Study Guide

What Were They Like? Warfare

By Denise Levertov

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Despite being about the potential outcome of a very famous war, the only clue we have that the poem is about Vietnam is in the first line of "What Were They Like." Still, the events the poem references aren't necessarily all historical; it whips out a crystal ball and predicts a grim, depressing future wherein the people of Vietnam have been wiped out by bombings. This makes the poem less about specific events and more about the potential outcomes of war. The rest of the poem could apply to any war where innocent lives are lost, really—where peace and culture are sacrificed for political gain.

Questions About Warfare

  1. What is this poem's overall message about war? Can we apply this message to anything else?
  2. What images reference the tools of war? Are they specific to one time period? Why or why not?
  3. Does knowing the poem is about a potential future of Vietnam change the impact? Can it be applied to other conflicts? Why or why not?

Chew on This

The hopeful tone of the first stanza is balanced by the hopeless tone of the second stanza. Since we end on this super-down note, this poem leaves us feeling pessimistic about the future of humanity.

Sunshine and lollipops alert: Levertov's poem is actually a hopeful one. By imagining the worst-case scenario of war, she's steering her readers to a better, happier reality.

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