What Were They Like? by Denise Levertov

Notes on What Were They Like? by Denise Levertov

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What Were They Like? By Denise Levertov
Poet & Context
Written as American troops were trying to drive out communist soldiers from South Vietnam,
which was a bloody and violent war, in which the Americans used napalm bombing to wipe
out villages
Levertov (1923-1997) was a long term activist for peace and justice
Ideas & Emotions
What Were They Like? Is a warning against the potential destruction of a nation
It is unclear if she is criticising America and her soldiers for destroying the people, or the
people for being apathetic.
Structure & Rhythm
Written in enquiry format, with all the questions, then all the answers, which seems strange
as it would be simpler if each question and answer was together. This could suggest the
person questioning is arrogant, disinterested and patronising
Lack of gap between questions means there is no room for thought or reflection
Written in free verse
"They" gives impersonal sound, dehumanising the Vietnamese people
Written in past tense, as if the people no longer exist, showing it is written as a warning to
the people about what could potentially happen if they continue with this war
Phrase "lanterns of stone" appears to refer to prehistoric civilisations, suggesting the
questioner believes the Vietnamese to be simple people
Mention of "bone and ivory" links to death, as both require killing to be used
"had they and epic poem?" is judging them by Western civilisation, basically asking if they
were intellectual and civilised
"Sir" could be read in a number of ways. Firstly, it gives a military sound, as if a an officer is
asking these questions, yet as it is in the past tense showing the people have already been
destroyed it is clearly too late to be asking. Alternatively it could be with respect, or in an
ashamed way, like a guilty person answering. It could also be sarcastic, with anger at the
person who is asking.
End of second answer full stop and close bracket, without an open bracket earlier suggests
the finality, gives the idea that something which had always existed and should have always
existed has been destroyed.
Alliteration of "b" and "t" sound in "laughter is bitter to the burned mouth" shows anger at
what has been done, and how harsh it was.
"When bombs smashed those mirrors" shows how delicate the people were
"It was reported" creates distance and shows how they were seen as foreign, inhuman and
not worth treating as people, and they were only known on a military basis
"Who can say? It is silent now" gives a final blunt statement, suggesting it is no longer
important, as they are dead, it is not worth asking questions when it is too late- should have
asked sooner. Question challenges reader, asking if they will be able to say in the future.


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