Culture and identity – ‘What were they like?’ by Denise Levertov

What Were They Like? – Denise Levertov

Did the people of Viet Nam
use lanterns of stone?
Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?
Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?
Had they an epic poem?
Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone gardens illumined pleasant ways.
Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
but after their children were killed
there were no more buds.
Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.
it is not remembered. Remember,
most were peasants; their life
was in rice and bamboo.
When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies
and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces,
maybe fathers told their sons old tales.
When bombs smashed those mirrors
there was time only to scream.
There is an echo yet
of their speech which was like a song.
It was reported their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now.

How do we decide on our interpretation of the poem?

What helps?

  • Think about the process you follow to arrive at your interpretation of a poem
  • Teach the poem to the class

Remember you need your own checks and balances so if you are challenged you will be able to provide evidence for your interpretation.

It’s a good idea to contribute to class discussion because:

  • you are forced to articulate your thoughts
  • others can benefit from your ideas just as you can benefit from their viewpoint
  • you might get challenged and you will have to provide evidence from the poem to support your interpretation

Writing about poetry is not about sounding ‘deep’ or masking your confusion with impressive vocabulary.

Dig deep into the poem and help each other out in class by challenging each other to explain their interpretation with evidence.

Good questions to ask when you challenge someone’s interpretation:

  • What makes you say that?
  • How can you justify that?
  • What evidence is there in the poem for that theory?
  • Can you explain this part in light of your theory?

Answers to these questions will not be short; they will be detailed.

Exposition: explain where you got that idea from.



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