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Athabasca University

Dorothy Livesay

Dorothy Kathleen May Livesay was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in October 12, 1909. She moved in 1920 with her family to Toronto, when her father J.F.B. Livesay, a well-known news correspondent for the First World War, became the first general manager of the Canadian Press. Her mother, Florence Randal Livesay, was a poet, journalist and pioneering translator of Ukrainian literature in Canada; both parents helped Dorothy publish while a teenager. Livesay received a B.A. in modern languages at the University of Toronto (1927-31) and a Diplôme d’études supérieures at the Sorbonne in Paris (1931-32). She became active with the Communists in France, and when she returned to Canada to study at the School of Social Work at the University of Toronto (1932-1934), she joined the Communist Party. She was a caseworker in Montreal (1932, 1934), in Englewood, New Jersey (1934, 1936), and in Vancouver in 1936. 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. She married Duncan Cameron Macnair in 1937 and had two children, Peter (b. 1940) and Marcia (b. 1942). Beginning in the late 1930s, she wrote extensively for newspapers and for the newly established CBC Radio, a practice she continued through her married life. From September to December 1946, for example, she was a postwar correspondent for the Toronto Daily Star, filing stories from England, France and Germany. She left Vancouver in 1958 to study the teaching of English at the University of London. In February 1959 her husband died of a heart attack; with fewer family ties, she began the second phase of her career.

She worked for UNESCO in Paris in 1959 and then in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) as a field worker from 1960 to 1963. She returned to Canada, getting her M.Ed. at University of British Columbia in 1966. She was an instructor and writer-in-residence at a number of universities, including the University of British Columbia (1951-53 and 1966-68), University of New Brunswick (1966-1968), University of Alberta (1968-1971), University of Victoria (1972-1974), University of Manitoba (1974-76), Simon Fraser University (1980-82), and University of Toronto (1983-84). Livesay founded CV/II ( Contemporary Verse 2) in 1975 and was a founding member of the League of Canadian Poets. She eventually settled in British Columbia and lived on Galiano Island. She died in Victoria on December 29, 1996.

Livesay won the 1944 Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry for Day and Night (1944), and in 1947 won the same award for Poems for People (1947). This early recognition of her work culminated in her award of the Royal Society of Canada’s Lorne Pierce Medal in 1947 for distinguished contribution to Canadian literature. Later in her career, she was awarded the Queen’s Canada Medal in 1977 and the Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case (for gender equality) in 1984. Livesay was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 1987 and Order of British Columbia in 1992. The B.C. Book Prize for poetry is named in her honour, as is Contemporary Verse 2’s Young Poets Contest. In 1985 she was awarded an honourary doctorate from Athabasca University.

In a career spanning over five decades, Livesay charted the major changes in the Canadian literary scene. Under her parents’ influence, Livesay was exposed to the modernist Imagist poets in her teens, both through personal acquaintance with Canadian poets Louise Morey Bowman and W.W. Ross, and through her contact with modernist and Imagist publications, so much so that she says "it was the whole Imagist Movement that started me off" (Beardsley and Sullivan). In particular W.H. Auden, Isabella Valency Crawford, Emily Dickinson, D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, Edith Sitwell and Walt Whitman influenced her. In the 1930s she became an active Marxist; Day and Night and Poems for People overtly express her interest in labour issues and antiauthoritarianism, showing a marked shift from her earlier pre-political lyric poems to longer, more polemical texts. Though she broke off her formal connection with Communism in the 1940s, her interest in social movements continued. In that regard, her participation in the Canadian literary scene in the 1960s and 1970s was a continuation of these earlier political involvements, an interest once again reflected in her poetry of this period. Although she rejected the label of feminism, her writing at this time addressed topics such as female sexuality and social roles in a way that marks her work as congruent with feminist concerns.

She was a tireless contributor to periodical publications her whole life, but beginning in the 1960s she contributed to the burgeoning critical discussion of Canadian literature through her writing as well as her affiliations with numerous academic institutions and magazines. She offered a theory that Canadian literature favoured a mode she called "documentary poetry," long narrative poems that comment on particular social topics and that "are a conscious attempt to create a dialectic between the objective facts and the subjective feelings of the poet" ("The Documentary Poem: A Canadian Genre," 267). Call My People Home (1950)—about the mistreatment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War—and The Documentaries (1968) are examples of her own work in this genre. In the same vein, Right Hand Left Hand (1977), her remarkable autobiography about her life of activism in the 1930s, combines retrospective commentary with period photographs, newspaper articles, poetry, drama, and unedited letters that emphasizes the integration of the individual history with social history. She also believed in the close affinity between poetry and music. Indeed, her poetry has been adapted for music by Canadian composers Violet Archer, Barbara Pentland, and Carol Ann Weaver. (Vivian Zenari)

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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