Study Guide

What Were They Like? Art and Culture

By Denise Levertov

Art and Culture

Songs, ornaments, epic poems—all of these lasting works of art show that a society has culture. The first speaker of "What Were They Like," desiring to understand the people of Vietnam, asks if they had any of these things. The second speaker answers that they've all been lost to the conflict. They're history, outta here, gonzo. There's no way to recover the art and culture of people destroyed by war. This loss is just piled right on top of the loss of the people themselves.

Questions About Art and Culture

  1. What types of art and culture does Levertov mention? Why does she mention these, specifically?
  2. What does the second speaker say about the art and culture of the people of Vietnam? What happened?
  3. When art and culture are destroyed, what happens to the history of a people or region?

Chew on This

The poem shows us that the loss of the Vietnamese people's art and culture is as bad as the loss of the people themselves.

Actually, art and culture is an afterthought here. The speaker says the people of Vietnam's lives were "in rice and bamboo," not in art.

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