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What were they like - Denise Levertov [1923-1997]

Relevant Background

  • Denise Levertov lived in America, though she was born in England. Her parents were Russian and Welsh.
  • She wrote poems that opposed America fighting in Vietnam in the 1960’s. This poem is an attack on the typical American ignorance of the horrors of the Vietnam War.
  • Vietnam is in Southeast Asia. The country was badly damaged by a war between North and South Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970’s. America sent a half million soldiers who fought with South Vietnam against the North of the country which was supported by China. This horrible war was caused by the so-called Cold War of the Super-Powers.
  • The war was bloody. American forces were brutal towards their enemy and towards the women and children of North Vietnam.
  • In 1966, Denise Levertov published this poem to show her feelings at what the American Army had done to the people and way of life of Vietnam.
  • Denise Levertov wrote some unusual poems such as this one. Here the form or structure of the poem is like an interview. The interviewer or questioner asks all the questions together. Then a speaker answers each question in turn.


The interviewer or questioner is curious and innocent, like a young American journalist. The questions are asked too quickly and impatiently, like a search for information for an article. The questioner is naïve or foolish, knowing less than he should about the way war has ruined Vietnam.

In the first section, the questioner asks six questions about the culture, character and art of the Vietnamese people. Denise Levertov cleverly selects the finest aspects of traditional Vietnamese life as the subject of the questions. This is her way of reminding her readers about what has been lost, due to war. The questioner asks about their ornaments, worship of nature, laughter, poetry and song. The speaker answers bitterly, with knowledge that the questioner didn’t have. She gives out to the questioner for not remembering that Vietnam was a peasant society up against a Super-Power. The speaker answers with a real feeling for the suffering of the children of Vietnam. The speaker who answers is very formal, referring to the questioner as ‘Sir’. American’s usually refer to a man they don’t know in this formal way. The word ‘Sir’ suggests the possibility that the questioner is a military person. The speaker, in the second half, is impatient with the questioner for not already knowing the terrible truth about the destruction of Vietnam.

In the second section, the speaker tears each question apart. She shows the grief of the Vietnamese people.
To answer the first question, she plays on the words light and stone. She states that horrors made the Vietnamese people numb, unable to feel. Because of shell-shock they cannot remember their own past or culture.
In her second answer, she states the killing of children destroyed the country’s delight in nature and ceremony. The children are compared to buds.
To answer the third question about laughter, the speaker pictures their suffering. The Americans were using napalm to burn the jungle. The mouths of innocent children were burned. How could they laugh then?
To answer the fourth question about ornaments, the speaker says they don’t need ornaments made from animal bone when human bones have been burned by bombs.
To answer a question about their epic poems [poems that celebrate the past] the speaker says the war has wiped out memory. She points out that the people of Vietnam lived peaceful rural lives, growing rice in a beautiful countryside. The water in the paddy fields mirrored the sky. She blames the American bombs for destroying their agricultural way of life and their family structure.
The sixth question is about their song-like everyday speech. The speaker answers that some say there is still a faint echo of song in the people’s speech. It is as faint as the beating of moth-wings. The speaker concludes by declaring that war has finally silenced their beautiful and gentle songs.


  • The Brutality of War
    Denise Levertov points out the horrible, destructive effects of the Vietnam War. American weapons burned human bones and killed the children. War produced screams, not art.
  • The Naivety or Foolish Ignorance of American Society.
    The questioner represents the uninformed American. Many Americans don’t know much about what their country is doing to people in other countries. Denise Levertov is mocking the attitude of the curious questioner. She gives the impression he should have known more about Vietnam.
  • Ruin
    In armed conflict, invading armies destroy culture and the normal way of life.
    The Americans destroyed the agricultural system, the jewellery and ceremonies that the Vietnamese people were known for. Worse, they burned their children.
  • The beauty of Vietnam before the war
    The first section portrays a colourful and gentle rural way of life before the bombs and burning. These people had songs, ornaments, culture and joy.
  • Memory
    The poem explores memories of the past. People who have survived brutal war have no memories of their life before the war. They lose their identity as a people and cannot remember their stories, poetry or songs.


Question and Answer: Denise Levertov uses an unusual question and answer method to write an anti-war poem. She poses six questions, followed by six very surprising answers. At the end of the poem, she asks a rhetorical question: ‘Who can say?’ The unusual form of the poem is due to the unusual treatment of Vietnam by the American army.
Comparison: Levertov compares two very different periods: before and after the war.
Contrast [difference]: The bone and ivory of animals used for ornament contrasts to the burned bones of innocent human victims. Find more contrasts.
Metaphor: The poet compares the hard and heavy hearts of the Vietnamese to stone. The paddy fields are compared to mirrors.
Simile: Levertov compares faint singing to the flight of moths in moonlight.
Tone: The tone in the first section could be considered as curious and full of wonder. From another point of view, the questions are asked quickly and in an impatient manner too. It is like the questioner wants information. Make up your own mind on the tone of this section.
The replies are speedy and impatient. There is a despairing tone in the answers to the questions. There is anger at the foolishness and insensitivity of the questioner. There is a tone of immense sadness at the loss of so much innocence and beauty. The response to the questions seems bitter over the brutal suffering of the people. Look at the phrases that will show some of these tones.
Repetition: The fact that there is no rhyme helps to emphasise the brutal effects of war. There is no harmony in Vietnam. Note the repetition of ‘remember’ throughout the poem. This brings home the effects of war as it destroys memory.
Alliteration: A good examples is the ‘m’ of ‘moths in moonlight’. It shows the beauty, softness and fragility of the Vietnamese and their voices.
Consonance [repetition of consonant sounds anywhere]: Note the ‘m’ sounds in lines twenty-five and six. This links the bombs to the screams.
Sibilance [repetition of ‘s’ sound]: Note how the ‘s’ sounds in lines twenty-two, three and four create a peaceful atmosphere [before the war].
Onomatopoeia [sound imitating meaning]: ‘rippling’, ‘smashed’, ‘scream’.


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