Analysis of Poem What Were They Like? by Denise Levertov

Updated on August 15, 2018
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Denise Levertov
Denise Levertov | Source

Denise Levertov and What Were They Like?

What Were They Like? is an unusual poem because it takes the form of a question and answer session between two people who are looking back at the culture of Vietnam, following the Vietnam war (1955-75).

The title of the poem suggests that the people of Vietnam are no more because of the war, they've been wiped out. The fact that the title is a rhetorical question means that someone has to ask about their culture in order to learn about them.

  • This poem, first published in The Sorrow Dance book in 1967, was written as a protest poem against the USA and its involvement in Vietnam. Many thought the war a futile exercise, a waste of life and resources in a country with a challenging terrain and a history of civil unrest.

Tens of thousands of young American soldiers died in the process, along with a million or more Vietnamese civilians. The exact figures are still disputed. The use of dubious mass bombings and the chemical napalm in particular caused a public outcry.

Denise Levertov joined other poets, writers and artists to form a groundswell of protest which led to marches and peace vigils being held throughout the US and Europe. Eventually the USA did pull out, rather ignominiously, in 1975, with the war lost. American attempts to stop the communist surge failed but Vietnam and its ancient peasant culture survived.

Since 1975 movie after movie and book after book have attempted to explain the Vietnam phenomenon. Most have focused on the struggles of the young American soldiers whilst out in the steamy, humid jungles and forests of a torn country, facing a motivated and determined enemy.

Denise Levertov's poem takes a step to one side, concentrating on the idea that a people have been erased from history. It's a thoughtful, puzzling double stanza that hardly qualifies as a poem yet has a subtle poignancy.

You can picture a young student or journalist posing the questions to a professor of anthropology or a cultural historian. Alternatively the dialogue could be that of interested visitor and museum curator.

Denise Levertov wrote many socio-political poems on the subject of war, individual rights and social issues.

'I do not believe that a violent imitation of the horrors of our times is the concern of poetry. Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.'

What Are The Themes in What Were They Like?

The main themes of this poems are:

The Vietnam War

The Human and Cultural Losses

The Consequences of War

Humanity's Inhumanity

What Were They Like


1) Did the people of Viet Nam
use lanterns of stone?
2) Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?
3) Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
4) Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?
5) Had they an epic poem?
6) Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

1) Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone lanterns illumined pleasant ways.
2) Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
but after their children were killed
there were no more buds.
3) Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
4) A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.
5) It is not remembered. Remember,
most were peasants; their life
was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
When bombs smashed those mirrors
there was time only to scream.
6) There is an echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now.

Analysis of What Were They Like?

What They Were Like is free verse of an unusual kind. There is no rhyme scheme, no regular metric beat. It is a hybrid of questionnaire and prose but there are poetical devices used in the second stanza.

In the first stanza the reader is faced with six numbered questions of varying length, which implies they might be part of a written exercise or project, questions sent in by a researcher perhaps.

The second stanza answers the six questions. Again, all answers are numbered.

  • It's interesting to note that the questions are all grouped together, complete as a stanza, so the reader has to take in all six before reaching the answers. It's up to the reader to decide whether to read the numbers or not but strictly speaking they should be included in the read through, as an integral part of the poetic experience.
  • All the questions are in the past tense, we're looking back into history.

These questions range from the general to the nuanced and give the reader an idea of what the Vietnamese people were like. There is use of symbol and metaphor. Let's go through each question and answer:

1) The language in this question is literal - did the people of Vietnam use stone lanterns - but the answer is symbolic and not directly tuned to the question. People's hearts turned to stone, as in a mythological story, which means they became hard and life was heavy.

The reply It is not remembered means that history is ignorant, there is no-one around to confirm if stone lanterns were used in gardens for example, to light the way and give direction.

2) The people once probably celebrated the season of spring, the renewal of plants and trees but because their children were killed in the war it was as if the buds, the renewal of things, the rebirth of nature, held no meaning.

3) This is the most unusual of questions and focuses on personal traits of a people now disappeared. The answer is poignant. How can people laugh when their mouths are burned - through fire, bombing, chemical weapons. That word bitter implies sourness or sharpness.

Further Analysis of What Were They Like?

4) The questioner asks if the Vietnamese liked to use material for ornaments (items of beauty, jewellery and artefacts), making objects out of bone and gems, amongst other things.

The answer - a dream ago - suggests that maybe they did but that now harsh reality is the norm. The past seems like a dream , unreal, and there is no space for joy, which the making of things for ornamental use implies.

And the fact that all the bones were charred means quite simply that fire (perhaps through bombing) destroyed any hope of creating joyful things.

5) Many ancient culture have an epic poem, an iconic piece of work that helps the foundation for culture and learning and history.

Again, the repeated It is not remembered seems a stock answer. There is no-one left who could have witnessed or known. The majority of the people lived off the land, grew rice, made huts from bamboo.

But the likelihood is that stories were told, handed down from generation to generation as the work went on. The bombs halted that way of life irreparably; stories stopped as terror began to rule.

6) This question is perhaps the most puzzling. There are not many ancient cultures that do not have both speech and song in their make-up. Distinguishing between them is often a case of developing poems out of song, music within poetry.

The answer claims that their speech was indeed like a song, but there is only an echo now, a fading remnant of sound.

The most striking image is that of moths in moonlight, a ghostly and surreal portrayal of their singing. But this is still only guess work on behalf of the answerer. The silence reigns, the truth is unknown.

© 2018 Andrew Spacey

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