Denise Levertov

What Were They Like? By Denise Levertov

The poem, What Were They Like?, is about the aftereffects of war, and what happens when one culture conflicts with another culture. The poem specifically protests about the damage done by the American military to the people of Vietnam during the war between the two nations in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It has a very unique structure, split into two verses. Reasons for structuring the poem like this are given in the annotations that follow: “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?”

Apart from criticizing the American army, the poem also criticizes those who just believe in complaining by sitting at their homes, but in actuality don’t do anything. All the questions asked in the poem are in the past tense so that it can give the impression that life has no meaning and no existence. The poem begins with numbered questions: making it seem more like a school exam than a poem. Moreover, the very title of the poem, “What Were They Like” is not a question that’s usually asked after.

In the poem, Denise Levertov employs the public event of the Vietnam War (1959-1975) as her canvas on which she sketches the lyrical, strong, and sometimes sarcastic images by creating the thought-provoking and intriguing juxtapositions for her readers.

What Were They Like? By Denise Levertov

About Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov is well-recognized to combine her own personal experience with historical facts. Through her poetic skills, she is able to build up a new poetic vision. The poet was also influenced by Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse,” published in 1950, in which the entire focus remains on “the possibilities of breath” and the kinetics of a poem. However, just as she mediates or translates her personal experience into words, it shows her great poetic skills. It is only by virtue of her poetry that readers are able to familiarize themselves with the poet’s experience, and obtain a different level of understanding.

In What Were They Like?, Levertov combines the intellectual with the emotional experience, the personal with the public, to come up with what she calls an “inscape.” Levertov, rather than shedding light over the battlefield of the Vietnam War, shifts the readers’ attention to the daily life of the Vietnamese. The way she makes use of irony, it makes their lot seem even more disastrous. Remember, the poet produces irony without using a war-like terminology to address the victims, but she employs simple words like “buds,” “lanterns,” “laughter,” “ornament,” and “singing” so that the attention of the readers can be transferred to the everydayness of reality, and turned to the value of all simple things that people like to share in their lives.

Analysis of What Were They Like?

First Stanza

Did the people of Viet Nam
use lanterns of stone?
Had they an epic poem?
Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

The poem What Were They Like?, which can be read in full here, opens with a series of questions about the past. The questions appear to suggest an ancient, religious civilization, grounded in old skills and an appreciation of nature. The questions continue like a catechism… and answers seem to be required. The material seems to be almost primitive and traditional. And when the poet says, “Had they an epic?” he seems to be referring to the ancient mythical civilization, most probably Greek’s two great epics, Odyssey or Iliad.

As we know Denise Levertov hated war, and had always protested the loss of human lives. In this poem also, he protests the war, and criticizes the American military for its operation against the Vietnamese. This very first part of the poem is replete with sarcastic questions and is an attack on those who do not understand the value of the lives of human beings. Through the questions, the poet wants to make her readers think about and then look for the answers.

Through words like ‘electricity’, stones, he wants to tell that the people of Vietnam passed a very simple and ordinary life, but due to the attack of American Army, the country was separated from other advanced nations such as America, United Kingdom and much more. Here, the poet plays a sympathy card on behalf of the Vietnamese, and try to create sympathy among the hearts of her readers toward the people of Vietnam, and sadden them by highlighting the simplicity of Vietnamese in front of her readers. The poet says they were happy villagers, who lived in harmony with nature.

Through the imagery of “lanterns of stone”, the poet combines two incompatible things. This combination of words provokes in the readers’ mind a diverse number of associations that set the mind in motion, and lead them to a different understanding of the events included into it.

In the starting six verses of the poem, most of the questions are about the culture of the people of Vietnam. The poet has used these types of questions to tell the readers that the primary object of her poem is to teach the readers how the culture of Vietnam was severely affected by the war.

Second Stanza

Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.


was in rice and bamboo.

Where in the first stanza, a speaker (questioner) asks questions, in the second stanza, there is someone who gives answers to the questions of the first speaker. As we go through the verses, it becomes clear that the first speaker is a man, and the second might know what has happened. The very first word in the second stanza, ‘Sir’ has been used in sarcastic tone. This ‘catechism’ provides numbered answers which relates to the questions asked in the poem. Moreover, beginning with ‘sir’ may also hint at the person answering the question is being respectful. It is just like a soldier answering their commander, but it might be false respect.

