What Were They Like?

What Were They Like?

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What Were They Like?

​​In a nutshell

The poem "What Were They Like?" by Denise Levertov was published in 1967 in the midst of the Vietnam war. It leaves the readers thinking about the effect that war has on the population of a country and Denise takes a subtly critical approach. In this summary you will learn the structure, language and the main themes that are used in this poem.


The Vietnam war began in November of 1955 and ended in April of 1975. In the 1960s there was a development of the social and cultural freedoms which led the population to question the accepted authority. Protesters were against the American involvement with Vietnam and it's in this context that Denise Levertov writes her poem, as a way to question the crimes against the population. ​In this poem, Denise talks about the effect of the war on its population and there are two speakers: one asks the questions and the other answers them. 


The poem is divided into two sections: six questions and six answers. In the first part of the poem the questions are specific but the answers show uncertainty. This goes to show that it's impossible to fully understand the behaviours and culture of the Vietnamese population as the majority of them died during the war. 


The questions are posed in past tense by an unknown person, however the person responding refers to them as "Sir". He asks questions related to the Vietnamese culture and people. He asks if the people of Vietnam used lanterns of stone, if they had ceremonies for the opening of buds, if they were inclined to quiet laughter, if they used bone, ivory, jade or silver for ornaments, if they had an epic poem and finally if they distinguished between speech and singing. 


Now the reader has the answers to the questions asked: their hearts turned to stone; maybe they gathered to watch the opening of buds but after their children's death there were no more buds; the laugher was now bitter to the burned mouth (because of the gas); ornaments are for joy and all that's left is charred bone. It's not certain if they had an epic poem because they were peasants and their life was in bamboo and rice. But when life was good, maybe fathers told their sons old tales. However, when the war hit you could only hear screams; and finally, their speech was like a song and their singing resembled moths in the moonlight. But no one knows for sure because now there's only silence.



This poem doesn't follow a specific poetic form. It has 31 lines, divided into two blocks: the first block has six questions and the second block has six answers. The questions are marked with a number and the answer has that corresponding number as well. You can also choose how you read it: in sequence or by reading a question and then its answer. The poem ends with a rhetorical question asked by the person who is giving the answers.


The poem is written in free verse which means that it doesn't have a meter or rhyme. The line length varies as the poem is based on questions and answers, mimicking a real life conversation. Since the theme is so heavy and dark, not having a metre is symbolic. 


"What Were They Like?" doesn't have a rhyme scheme, which contributes to the poem's theme. When a poem has a rhyme it follows a rhythm almost like a song, making the poem something cheerful to read - which is not the case with this poem. Because there isn't a rhyme scheme, the poem is effortless and easy to read. The poem's message is clear and strong and so its language needs to be simple in order for the reader to understand. The line breaks are the only thing that separates this poem from an actual conversation. 


In the first block of the poem the language is simple and forthright and the questions are written in the past tense. For example: "Did they use bone and ivory, jade and silver, for ornament?".

The second block of this poem uses literary devices to make the responder seem more cultured and to highlight the country and its culture. The answers are in the past and present tenses which resembles the confusion caused by the war. The final sentence - "It is silent now" - is in present tense to show that the war has ended and one of its consequences was the disappearance of a culture. 


In the first part of the poem one of the questions asked is if the Vietnamese use stone lanterns. In the second part of the poem the answer is: "Their light hearts turned to stone". Meaning that the literal stone mentioned in the question turned into a metaphorical stone in the answer. 


Alliteration is seen in this poem in the verse "moths in the moonlight" as there is the repetition of the letters "m" and "o". The use of alliteration makes the lines more memorable for the reader and gives the poem more emotion. It's also an alternative to the metre and rhythm of a poem as it helps to create a visual image of what you're reading. 



The main theme of this poem is the consequences of the war in Vietnam. The questions are asked in the past because the culture and people of Vietnam almost disappeared because of the genocide. War destroyed everything: children died and with them the ceremonies for the opening of the buds also died. The simple act of laughter is now overcome with the effects of the gases on the body. Instead of making celebratory ornaments, the Vietnamese community is filled with sadness, having no reasons to celebrate. 


The six questions asked are all about the Vietnamese culture and traditions. The person asking the questions is curious about the tools they used, the ceremonies the held, their ornaments, the way they spoke and sang and their literature. 


The poem invokes a sense of anger when looking at the responses given. In contrast, we have the calm responses given in the poem. One can only be angry when reading about the deaths of the Vietnamese. 

Key quotations




"When bombs smashed those mirrors /
There was only time to scream"
Whilst reading this quote you can have a vivid image of bombs falling through the sky and being dropped on houses. With no time to react the only thing people could do was scream.
"Did they hold ceremonies /
to reverence the opening of buds?"
The opening of the buds is when a plant grows and develops a leaf or a flower. In some cultures, when it's spring they all gather to witness the growth of a plant. 
"Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned / mouth"
The calm responses contrast with the anger that anyone would feel by witnessing such horrors. When the author mentions "burned mouth" she talks about the gases used to attack the population and the country. 

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