the poem by the woman's self-sufficiency: "But I am mainland." Predictably, the activities of climbing, furrowing and treading upon roads which are described in this section are in marked contrast to the "circling . . . forever winding inward" motion which characterizes man's protective instinct in relation to the island. As in "Bartok and the Geranium," however, no synthesis arises from this dialectic of the sexes; after reading Part Two, our eyes can only skip from the asterisks to the final echo, "Men prefer an island."

     In Livesay's later poems, the synthesis between freedom and constraint emerges in the realm of art alone. In "On Looking Into Henry Moore" (significantly placed at the end of the Selected Poems), the Shelleyan invocation "Stun, stun me, sustain me / Turn me to stone" (SP, p. 81) shades into a full description of the synthesis which is sought:

When I have found
Passivity in fire
And fire in stone
Female and male
I'll rise alone
Self-extending and self-known

Like the sculpture of Henry Moore, with its melting of forms and sexual features, its interchanging of substance and space, the synthesis sought is one of organic unity. The image of the tree, its roots embedded "Tombwards," like the roots of the geranium, yet its upper branches, like the Bartok music, in touch with eternity ("A green eternity of fire and snow"), is the ideal, the synthesis. This sense of identity within disparity, as in Joyce's Ulysses, is a final rejection of our piece-meal notions of beginning, middle and end: "One unit, as a tree or stone / Woman in man and man in womb."

     It is this energetic belief in the capacity of man and woman to create anew from what Yeats called "the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart," which gives Dorothy Livesay's poetry both its technical spark and its enduring courage. In effect, her poetry speaks of the Maggie Tulliver in human nature triumphant. Thus, the last lines of "Making the Poem," with their steady belief in the power of song, form a touching resumé of the poetic feeling and form of Dorothy Livesay's poetry:

the old
wake early
the dawn birds
make a thankful music (UB, p. 23).


  1. Dorothy Livesay, "Making the Poem," The Unquiet Bed (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1967) p. 22. All further references to this collection will appear in parentheses in the text, accompanied by the abbreviation, "UB."[back]

  2. Peter Stevens, "Dorothy Livesay: The Love Poetry," Canadian Literature, XLVII (Winter 1971), 43.[back]

  3. Dorothy Livesay, "Song and Dance," Canadian Literature, XLI (Summer 1969), 47.[back]

  4. "An Interview with Dorothy Livesay," Canadian Forum, LV (September 1975), 46.[back]

  5. Robert Weaver, "The Poetry of Dorothy Livesay," Contemporary Verse, No. 26 (Fall 1948), 18.[back]

  6. Dorothy Livesay, "Reality," Selected Poems, 1926-1956, With an Introduction by Desmond Pacey (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1957), p. 6. Hereafter cited in the text as "SP."[back]

  7. "Song and Dance," 43.[back]

  8. Ibid.[back]

  9. Ibid.[back]

  10. Paul Fussell, Jr., Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (New York: Random House, 1965), p. 73.[back]

  11. Dorothy Livesay, "The Colour of God's Face," privately printed, n. d.[back]

  12. Dorothy Livesay, "Winter Ascendant," Ice Age (Erin: Press Porcepic, 1975), p. 52. Hereafter cited as "IA."[back]

  13. "An Interview with Dorothy Livesay," 46.[back]

  14. Dorothy Livesay, Right Hand, Left Hand (Don Mills: Press Porcepic, 1977), p. 122.[back]

  15. George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, With an Afterword by Morton Berman (New York: New American Library, 1965), p. 403.[back]

  16. "Song and Dance," 41.[back]

  17. The Mill on the Floss, p. 429.[back]