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

Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone lanterns illumined pleasant ways.
Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
but after the children were killed
there were no more buds.
Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.
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.
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, meaning and summary of Denise Levertov's poem What Were They Like?

23 Comments

  1. Sara says:

    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 tone.

    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 illustrated.

    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.

  2. Lucy says:

    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

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