What Were They Like?. Poetry from Different Cultures. Denise Levertov. Island Man Grace Nichols. Slide Contents. Author Social & Historical Context What is it About? Structure Language Examination Preparation Links. The Author. Denise Levertov (1923–1997).
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Poetry from Different Cultures
Social & Historical Context
What is it About?
Levertov was born and brought up in the UK and served as a nurse during the Second World War,experiencing the London Blitz and the effects of bombs on civilians. After the war she married an American, moved to New York and became a naturalized American citizen in 1956.
In the United States she became increasingly involved in the protest movement against America’s involvement in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s.
Levertov’s work was very political and her beliefs are central to the poem What Were They Like.
The Vietnam War was a conflict that was fought from 1957 to 1975 between North and South Vietnam. Vietnam had declared their independence from the French empire but the country was ideologically split between the communists in the North and the Anti-communists in the South.
The North Vietnamese were supported by other Communist countries (the USSR and China), whereas South Vietnam was supported by the stoutly anti-communist countries USA and Australia.
Following an attack on an American ship the US sent soldiers into Vietnam to fight. However, many US citizens were opposed to the war and news images of the murder of Vietnamese civilians provoked global outrage. By the end of the 1960s hundreds of thousands of people in the USA were taking part in antiwar protests. In 1973 US troops were withdrawn, South Vietnam surrendered to the North, and the country became a Communist state. Millions of innocent Vietnamese men, women and children had been killed.
From what you have discovered so far try to answer one or both of the following questions:
2. How does Levertov’s personal experience of war help her to empathise with the Vietnamese?
Denise Levertov wrote this poem during the Vietnam war. At the time of its publication America was engaged in a violent bombing campaign that was devastating Vietnam. Levertov feared that the power of the American military could wipe out the Vietnamese race and culture for ever. In the poem she imagines a future in which the people of Vietnam have been destroyed and no record or memory of their culture has survived. In the poem the two verses represent a dialogue about the lost culture of Vietnam. In the first verse the questioner (possibly a tourist, journalist or visitor to a museum) asks a series of questions about the culture of the Vietnamese people. The questioner’s tone is curious and innocent but completely oblivious of this ways of this vanished civilisation. In contrast the person answering (possibly a tour guide, military figure or museum curator) in verse two has a polite tone on the surface but their words convey bitterness, anger and impatience with the questioner.
Work in a pair. One of you will be the questioner and the other will be answering the questions.
Produce a short role play using the poem as a script. You may wish to change the order of questions and responses. Think about how both characters will speak their lines and react to the other’s responses.
Imagine the poem is set in a museum where a visitor is asking a curator about the life of the Vietnamese.
You are the curator answering questions about Vietnam. At the end of the day you reflect on the dialogue you had with the visitor.
Write an entry in your journal about what happened. Explain what the visitor asked you, how you felt about their questions, the answers you gave and your feelings about what happened to the people of Vietnam.
The poem deals with a number of themes:
The horror of War:
The beauty of Vietnam before the war:
There are six questions in the poem each concerned with a specific area of Vietnamese culture. Below are the different aspects of Vietnamese culture but linked to the wrong questions. Can you place them in the correct order?
In the second verse the questions are answered one by one. What happened to the six aspects of Vietnamese culture discussed in verse one?
Explore the differences in the two halves of the poem. Pick out three questions and answers and comment on the use of tone. Some examples are listed below.
anger affection regret blame patient explanation bitterness accusation sadness
Before the War
Lanterns of stone
After the War
Hearts turned to stone
Levertov compares two very different periods: before and after the war. Pick out images of life before and after the war.
What Were They Like?is a poem of contrasts of life before and after the war in Vietnam. Create a storyboard and pick out three images of life before the war and three images of life after. Illustrate and colour your work according to the images in the poem.
Metaphor The use of the same sound at the start of words
Alliteration A figure of speech not meant literally
Onomatopoeia a comparison between two different things, especially a phrase containing the word 'like' or 'as’.
SimileA word which imitates the sound it represents
Repetitionthe act or process of saying or writing something again
Match the technique with the correct definition.
Think about the poetic techniques discussed on the last slide. Copy down the chart below. Find examples in the poem and write down the effect created.
Using the notes you have made
so far answer this question:
Explain how Denise Levertov uses language to show the differences between life before and after the war in Viet Nam.
E.g. Compare ‘What Were They Like?’ with one other poem, to show how the poets explore conflict and the cruelty of war.
A good answer should:
There main body of the essay should follow these five steps to make a good answer:
In the same way
Whereas (best used in the middle of a sentence)
On the other handMaking Connections
Use a series of comparisons, using connectives to link ideas, both within paragraphs and between paragraphs.
Refer back to the question repeating the key words from it.
Use the following words to link your Point -> Evidence -> Explain sentences. The use of these words will also help to ensure that your response is analytical.
gives the impression that
To make the same point using a different example, try one of these:
What Were They Like? short films:
Please preview this before showing to your class as it contains graphic and distressing images of victims of war.
BBC Bitesize Poems From Other Cultures:
Annotated PPT version of What Were They Like?http://web.wheelerslane.bham.sch.uk/files/What%20Were%20They%20Like.ppt
What Were They Like? pupil revision podcast to download