Denise Levertov, an English-born American poet, published "What Were They Like" as part of her 1967 collection The Sorrow Dance. The poem was written in protest of American involvement in the Vietnam War. In it, Levertov imagines a future in which the Vietnamese people and their culture have been more or less wiped out by the war. The poem takes the form of a conversation of sorts, with one speaker asking questions about Vietnamese people and culture and another offering only inconclusive answers that highlight the horror of the conflict. "What Were They Like" ultimately underscores the inhumanity of war, exploring the ways it harms innocent civilians and suggesting the incalculable loss of eradicating an entire people.
1) Did the ...
... opening of buds?
3) Were they inclined ...
... silver, for ornament?
5) Had they an ...
... speech and singing?
1) Sir, their light ... turned to stone.
It is not ...
... lanterns illumined pleasant ways.
2) Perhaps they ...
... no more buds.
3) Sir, laughter ...
... bones were charred.
5) It is ...
... rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds ...
... sons old tales.
When bombs smashed ...
... like a song.
It was reported ...
... is silent now.
Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.
War Resisters League — The website for the War Resisters League, of which Levertov was a member.
Black Mountain School — An introduction to the Black Mountain poets, who were a significant influence on Levertov's work.
An Overview of the Vietnam War — A fairly in-depth overview of the Vietnam War, including a timeline.
The Poem Out Loud — A reading of the poem from Literature Today UK.
Leverton's Biography — Read more about the poet and her work at the Ppoetry Foundation.
Vietnam War Poetry — A collection of other poems written in response to the Vietnam War.
11) Did the people of Viet Nam
2use lanterns of stone?
32) Did they hold ceremonies
4to reverence the opening of buds?
53) Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
64) Did they use bone and ivory,
7jade and silver, for ornament?
85) Had they an epic poem?
96) Did they distinguish between speech and singing?
101) Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
11It is not remembered whether in gardens
12stone lanterns illumined pleasant ways.
132) Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
14but after their children were killed
15there were no more buds.
163) Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
174) A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
18All the bones were charred.
195) It is not remembered. Remember,
20most were peasants; their life
21was in rice and bamboo.
22When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
23and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
24maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
25When bombs smashed those mirrors
26there was time only to scream.
276) There is an echo yet
28of their speech which was like a song.
29It was reported their singing resembled
30the flight of moths in moonlight.
31Who can say? It is silent now.