Livingstone, Douglas (James)

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LIVINGSTONE, Douglas (James)

Nationality: South African. Born: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 5 January 1932. Education: Schools in Malaysia, Australia, and South Africa; Kearney College, Natal, South Africa; qualified in pathogenic bacteriology, Pasteur Institute, Salisbury, Rhodesia; University of Natal, Ph.D. in biological science, 1989. Career: Officer in charge, Pathological Laboratory, Broken Hill (Kabwe) General Hospital, Zambia, 1959–63. Since 1964 bacteriologist in charge of marine work, Natal. Awards: Guinness prize, 1965; Cholmondeley award, 1970; Olive Schreiner prize, 1975; English Association prize, 1978; C.N.A. literary award, 1985; Thomas Pringle award, 1989. D.Litt.: University of Natal, 1982; Rhodes University, 1990. Address: c/o Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, P.O. Box 17001, Congella, 4013 Natal, South Africa.



The Skull in the Mud. London, Outposts, 1960.

Sjambok and Other Poems from Africa. London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1964.

Poems, with Thomas Kinsella and Anne Sexton. London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1968.

Eyes Closed against the Sun. London and New York, Oxford University Press, 1970.

The Sea My Winding Sheet and Other Poems. Durban, Theatre Workshop, 1971.

A Rosary of Bone, edited by Jack Cope. Cape Town, David Philip, 1975; revised edition, 1983.

The Anvil's Undertone. Johannesburg, Donker, 1978.

Selected Poems. Johannesburg, Donker, 1984.


The Sea My Winding Sheet (broadcast, 1964; produced Durban, 1971). Included in The Sea My Winding Sheet and Other Poems, 1971.

A Rhino for the Boardroom (broadcast, 1974). Published in Contemporary South African Plays, edited by E. Pereira, Johannesburg, Ravan Press, 1977.

The Semblance of the Real (produced Durban, 1976). Published in Modern Stage Directions, edited by Stephen Gray and David Schalwyk, London, Longman, 1984.

Radio Plays: The Sea My Winding Sheet, 1963 (Rhodesia); A Rhino for the Boardroom, 1974.


The Distribution and Occurrence of Coliforms and Pathogenic Indicators of Pollution within the Surf-Zone and Near-Shore Waters of the Natal Coast, with J.W. de Goede and B.A. Warren-Hansen. Natal, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, 1968.

Microbial Studies on Seawater Quality off Durban: 1964–1988. Natal, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, 1990.

A Littoral Zone. Cape Town, Carrefour Press, 1991.


Bibliography: Douglas Livingstone: A Bibliography by A.G. Ullyatt, Pretoria, University of South Africa, 1979.

Critical Studies: Douglas Livingstone: A Critical Study of His Poetry, Johannesburg, Donker, 1981, and "Douglas Livingstone," in South African English Poetry: A Modern Perspective, Johannesburg, Donker, 1984, both by Michael Chapman; "Livingstone's Poems in 'The Wild Wave'" by David Levey, in CRUX (Pretoria), 20(3), August 1986; "'Moon-Rites and Rain-Dances': The Malaysian Connection in Douglas Livingstone's Poetry" by Stephen Gray, in ACLALS Bulletin, 7(6), 1986; "The Politics of Tolerance in South African Literature," in Annali di Ca' Foscari (Padua, Italy), 30(1–2), 1991, and "The Poetry of Moral Commitment in South Africa: The Life and Work of Douglas Livingstone," in Annali di Ca' Foscari (Padua, Italy), 31(1–2), 1992, both by Marco Fazzini; "Littorally: A Note on Douglas Livingstone" by Tony Morphet, in Pretexts (South Africa), 6(2), November 1997.

Douglas Livingstone comments:

Some African themes, especially animals, to reflect the nature of man. Happier with form. Attempts to shape poem to subject. Influences unknown, but favorite poets: Chaucer, John Clare, Catullus, Shelley, Marvell, Donne, Cavafy, E.A. Robinson, Wilfred Owen, and Sylvia Plath among the dead.

