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Personal Experience and Public Events Entwined in Denise Levertov’s “What Were They Like?” and “Life at War”

                [Denise Levertov] has learned how to weave together private experience and public event so that both are available to the reader, to show us the inner and outer lives in conflict and in reconciliation, to integrate reportage and documentary into lyrical form and find a genuine inscape. (Lacey 161)

 In the quotation above, Paul A. Lacey points out that Denise Levertov is a poet who is able to combine her own personal experience with historical facts so as to build up a new poetic vision. Levertov was also influenced by Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse,” published in 1950, where attention is paid to “the possibilities of breath” and the kinetics of a poem (613). However, she takes poetic writing a step further as she is also interested in the way experience is mediated to or translated into words. It is through her poetry that readers familiarize themselves with the poet’s experience in order to achieve a different level of understanding. What this article will attempt to show is how Levertov in her poems What Were They Like?” and “Life at War,” coming from the poetry collections What Were They Like (1971) and Life at War (1968) respectively,1  combines the intellectual with the emotional experience, the personal with the public, in an attempt to create what she calls an “inscape,” as will be analyzed furtherdown. In the poems to be analyzed here, Levertov uses the public event of the Vietnam War (1959-1975) as her canvas on which she draws strong, lyrical and at times ironic images by creating for the readers intriguing and thought-provoking juxtapositions.

 To begin with, emphasis needs to be placed on what Levertov calls “organic form” as this is described in her essay “Some Notes on Organic Form” (1965) for one to appreciate her poetic practice. According to Levertov, “there is a form in all things (and in our experience)” (“Some Notes” 628) which may not be visible to the naked eye (629). This form is “inherent” in all things and it is the poet’s task to “discover and reveal it” (628-9). This is where the notion of the “inscape” comes in which Levertov defines as “the pattern of essential characteristics both in single objects and […] in objects in a state of relationship with each other” (629). However, the term inscape is not confined to “sensory phenomena” only, but includes “intellectual and emotional experience as well” (629), as Levertov writes in her essay. Thus, Levertov composes the inscape of an experience in conjunction with other elements: intellectual, sensory and emotional (629). Levertov further explains that a “partial definition, then, of organic poetry might be that it is a method of apperception, i.e., of recognizing what we perceive, and is based on an intuition of an order, a form beyond forms, in which forms partake, and of which man’s creative works are analogies, resemblances, natural allegories. Such poetry is exploratory” (629). Without any doubt, this kind of poetry places emphasis on the internal structure of things, which does not rely on any prescribed form; on the contrary, this form is “organic,” constantly developing and never remaining static. This continual development of the organic form goes hand in hand with the readers’ responses to what they read as well. Levertov’s poetry thus “does not rely on preexisting forms but rather seeks the form unique to each experience” (Hoerchner 436). According to Judith and William Neveichols, “the poet must rely on concentrated attention to the craft of the poem to express conviction; the poet cannot rely in tradition alone but must invent a structure or form which contains the poet’s conviction” (69). As a result, due to the poem’s organic form, every time readers come back to the poem, they will come up with a different interpretation which prevents the poem from remaining static.

As for the artist, the achievement of an organic poetic form presupposes a stimuli, an experience which must be “felt by the poet intensely enough to demand of him their equivalence in words: he is brought to speech” (Levertov, “Some Notes” 629). With regard to the poems to be discussed here, “What Were They Like?” and “Life at War,” the stimuli come from the Vietnam War events and the way they are perceived by the American society of the time. Levertov writes at the exact time the war takes place, as evidenced in the following lines from her  poem “Life at War”: “burned human flesh/ is smelling in Vietnam as I write” (Poems 230). This traumatic historical event becomes for Levertov the source for creative thinking. Actually, it brings to the fore her personal feelings while forcing her to confront its consequences on both a human and historical level. In particular, she writes in her essay “Some Notes on Organic Form” that “the condition of being a poet is that periodically such a cross section or constellation, of experiences (in which one or another element may predominate) demands, or wakes in him this demand: the poem. The beginning of the fulfillment of this demand is to contemplate, to meditate; words which connote a state in which the heat of feeling warms the intellect” (629). Here she pays attention to the amount of concentration required as well as to the thinking process at work for raw experience to be transferred onto the printed page in addition to being transformed into poetic language. In particular, in her poems “Life at War” and “What Were They Like?” it is words themselves which become the carriers of the harsh Vietnam War experience which contributes towards the creation of the inscape of the poem. However, it is through contemplation that experience is distilled through the poet’s mind and senses so as then to be transferred onto the printed page in order to be communicated to the readers. “During the writing of the poem the various elements of the poet’s being are in communion with each other, and heightened. Ear and eye, intellect and passion, interrelate more subtly than other times” (629-30), Levertov writes in her essay placing emphasis on how all the senses can be combined leading to a far more synaesthetic experience. The tuning of ears, eyes and all the other sensory organs creates the context for the writing process to begin. Once this is achieved, the senses will be brought in communion with the mind. Gradually then, the organic form of the poem will start developing. Although the form that the text takes on the page may seem regular, it is important that one realizes that this is neither mechanical nor predetermined but multidimensional, since it constitutes the outcome of intense contemplation with regard to how real-life experiences are communicated to the readers.

