Study Guide

What Were They Like? Innocence

By Denise Levertov

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The people of Vietnam are portrayed as gentle, peace-loving, and family-oriented. The images Levertov uses in "What Were They Like"—clouds reflected in water, families passing down stories, or ceremonies to celebrate flowers—aren't those usually associated with a country at war. By emphasizing the peaceful nature of the people of Vietnam, Levertov makes a strong point for their innocence. This makes the destruction she portrays all the more unjust (and that's definitely the message she was going for).

Questions About Innocence

  1. Are the people of Vietnam portrayed in a stereotypical or condescending way? Do you think the poet intended to portray them this way? Why or why not?
  2. What images give the reader a sense of peace? How can you tell?
  3. Why don't the speakers mention any soldiers? Which groups of people do they mention? Why do you think Levertov chose this representational strategy?

Chew on This

The first speaker is portrayed as innocent and naïve (poor dude). Actually, he's meant to represent us, the readers.

Portraying the Vietnamese people as peaceable is necessary, since it allows us to think of them as innocent victims.

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