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What Were They Like

  • Date Submitted: 03/14/2010 11:18 AM
  • Flesch-Kincaid Score: 57.1 
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What were they like?

This is a famous poem, written in 1971, as a protest against the Vietnamese War (1954-1975. This was originally a civil war between communist North and capitalist South Vietnam; the south received support from western countries, notably the USA. In 1973 President Nixon withdrew the US forces, in 1975 the armies of North Vietnam were victorious, and the country was reunited the following year. More recently, Vietnam has adopted democratic government and opened itself up to visitors from the west.) Denise Levertov protested in public against the war, and spent time in jail. In the poem, inspired by the violence of the US bombing campaign, she imagines a future in which the people have been destroyed and there is no record or memory of their culture. (In the light of the Nazis' genocide of European Jews, this was not an unreasonable fear.) In fact, the people and culture of Vietnam are thriving today but attempted genocide (now we call it “ethnic cleansing”) has devastated Cambodia, Ruanda and Burundi and the former Yugoslavia.
The poem is in the form of a series of questions, as a future visitor might pose them to a cultural historian. The questions are mostly straightforward, but the answers are quite subversive. Together they create a sympathetic portrait of a gentle, simple peasant people, living a dignified if humble life amid the paddy fields. This contrasts with the violent effects of war, as children are killed, bones are charred and people scream as bombs smash the paddy fields. The final lines of the poem show how utterly the people have been forgotten - the report of their singing (of which there is no record) is hopelessly vague - it resembled, supposedly, “the flight of moths in moonlight” - but no one knows, since it is silent now. Happily the reader today can readily find examples of Vietnamese song, and we can satisfy ourselves that it is nothing like the flight of moths in moonlight.
The poem shows the Vietnamese as rather...

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