How is culture presented in Limbo and What Were They Like?

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Compare the methods Denise Levertov uses to present a particular culture in `What Were They Like?' with
the methods another poet uses to present a culture or cultures in one other poem.
In the poem `What Were They Like?' Denise Levertov describes the negative effects of war and what
happens when one culture is in conflict. It is a poem that protests about the damage done by the American
military to the people of Vietnam during the war which has not cause the `silence' of the culture. However, in
the poem `Limbo' Kamua describes the plight of slaves that were forced from Africa to European countries to
work in crop fields in dirty, dark and cramped condition of the ships.
Kamau uses a metaphor in `What Were The Like?', `stick is whip / and the dark deck is slavery' to
create an imagery. The word `stick' is repeated throughout the poem to stress its importance. It used
ambiguously to mean the limbo stick which is passed under in the limbo dance but it is another symbol for
the whip the slaves are beaten with. The assonance used in `stick' and `whip', the repetition of the `i' is
suggestive of the slaves being struck. Here, we can tell that Kamau, being a West Indian poet who writes
about powerful countries exploiting small and weaker countries disapproves the suffering of his African
ancestors. The alliteration of the hard consonant `d' is suggestive of death, the misery of being a slave. The
word dark also refers to the void felt in the state of limbo, the sense of uncertainty the slaves feel travelling
to an unknown place and not knowing what is going to happen to them.
Similar, Denise uses linguistic phrases to create imagery, `flights of moths in moonlight'. The
alliteration of the soft consonant `m' emphasises a sense of peace and harmony which disguises the darkness
of the war. The loss of hope is shown by the phrase, `after the children were killed there were no more buds'.
The word `buds' refers to new life, symbolic of the birth of babies which they `gathered' for `ceremonies' to
share their happiness with one another. Although, the culture is described as beautiful and rich using `jade
and silver', this is all in the past as `It is silent now'. The use of a short sentence suggests a sense of finality.
The structure in `What Were They Like?' is a simple question and answer form which suggest the
poem was written to be performed. The questions before its answer are used to make us think of the
questions before reading the answers. This format is indicative of an interview which makes us compare the
state of Vietnam before and after the war. The significance of the `Did' in the questions instantly suggest the
culture has now been forgotten. The person asking the question must be foreign to the culture as suggested
by the separation between `Viet' and `Nam'. The word `Sir' is used to address the question whilst describing
the horror of the war. Although, this is a sign of respect it could be a soldier answering the questions of a
reporter to whom the culture is from the past and wants to know what the Vietnamese people were like.
However, this could be the false respect of a Vietnamese farmer who had underlying anger as he blames the
Americans about the way the innocent Vietnamese people were treated.
In `Limbo', the structure is free verse of 24 stanzas which vary in length. The chorus `limbo like me' is
repeated throughout the poem after a couplet or a line sounding like a song. However, this changes towards
the end of the poem by `down' and then `up' three time. This structure insinuates a song sound which may
accompany the limbo dance. The word, `down' could suggest going under the sick rather than over to
overcome it. This metaphorically could suggest you have to hit rock bottom to go up again and this is
confirmed by the word `up' which comes after `down' - the dancer has made it under stick and now is getting
up. Furthermore, the use of loose rhyme except for `ready' and `suggest' the dance helps maintain their
hopes as they try to break away from slavery.
Both poets are bitter about the way a weaker culture was treated for the benefit of Western
countries. There is a sense of sarcasm found in both Limbo, `the dumb gods are raising me' and `What Were
They Like?', `laughter is bitter to the burned mouth'. `What Were They Like?' uses short answers which are
snappy which makes answerer sound sarcastic whereas the words `dumb gods' suggest there loss of faith in
their God as they didn't help them in the darkest period of their life - when they encountered slavery. Both
poets bear a grudge for the suffering of the Vietnamese or the Africans. In `What Were They Like', there is a
continuity of regret as the poet implies the war shouldn't have happened as something valuable has been
lost. `Who can say? It is silent now.' Answers `What Were They Like?' but this only leaves a trail of more
question which cannot be answered as the culture is destroyed and the memories are tainted with the
horrors of the war as emphasises by the lack of emotion. However, in `Limbo' the frustration of slaves are
finally tuned to hope as the journey has ended or slavery has been abolished `dumb gods' are no longer quiet
as. The Vietnamese still have memories which express the beauty of their culture whilst the Africans have
survived the time of slavery which has made their culture stronger.


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