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Comment 30 of 119, 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
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
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