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?


  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

  3. kate says:

    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.

  4. Heather says:

    I am doing this poem at the minute in English Anthology for GCSE, i’m sort of understanding it…but i’m still confused…lol

  5. sophie says:

    This poem shows the reality of what happens in war.. the loss of lives show exactally why people get agitated by it. The most effective line for me is the one that says ‘Who knows? Its silent now’ to me this indicates that an entire country was wiped out. Although we all know this was not the case but still many many thousands of lives were lost… its not fair and is a very delicate subject for many who have lost loved ones due to war… more people need to respect that rather than post unappropriate comments about it. This world would be a much better place if people thought about what they were saying before they say it…

  6. Joseph says:

    This poem was written during US involvement in Vietnam as a protest against that involvement. It is despiaring, as though the questions are being asked about a people that no longer exists.

    Is it only about Vietnam? No: it is about war, not about a particular place, and the results of war. And as it shouws, no one is invulnerable or immune from those results.

  7. amie says:

    this poem is a peaceful and delightful poem to read

  8. lauren & georgia says:

    this poem is wow a waste of time. dont read it, its pointless and boring….it makes no sense & we don’t live in vietnam so bovvered?!? we iz wow carin bwt the war & dat buh really??? is the war our folt thow? nah m8. inabit x

  9. x...amy...x says:

    “It is silent now” could be that no voices are now heard as they were killed during the war.

    we are doing this poem in Engish

  10. Steve Barsky says:

    Please be aware that the poem as printed above contains errors. Example: it is “after the children were killed,” not “after THEIR children,” and “stone lanterns illumined,” not “stone GARDENS.” There are other errors as well.

  11. Steve Barsky says:

    This poem has been set to music by James Primosch. Our choir, Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, commissioned Mr. Primosch’s setting and has performed it twice in concerts. It is a wonderful and sympathetic setting of the text. Our site: http://www.mcchorus.org.

  12. Georgina Ainsworth says:

    I personally love this poem. Me myself, I sort of see it as some kind of interrogation.

    “Did the people of vietnam use lanterns of stone?

    Sir, their kind hearts turned to stone”

    We used levels to establish the context…who would you call ‘sir’, then we studied other aspects of levels, had a few experiments, roleplays, scenes, still images. But all based on the poem.
    Our group formed our piece on a kinda police interrogation and said the poem as a police interrogation. It sounds amazing in that context.

    If you investigate the poem in different ways, you really do get a real sense of what the poems about and how it’s set to create a real dismal feeling.

    I love this poem and most of our drama class did too, legendary

  13. paul davies says:

    I feel that this poem expresses how the people of vietnamese lives chnaged so dramatically after the war and i feel that its a very good poem.

  14. aloksa says:

    I thought this poem was written very well and adds the reader sympathy and leaves them in the setting of the poem. Beautiful poem!

  15. *o_0* says:

    Its a very weird poem…I had to do study it for my English class and I hated it…It’s just so..BAD…

  16. adam says:

    this poem is very poor and pathetic, totally pathetic

  17. Archie says:

    shouldn’t it have numbers, so each question is matched with it’s respective answer. That’s how it is in the UK GCSE Anthology (a set of poems that we have to study!)

  18. tom says:

    i personally believe that Levertov’s Poem WWTL? is structured in this way of a particular reason. i believe that the questions that she poses in the first half of the poem seem to be almost from a child or someone who genuinely wnats to know about what the vietnamese civilisation were like, and in the second half of the poem the questions are answered with the irony that they all relate to what happened during the war, as with most ‘war-time’ poetry, the writer wisher to show her audience what happened to the people, and the brutality of the americans that they were faced with.

    the last line of this poem is incredibly poignant and thought-provoking. it is also very inventive that she has answered the question in the first stanza, and at the same time make a very true statement to show that no-onw will ever know whether the people of Viet Nam’sspeech was like a song.

  19. mrs pritchard says:

    what? you pack the fudge for bread?

  20. frances james says:

    i have just been studying this poem for my english class and i was wondering why Levertov put the poems into questions and answers.

    frances xx (all the way from england!!!!!)

  21. Greg Foote says:

    If this poem is treated as a live interview, it will
    gain immeasurably in power and effect. A student once
    suggested this in class. We then tried it that way, antiphonally, in class, and its impact was like a quiet explosion in the room….As a poem, it answers all questions, hits the head and heart with its impact, when treated that way.

    (I feel quite uneasy about the accuracy of the poem’s
    “lower section” as printed. I think someone should
    make sure it agrees with the original. Especially in the answers to the first and fifth questions.)

  22. B says:

    I love this poem, especially for its irony.
    I personally believe that Levertov put all the questions first and then the answers because by the time the reader gets to the answers he has probably already forgotten the questions. This emphasizes the idea she is portraying about how quickly people forget.

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