The poet (speaker) tells that all those gleeful, joyful and nature lover people are now dead, their light heart has turned to stone, which may mean that the speaker has given the answers of the first verse of first stanza where he asks “Did the people of Viet Nam use lanterns of stone?” He tells though before war, they used to be happier, now there is no one left to answer as almost all of them are now turned to stone

Remember, the questions asked in the first stanza of the poem are made in past tense, while the answers are given the present tense in the second stanza. The poet might have used this style to make her readers think back, and know what they did in the past.

In the first stanza of the poem, the first speaker asks ‘Did they hold ceremonies to reverence the opening of buds?’, the second man answers ‘Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom, but after their children were killed there were no more buds.’ This means that they might have gathered once in blossom but after the death of their children in the destruction caused by war, there were no more buds. All their cultures and traditions have now been completely wiped out due to the repercussions of war. ‘There were no more buds,’ is a reference to their being no more growth, the war has destroyed and demolished almost everything. This phrase also suggests a strong sense of community, which used to live in harmony with nature, but is now nowhere to see.

When the speaker asks ‘Were they inclined to quite laughter in the first stanza, the respondent answers that sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth. Of course, the word bitter here may have two meaning: it could either be a bitter taste because there is reference of mouth, or it may be a bitter feeling, which might have arisen seeing the aftermaths of war between America and Vietnam. This is chiefly poignant here, as the quite laughter has turned into the appalling sufferings.  The poet makes use of imagery by writing, ‘all the bones were charred.’ This quote gives the reader a terrible image of a village being bombed and bodies set on fire. The ‘b’s sounds in ‘laughter is bitter to the burned mouth’ are quite harsh. This alliteration lays emphasis on the hurt and pain the Vietnamese might have gone through.

When the speaker asks “Did they use bone and ivory, jade and sliver, for ornament?” the respondent responds that “A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy. All the bones were charred.” Here the respondent may mean that he doesn’t know what their occupations were; some of them were peasants, whose whole life revolved around rice and bamboo, but now everything is destroyed by the war. All the human beings are now transformed into charred body. They either might have been set on fire, or killed. The speaker asks, ‘Had they an epic poem?’ the respondent relies ‘Remember, most were peasants; their life was in rice and bamboo.’

Third Stanza

When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
Who can say? It is silent now.

Answering to the questions of the speaker, the respondent in the third stanza of the poem says that there was a time when the peaceful clouds used to reflect their paddy fields, and the water buffalo used to step along the terraces. He gives the longest answer of this question by describing what and how was the culture of Vietnamese before the war. He says that they used to live a very simple life. They were stable and calm. Their paddy fields were waterlogged, and remained rich with the growth of rice. However, the war has now destroyed all. Now there is screams all around. The bombs have totally smashed their mirrors. When the bombs were falling, they didn’t have time even to sing, what they could only do was just screaming and running to save their lives. Though not everything vanished, yet there was an ‘echo’ of their speech. When the speaker asks “Did they distinguish between speech and singing?” the respondent answers that “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.” In the last three verses the poem again picturizes before us an image of gentle and peaceful living. The readers are provided with quite contrasting images of ruin after war. The poet employs a smile, likening the flight of moths in moonlight to the voices of the people singing. Moths are gentle creatures, while moonlight is less hot and harsh than sunlight. The poet says, today Vietnam is silent; there is no one to sing.

All their legacies and songs are now gone with the dead people. The last sentence of the poem shifts into the present tense. It is a simple statement, but this contributes to the power of the point: many people are dead, a culture has been destroyed. This is a strong image that suggests the beauty and delicateness of the Vietnamese and the sound of their singing.

If briefly said, the final stanza gives an additional edge of recollected beauty in the image of the flight of moths. And, this poem is not of anger but of suffering and anguish.

Final Comments

The poem What Were They Like? has really impressed me with its theme, style, and presentation. Though there are many other war-related poems, the way, the poet has presented it in the present and past tense, it really makes use think how tragic and disastrous the aftermaths of the war has been. The poem makes the best representation of the sorry state of the poor, simple, and peasants Vietnamese who lived in harmony with nature but are now nowhere to be seen. All their folklore and ceremonies have been completely smashed by the American army.

Discover the Essential Secrets

of Poetry

Sign up to unveil the best kept secrets in poetry,

brought to you by the experts

Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.
Notify of

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry, straight to your inbox

Start Your Perfect Poetry Journey

The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

Share via
Copy link
Powered by Social Snap