Study Guide

What Were They Like? Introduction

By Denise Levertov

What Were They Like? Introduction

Close your eyes and picture America in the 1960s. What do you see?

Chances are, you pictured a bunch of hippies holding posters with peace signs and marching together. Some of the most iconic images of the era capture the resistance to America's continued participation in the Vietnam War, which was, at the time, gradually losing public support. These protests came to define the era.

One such protester was Denise Levertov, a British-born poet who moved to America and added her voice to the fray. She was staunchly against the violence of war and the cost of its destruction to humanity.

And she certainly didn't mince words about it. In "What Were They Like?" a reporter-like speaker interviews someone about the people of Vietnam. She asks about their lives, traditions, and culture. She wonders how they lived, and what they were like (hence… uh, the title).

Unfortunately for the interviewer, no one has any real answers. Why? Because, in this poem, everything—and everyone—in Vietnam has been destroyed by bombs.

Levertov wrote the poem in 1966, years before America would pull out of the war. She imagined a future where the people of Vietnam were so devastated by the conflict that they were essentially wiped off the map. There was nothing left, in this imagined future, to see or hear. It's a pretty bleak look at the brutality and destruction of war.

While the people of Vietnam did ultimately live on and avoid the fate her poem warns against, her message still rings prescient: war can destroy humans—and the things humans produce—with its destruction.

And, warns Levertov, we may never be able to recover what was lost.

What is What Were They Like? About and Why Should I Care?

Ever feel like protesting, Shmoopers? Now, we're not just wondering if you've ever considered marching around with a sign. Consider this: have you ever felt like acting out against an unfair grade, policy, or law? Ever feel like taking action against something that is just truly unfair?

We bet you've felt that way a time or two. After all, it can be a hard world out there, filled with laws that don't always make sense, random acts of unkindness, war, and a million other types of injustices. And the only way to get change to come about is to take action and speak up about it.

But how do you speak up? Well, you could join a movement or protest and add your voice to the many. You could write a letter or start or campaign. You probably have heard a protest song or two; there's always that route.

One form of protest you may not have considered, though, is protest via poetry. Yep, we said poetry. Sound ineffectual? Well, don't tell that to Denise Levertov. An outspoken critic of war and a poet concerned with the general state of humanity, Levertov wrote many poems that are themselves a form of protest.

She did so in a style that didn't mince words, either; her accessible and vivid imagery helped bring the anti-war message to a wide audience. And isn't that one of the points of protesting?

In fact, it was vocal critics of the Vietnam War like Levertov who ultimately helped shift public perception enough to start some very large protests. America ended up pulling out of the war in 1973, after public support drastically declined.

So, next time you want to take a stand, remember this poem. Then perhaps you'll consider putting  pen to paper. Your words may be more effective than you think.

What Were They Like? Resources

Websites

Learn About Levertov
Dive into the Poetry Foundation's bio (and linked poems) of Levertov.

Here, Have Some More Levertov
Her biography at Poets.org, with links to even more poems.

The Black Mountain Gang
Here's more on the movement that Levertov found pretty darn inspiring.

Video

Straight From the Poet's Mouth
Levertov reads six poems.

1971 Washington March for Peace
See 200,000 people march against the war. That's… quite a crowd.

The Poem, Visualized
See the poem set to song and images (and grab a tissue).

Audio

What Does It Sound Like?
Hear the poem read aloud.

Images

The Poet
Here she is, the poet herself.

The War in Images
Here's TIME's image gallery of the Vietnam War—powerful stuff.

Famous Photos
Here are some of the most iconic photos of the war; they helped catch the attention of the world.

Articles and Interviews

The Poetry of War
Dig this piece on Levertov and other anti-war poets.

On Organic Form
The poet discusses craft and… other poetic stuff.

Resurrecting the Poet
Stayin' alive—this article revisits and revives Levertov's work.

Books

The Life of the Poet
Read all about her life and works.

The Collected Poems
All her poems in one place—yup, this is a big one.

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