Tuesday, 3 November 2009

What were they like?

An English poet who moved to New York as a young adult, Denise Levertov voices her opposition to the USA's role in the Vietnam War in her poem 'What Were They Like?' The poem is presented in a particularly unusual way, where the first stanza consists of a series of numbered questions asking about certain aspects of the Vietnamese people's way of life. The second stanza gives answers to each of these questions, and they are also numbered so that it is easy to tell which reply relates to which question.

The fact that the questions in the first stanza are all in the past tense immediately leads us to feel that this race of people has now died out. Four of the questions repeat the opening phrase 'Did they...?' The tone of the questions conveys a sense that these were people who were gentle and close to nature. The second question, for example, asks 'Did they hold ceremonies / to reverence the opening of buds?' This question gives the impression that worship was an important part of their lives, and that they respected nature, realising that the growth of new plants and flowers was a precious sign of life. The third question asks 'Were they inclined to quiet laughter?' This paints a picture of people who understood joy but experienced it in a peaceful way. The fourth question asks if they used the natural elements of bone, ivory, jade and silver for decoration, implying that they loved natural beauty. The two final questions concern poetry, 'speech and singing', wondering if they had an 'epic poem' and also if they perhaps felt that speaking and singing were essentially one and the same.

The very first question in stanza one asks if 'the people of Viet Nam / used lanterns of stone', stone again being a natural substance. As we begin to read the answers to the questions in stanza two, we soon sense a difference in tone as the first line tells us 'Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.' This is not of course a direct answer to the question, but underlines the ideas of the first stanza, where it is suggested that these people appreciated joy and 'quiet laughter'. 'Turned to stone', on the other hand, tells us that their joy was wiped out, and their hearts became heavy. The next line, still answering the first question but now more directly, begins 'It is not remembered...' This phrase, repeated in the reply to the fifth question, creates a feeling that much of the knowledge of the Vietnamese people has been lost. No-one knows whether 'stone lanterns illumined pleasant ways'.

The answer to question two contains a poignant contrast of ideas. The fact that it begins with the word 'perhaps' reinforces the feeling that we cannot be certain of the traditions of a race of people that has been wiped out by war. The act of coming together to 'delight in blossom' is immediately followed by the harsh statement 'but after the children were killed / there were no more buds)'. No children, no buds, no life, no growth; what was there for these people to give thanks for in worship?

The third and fourth questions have replies that imply destruction by fire during the war. The answer to question three is the briefest one, telling us that 'laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.' Bitter can of course have two meanings: either a bitter taste, and here of course there is a reference to the mouth, or a bitter feeling, which is particularly poignant here, as the quiet laughter has transformed into appalling suffering. The reply to the fourth question begins 'A dream ago, perhaps,' reiterating the idea of uncertainty. It continues 'Ornament is for joy. / All the bones were charred,' leaving us in no doubt that there was no place for lightheartedness in the wake of the destruction of war.

The reply to the fifth question is the most detailed one, and also the one that bears the closest resemblance to the traditional concept of poetic description. It echoes the phrase 'It is not remembered' of the first answer, going on to say that most of the people were peasants who spent their lives 'in rice and bamboo'. They were cultivators, not destroyers. What follows is a descriptive image of 'peaceful clouds reflected in paddies', paddies being waterlogged fields where the rice was grown. Just as uncertainty was previously expressed by 'perhaps', here we have 'maybe': 'maybe fathers told their sons old tales'. The next two lines, however, are in sharp contrast once again, as these images or 'mirrors' were destroyed by bombing. This peaceful agricultural way of life was brought to an abrupt end, when 'there was time only to scream.'

The word scream is also in contrast to 'an echo yet / of their speech' at the start of the reply to the sixth and final question. Levertov uses a simile for their speech 'which was like a song', and the idea of joy is portrayed again. Their singing is compared to 'the flight of moths in the moonlight', creating the impression of delicateness and transitoriness. The final line of the poem presents one more question: 'Who can say?' emphasizing once more the uncertainty of the facts that are known about the people of Viet Nam. The poem ends with a brief sentence, 'It is silent now.' This is not a silence akin to that of the 'quiet laughter' of the third question, however. It is the silence of complete destruction, of a people that no longer exist.

We come away from this poem with a sense that the people being focused on here were gentle, peaceful folk who led a simple lifestyle close to nature; they had a strong sense of joy and delighted in creation and growth. The brutality of the way they were destroyed during the Vietnam War is brought home to us by the contrast of their quiet ways and the harsh reality of the bombing that wiped them out.

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