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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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What Were They Like?

Poetry from Different Cultures

Denise Levertov

Island Man

Grace Nichols

slide contents
Slide Contents


Social & Historical Context

What is it About?



Examination Preparation


denise levertov 1923 1997
Denise Levertov (1923–1997)

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
The Vietnam War

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.

the vietnam war7
The Vietnam War

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 In 1973 US troops were withdrawn, South Vietnam surrendered to the North, and the country became a Communist state.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.

check your understanding
Check Your Understanding

From what you have discovered so far try to answer one or both of the following questions:

  • Why did the USA and Australia send troops to Vietnam? Why did hundreds of thousands of people protest against the war?

2. How does Levertov’s personal experience of war help her to empathise with the Vietnamese?

the brutality of war
The Brutality of War

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.

speaking listening
Speaking & Listening

Work in a pair. One of you will be the questioner and the other will be answering the questions.


  • The questioner could be a tourist, journalist or visitor to a museum
  • The person answering may be a tour guide, military figure or museum curator

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.

the museum curator s journal
The Museum Curator’s Journal

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:

  • Images of the horrible destructive effects of the Vietnam war on its victims are presented throughout the poem.

American Ignorance

  • The questioner is representative of the ignorant American. His / her questions display a lack of knowledge about other cultures and the tone conveys a lack of sensitivity.


  • The war almost brought about the destruction of Vietnam’s culture and way of life. The agricultural system, the environment, ancient customs and ceremonies were in danger of being lost for good because of the devastation of the war.

The beauty of Vietnam before the war:

  • Images of a gentle way of life are presented in the poem. Before the war Vietnam was a beautiful and cultured country.


  • With the destruction of a culture comes destruction of identity. As the stories, poetry and songs of a culture are lost the people lose their identity. We wouldn’t know what they were like.
  • What is unusual about the structure of the poem?
  • Why do you think the poet has used this specific layout?
  • What is juxtaposition?
  • Find examples of juxtaposition in the poem (look for contrasts between the simple pre-war life and the images of war).
  • What do you notice about the sentence length in the final line?
  • Why has Levertov used this sentence structure to end the poem?
  • What is the effect of using a rhetorical question in the final line?

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?

  • religion
  • art and craft
  • language
  • technology
  • humour
  • literature

In the second verse the questions are answered one by one. What happened to the six aspects of Vietnamese culture discussed in verse one?

  • Centuries old Vietnamese technology such as creating ‘lanterns of stone’ was destroyed during the napalm bombing raids.
questions answers tone
Questions & Answers : Tone

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

comparisons and contrasts
Comparisons and Contrasts

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.

  • What tense are all the questions in? What does this suggest about the culture being described?
  • Find examples of language that makes the Vietnamese culture before the war sound beautiful, peaceful and rich.
  • The second half of the poem uses the address ‘Sir’. What does this suggest about the person asking and the person answering the questions?
  • Think about the phrase ‘the opening of buds’. What season would you associate with this image? What are the ‘buds’ also a reference to? What has happened to these things?
  • Why does the poet change to the present tense in answer six?
poetic techniques
Poetic Techniques


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.

poetic techniques24
Poetic Techniques

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.

check understanding
Check Understanding

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.

the examination paper
The Examination Paper
  • You will have 45 minutes to answer the question.
  • You will be asked to compare two poems.
  • You should begin by annotating the question for the key words. This will help you to understand what you are being asked to do.

E.g. Compare ‘What Were They Like?’ with one other poem, to show how the poets explore conflict and the cruelty of war.

  • Spend between 5 and 10 minutes making a plan. This will help you to order your essay logically.
  • Make a note of any key ideas you are going to include.
  • Leave at least 5 minutes at the end to read through your work and check for any basic errors.

A good answer should:

  • Write in paragraphs.
  • Don’t forget to P.E.E! Using a range of quotes that are properly embedded within your answer.
  • Begin with an introduction and end with a conclusion.

There main body of the essay should follow these five steps to make a good answer:

  • Write a bit about the theme
  • Compare the structures of each poem
  • Compare the use of language in each poem
  • Compare the feelings of the poets
  • Write about how the poems make you feel.
making connections
Similarity Connectives


In the same way



Just as…also

Contrast Connectives

In contrast


Whereas (best used in the middle of a sentence)

On the other hand

Making 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:




  • When you are comparing poems you will be asked to look for the similarities and the differences.
  • You should comment on the language they use. What poetic devices are present? Imagery, similes, metaphors, alliteration, onomatopoeia, personification, rhyme etc. What effect do they have on the reader?
  • You will need to comment on the structure of the poems. How are they set out? Does this add to their overall effect/meaning?
  • Consider the tone of the poems. What mood has the author created?
useful stuff
Useful Stuff

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:

more useful stuff
More Useful Stuff

Annotated PPT version of What Were They Like?

What Were They Like? pupil revision podcast to download