Study Guide

What Were They Like? Stanza 1

By Denise Levertov

Stanza 1

Lines 1-2

Did the people of Viet Nam
use lanterns of stone?

  • Alrighty, then. Levertov doesn't beat around the bush: this poem is about the people of Vietnam, a Southeast Asian country.
  • Chances are, though, when you hear "Vietnam" you think about the Vietnam War, which lasted from 1955-1975.
  • More specifically, you probably think about protests in the US against our involvement in the war. It was a pretty big part of 1960s and 1970s culture.
  • Levertov wrote this poem at the height of the controversy. But this isn't a poem about the war itself. Notice the poem's tense? The word "did" indicates that this is in the past. This tells us that, in the poem, the people of Vietnam are no more.
  • So what happened to them? Let's read on…

Lines 3-4

Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?

  • Our speaker continues to question the traditions and behaviors of the people of Vietnam. We still aren't sure what happened to them, though.
  • The speaker wonders if they "held ceremonies" for the opening of flowers. Here, Levertov presents a peaceful scene. These certainly don't sound like people enmeshed in war. In fact, they sound like they hold great reverence for life and for nature. You can't get much more peaceful than that.
  • The poem is using imagery to make this sense of peace vivid. Here's hoping that sense of peace hangs around the rest of the poem.

Line 5

Were they inclined to quiet laughter?

  • With this choice in language, the speaker is definitely indicating that the people of Vietnam are no more.
  • We can surmise, then, that the poem is written from the point of view of someone in an alternate reality, where the events of the Vietnam War culminated in some type of nuclear bomb that wiped out the entire country, if not the entire continent. This wasn't without precedence in history, after all.
  • Since Levertov was an outspoken activist against the war, we can also assume this poem has some pretty strong political themes. By setting the poem in an imagined future, Levertov is able to use it as a sort of warning.
  • Back to the line itself: the speaker wonders if the people laughed quietly. The poet is again using a lot of peaceful, nonviolent imagery. We can almost hear the quiet laughter that the speaker is wondering about.

Lines 6-7

Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?

  • Here, the speaker mentions materials that are generally thought of as expensive or fine. "Bone" china, for instance, is usually only used for very fine dining. This is definitely not what you'd use to heat up a hot dog in the microwave, is what we're trying to say.
  • Ivory, jade, and silver are all hard to come by, too. Someone using these items for "ornament" would definitely be either wealthy or have a deep appreciation for the finer things in life (or, most likely, both).
  • This would indicate that these lost people had some culture. But the speaker doesn't know whether they had these things or not. Why? Right, it's because they've been obliterated.
  • Whatever imaginary future exists in the poem, it's a bleak one. The people of Vietnam have been wiped out.

Lines 8-9

Had they an epic poem?
Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

  • Epic poems are long, classical in style, and full of drama, history, and often even mythology.
  • The speaker also wonders about their traditions in song and speech.
  • By referencing fine materials, traditions, and great literary works, the speaker is emphasizing that these things all can give clues about the culture of a people.
  • If these things are all lost, then we lose a great chunk of their history, too.
  • Before we head off to the second stanza, let's take a quick look back. Notice any rhyming? Any patterns at all? We didn't think so. This poem is written in free verse form. For more on that, check out "Form and Meter."

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