A reading of 'What Were They Like?'

In this unusually structured poem, Denise Levertov makes the reader think about the effect war has on the population and culture of a country, with specific reference to the Vietnam War (1955 – 75). Although she is critical about the way a nation and its culture could be disregarded, this is done very subtly through the way the poem is set out.

There are clearly two speakers in this poem (the questioner and the responder) but it is not immediately clear who they are or what attitudes they have. The questioner could be a reporter, an army officer, a tourist, an anthropologist or any number of other people. The responder's identity is also not clear; s/he might be a Vietnamese person, a junior soldier, a tour or museum guide or a student. How you ‘read’ the questioner and responder characters will affect the way in which the attitudes and themes within the poem are revealed. The first speaker, for instance, may be curious, annoyed or calm; the second may be polite, sarcastic or upset. Try reading the poem using different combinations of tone to get this effect.

Underneath all of this, however, is the poet's voice. Levertov writes her poem with a sense of sadness. Loss, regret and even anger also run subtly throughout the poem.

Read the poem here.