*  *  *

Douglas Livingstone is perhaps the outstanding voice of white South African poetry, yet the poet with whom he is most readily linked comes from another continent altogether—Miroslav Holub of the Czech Republic. In the work of both poets, each a major voice of his respective culture, there is a fascinating link between their writing life, an act undertaken in privacy, and their profession. Livingstone, who has spent much of his life in Natal, is a diver and marine biologist by profession; Holub is an immunologist. For both their respective scientific disciplines have nurtured and enriched their perceptions of the world. For Livingstone it is the visible, tangible world: "I guess I have a fairly intense inner life that is not religious in the conventional sense, which is focused on the planet, its seas, the sun, moon, night sky …" For Holub it is the invisible world as perceived through the microscope that has shaped his poetic vision.

Livingstone's "Lake Morning in Autumn" offers an example of the degree of precision that we have come to expect from his dispassionate observing eye:

   Before sunrise the stork was there
   resting the pillow of his body
   on stick legs growing from the water.
   A flickering gust of pencil-slanted rain
   swept over the chill autumn morning;
   and he, too tired to arrange
   his wind-buffeted plumage,
   perched swaying a little,
   neck flattened, ruminative …

That poem was published in a collection entitled Sjambok and Other Poems from Africa, and a number of other items in the same book were written in celebration of particular birds and animals—the puff adder, the jackal, the vulture—the poet often reflecting poignantly upon the impact of human intruders. A once proud, now moth-eaten, lion has "a balding monk's tonsure, /and his fluid thigh muscles flop /slack as an exhausted boxer's …"

The verse play entitled The Sea My Winding Sheet is a retelling of the myth of the Titans who besieged Mount Olympus, citadel of the gods. The gods brought to their aid Heracles, who succeeded in repulsing them with his club. The Titans in their death throes turned to stone, becoming the continents, including, of course, the continent of Africa. The play is in essence a tribute to the earth in all its superb physicality, but it is also a celebration of the ability of humankind to preside over and shape its seemingly intractable terrain, success, of course, depending ultimately upon a happy compact between the two. The following lines are from "New Men Will Clump About":

   The tracks and prefabs will scar her seas
   With tracks and alloys; diamond-booted drills
   Inject and measure her by tall degrees.
   Her temperature, soaring upon the hills
   As sunlight blindly edges on her face,
   Will shepherd them, melting, to the cold cubes
   Prepared below the needle peaks that lace
   The songs of constant stars in shortwave tubes.

There is an unspoken assumption among many readers of poetry that science and poetry are somehow incompatible, a product of the romantic fallacy. In Livingstone's work the two go hand in hand, and it is as natural for him to incorporate the reference to "shortwave tubes" into the poem as it is to celebrate sunlight and the "needle peaks."

In his translations from the Zimbabwean Shona, Livingstone has made available to us a range of local voices that might otherwise have gone unheard. The best of these have an immediacy, a vividness, a freshness of perception, and an affectionate attention to local detail that feel totally authentic. Wil Chivaura has this to say of love, for example, in a poem of that title:

   Love, my sister-in-law, has to be fried
   like a mealie cob in the pan of courtship,
   sides reddening from the incessant turning
   —the only love-philtre tempting to men.

Another poem is written in praise of an object of great value to the author, a small beer pot:

   You're good as gold,
   made from real earth
   —earth that shines even when
   uncooked—the rich earth.
   Precious before you were moulded,
   an egg in the hands of women,
   baked in the fire's red embers,
   your brown crimsoned with pride.

Livingstone's versatility as a translator is in evidence in his renderings from the Hungarian of Gyula Illyés and the French of José María de Heredia.

The poet's professional concern for the earth's flora and fauna accompanies a deep-rooted belief that there is something indomitable about life itself ("If you threaten a cell, even a nonsentient one, it will retreat if it can, or fight back …"), and we can read his poetry in a somewhat similar light. "Fighting words in the form of poems" is essentially an act of commitment and affirmation and a testimony to the belief that what can be transmitted by language, and from one language to another, humanizes, enriches, and bonds us.

—Michael Glover

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Livingstone, Douglas (James)

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