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Analysis and comments on What Were They Like? by Denise Levertov

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Comment 30 of 126, added on February 8th, 2010 at 1:33 AM.

Denise Levertov wrote political poems, as seen in "What Were They Like?"
(1971). As "The Norton Anthology of American Literature" (Vol. E) states:
"Her overtly political poems are not often among her best; however, their
very explicitness restricted her distinctive strengths as a poet, which
included a feeling for the inexplicable, a language lyrical enough to
express wish and desire, and a capacity for playfulness" (2819).
That capacity for playfulness can be found in "What Were They Like?" in
lines 13 through 15: "Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom /
but after the children were killed / there were no more buds."

Nonetheless, "What Were They Like?" is uncanny for its numbering and
formatted very strangely. The first stanza of the poem renders all
questions, whereas the second stanza tries to answer what is being asked.
The poem is based upon a dialogue between two persons: the questioner and
the know-it-all speaker.

For example, in the first two lines the question presents itself as
follows: "1) Did the people of Vietnam use lanterns of stones?"

The reader gets an answer to that question in lines 10 through 12: "1) Sir,
their light hearts turned to stone. / It is not remembered whether in
gardens / stone lanterns illuminated pleasant ways."

Likewise, line 5 asks: "3) Were they inclined to quiet laughter?"

The reader gets an answer in line 16: "3) Sir, laughter is bitter to the
burned mouth."

As one can see by the above illustrations, questions are presented in
stanza one and are later answered in stanza two. In essence, this is how
the entire poem is formatted: six questions are asked; and soon after, they
are responded to by the all-knowing voice - a voice that presents a sense
of hesitance and shyness a couple of times with "It is not remembered."

The poem is about the Vietnam War and the life of Vietnamese. Levertov
tries to convey that 'war' renders the waste of human lives and a
catastrophe to civilization. Another perspective of the poem is the bitter

The attitude of the poem in some way presents a sense of bitterness with
sharp images such as charred bones, children dying, mirrors being smashed
by bombs, etc. It's almost hopeless for the Vietnamese, for as long as the
war is going on people will continue to perish and the innocents will
suffer. Although the poem presents an angry voice, it falls more in the
category of anguish, because the pain and suffering are clearly

The final answer of the poem presents a beautiful image of moths flying in
moonlight, which represents peace and hope. However, it also states in line
27 that "There is an echo yet." This line presents a paradox in a
convoluted way, because it really says that the echo of the past haunts the
present - meaning war will always exist.

Even though the poem is formatted in a journalistic manner (with questions
being asked and later answered), "What Were They Like?" is a clear-cut poem
that shows the horrors of war, and the inevitable deadly outcome that war
renders via two speakers: the questioner who asks six questions and the
omniscient voice who replies.

In closing, the poem shows the destruction, deaths, the suffering of
Vietnamese, and the injustice of the Vietnam War. Because Levertov was
strongly anti-war and wrote many war poems, it is safe to conclude that
"What Were They Like?" is a protest against the Vietnam War.

Sara from New Zealand
Comment 29 of 126, added on February 1st, 2010 at 5:39 PM.

I'm studing this at the moment in my GSCE English Literature Class at
school. I'm finding it quite hard to understand more than one contrast in
the poem. If anyone has any more ideas than what already has been
mentioned, I would be grateful.

I undersatnd the contrast between polite and brutal part of the poem. Also,
the fact some is based on before war and then the result of the war leacing
the community deserted and dead.

Anyway, any more idea?
Please comment.
It would be sooooo helpful.
Thanks. Lucy

Lucy from United Kingdom
Comment 28 of 126, added on December 22nd, 2009 at 1:00 PM.

its gud

lkkl from Brunei Darussalam, Negara
Comment 27 of 126, added on December 9th, 2009 at 5:11 PM.

in this poem it is divid into two section answers and questions , in this
it is trying to say that there are two people one asking the questions and
the other be the know it all giving te answers, this poem is writen in
pseudo-journalistic technique. the message that the poem is trying to give
to the reader that is that war only causes death and distruction and there
is no winer in a war .

in line 27 it says there is an echo this means that war will always
existand that war will never end also the poem is based on facts on the on
the war.

just to let you know i am studying this in high school and to get the
understanding of what this poem is trying to get is quit simpy.


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Information about What Were They Like?

Poet: Denise Levertov
Poem: What Were They Like?
Added: Mar 17 2005
Viewed: 2077 times
Poem of the Day: Jan 19 2015

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