This book recollects conversations – serious, humorous,
ribald – over a period of almost twenty years between a leading scientist-poet
and me, a literary critic. The book does not comprise a collection of discrete
articles or essays; it progresses through a continuous narrative.
Livingstone’s poetry crosses the ‘two cultures’ of science and art. As a marine
bacteriologist, he ‘kept it clean’, that is, the Indian Ocean, along the coast
near Durban. As a poet of South African and international stature, he kept
alive the language, images and dreams of our imagination. Words, used
creatively, he believed, are a major civilising force.
the first and, to date, the only comprehensive study of Livingstone’s poetry.
As Professor of English, I struck up a warm, ironic, at times iconoclastic,
friendship with the poet.
lunches we exchanged opinion, insight and anecdote not only on poetry, science,
and society, but also on more personal aspects of modern life: love and loss;
sexual and spiritual intimations; city living; and, generally, on the value of
our ‘uncommon humanity’.
trajectory of the narrative takes us from the publication of Livingstone’s
early poetry in the black-and-white times of political turbulence in the 1960s,
seventies and eighties, to a climate, after apartheid, more attuned to
Livingstone’s abiding ‘green’ concern: how to heal the Earth, the home of us
wingless, two-footed creatures, the ‘clowns of creation’.
Livingstone evolved from a tough, ironic voice of the ‘wind of change’ to a
more contemplative, wry and compassionate observer of contemporary times, then
I hope that our conversations, together with my appreciation of his poetry,
have had a similar effect of generosity on me.
intersperse our conversations with a fresh consideration of Douglas
Livingstone’s several volumes of poetry. His is an achievement that takes us
where poetry has not taken us before; perhaps, where science has not taken us
How have I recollected our conversations? At times, I had
recourse to my old tape recordings; at other times, I retrieved notes which,
immediately after our meetings, I hurried home to record or consolidate.
had strong views on issues which affected him deeply, whether on the art of
poetry or the health of the planet. Several such views had appeared in print
prior to our first meeting; others grew out of our conversations, some
subsequently appearing in published form.
approach, whether drawing on published work or our conversations, has been to
focus on those aspects and insights which are most pertinent to the narrative
progression of the present book.
at the beginning, is followed by a bibliography of Livingstone’s work while,
otherwise stated, page references to poems apply to A Ruthless Fidelity: The Collected Poems of Douglas Livingstone
Douglas Livingstone often said that the poet, whether in
serious, humorous or ironic vein, must aim to entertain readers. I hope that
the extracts from, and commentary on, his poems, as well as our conversations,
offer the reader both insight and enjoyment.