Study Guide

What Were They Like? Sound Check

By Denise Levertov

Sound Check

While the poem might seem more like a conversation than something by Shakespeare, Levertov does have a few sonic tricks up her sleeve. Don't believe us? Try reading the following stanza
aloud, paying attention to the way she begins each line:

Did the people of Viet Nam
use lanterns of stone?
Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?
Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?
Had they an epic poem?
Did they distinguish between speech and singing?
(1-9)

Notice anything? Lines 1, 3, 6, and 9 begin with "Did the" or "Did they." That, Shmoopers, is what's know in the poetry biz as anaphora, the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of a line. (We could probably count line 8, which begins with "Had they" as part of this anaphora, too.)

So why break this technique out of the poetry toolbox? Well, anaphora helps poets really emphasize a point (or image) that they are trying to drive home. Here, we become buried in questions, which we later find have no real answer.

This isn't the only sonic trick Levertov employs. She also uses alliteration, or the repetition of beginning consonant sounds. Check out the following line:

Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth. (16)

"Bitter" and "burned" create a certain rhythm with their alliteration. It really gives the line some musicality and punch. Here's another example:

the flight of moths in moonlight. (30)

"Moths" and "moonlight" stand out as examples of alliteration, this time emphasizing the M sound instead of those B words in line 16.

So you see? Even a poem written in plain language and mimicking normal conversation can have some rhythm to emphasize its points. Combine anaphora and alliteration with some end-stops and enjambment (see "Form and Meter" for the full scoop), and we've got a poem with real cadence. It's like the sounds used here grab us readers by the shirt and shake us until we wake up and pay attention to the terrible loss being described.

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