 Consequently, this makes one appreciate the fact that the combination of personal experience with public events is not done effortlessly. Nichols points out that Levertov is aware of the amount of effort required for a poet to move between poetic practice and political imagination (68). This is evident in the way Levertov manages to reconcile the personal with the public. As a result, the poet in her works establishes an ongoing relationship with her surrounding environment, either natural or political, which highlights her active engagement with the world around her. Egocentricity has no place in Levertov’s writings since a poem for her should only be just “a mere extension of the author’s ego […] aris[ing] from the author’s awareness of both inner and outer worlds and direct itself as a form of communication and evocation. At its most subjective the poem will be a ‘record’ of the ‘inner song’ of the author’s internal monologue” (436). This line effectively points towards the connection that there is in Levertov’s writing between an inner kind of lyricism with an internal effort to articulate what is out there, which gives a different dimension to her writing making it the outcome of a meditative and contemplative process.

 Czeslaw Milosz argues that many post-war poets do not only “fail aesthetically in his eyes,” but they get carried away by “the deprivation and brutality that seep into every aspect of their lives, even the language of their poetry” (qtd. in Nichols 69). Levertov, however, pays “attention to language, sound play, image and rhythm” in her political poetry, and prevents her poems from becoming “another symptom of a disintegrating society” (Nichols 69). Levertov does not allow the public event of the Vietnam War to overshadow everything else contained in her poem-worlds; she neither overlooks nor ignores or silences personal experience. Her tendency to bring the everyday-like elements center stage in her writing and the way she chooses to tackle the historical event she focuses on each time corresponds to the impulse writers, and especially poets, in the post WWII period, felt to capture in writing the praxis of life. Levertov is not interested in how things appear to be but on what is hidden underneath the mere surface of reality.

It is mainly through sarcasm and irony that Levertov, in addition to tackling certain historical/political events, also attacks the rhetoric and false pretenses of the media of the period during which she writes. This is the kind of irony one can detect, for example, in her poem “What Were They Like?.” In this poem, Levertov makes use of a very particular pattern so as to structure the inscape the poem may provide the readers with. One could argue that the poem takes the form of an interview as it is divided into questions and answers, as in for example, “Did the people of Vietnam/ use lanterns of stone?” and “Sir, their light hearts turned to stone./ It is not remembered whether in gardens/ stone lanterns illuminated pleasant ways” (Levertov, Poems 234). For a live interview to be conducted, an interactive relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee needs to be built up. In the poem, the active interaction of an interview is totally missing, because both the interviewer and the interviewee do not engage in dialogue, but they are restricted in providing only a list with their questions and answers with each one working independently from the other. This is a way that Levertov uses to show how superficial any kind of connection between everyday reality and the media is. Levertov’s irony is emphasized more by presenting the interviewer as being a totally ignorant person, and the interviewee as being the one who knows every possible answer. This kind of ignorance points toward people’s ignorance about the everyday aspects of Vietnamese life. The ignorant interviewer is literally bombarding the interviewee with “did,” “were” and “had” questions, such as “Did the people of Viet Nam/ use lanterns of stone?/ Did they hold ceremonies/ to reverence the opening of buds?” (Levertov, Poems 234). The way her writing is structured here creates an intense and harsh sound effect, being figuratively reminiscent of the dropping of bombs. This effect builds up into a big crescendo when it comes to the last question, “Did they distinguish between speech and singing?” (Levertov, Poems 234) which acts as the last straw. This crescendo leads to a bursting, explosion-like effect resembling the one of a firework or a bomb, which takes readers by surprise overwhelming them almost with the overpowering effect the constant posting of questions create.

 Instead of focusing on the battlefield of the Vietnam War, Levertov in her poem “What Were They Like?” shifts the readers’ attention to the everyday life of the Vietnamese people. Her use of irony makes their fate seem even more tragic. She creates irony by not using a war-like vocabulary to refer to the victims, but she uses simple words such as “lanterns,” “buds,” “laughter,” “ornament,” and “singing” (Levertov, Poems 234) so as to transfer to readers the everydayness of reality and turn their attention to the value of all the simple things that people share. The Vietnamese people are described as being peaceful: they “were peasants; their life/ was in rice and bamboo” (Levertov, Poems 234); but immediately afterwards we learn that their children were killed: “Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,/ but after their children were killed” (234). The interviewer’s wish to know about the facts of the Vietnamese people’s life is treated with mere sarcasm by the interviewee, whose “‘answers’ ironically pick up the language of the questions, and the perversions of wartime are revealed in the ‘distortions’ of a once-revered way of life” (Rodgers 89). Particularly, repetition of words that are found in the questions and then in the answers further highlight Levertov’s irony, as in for example: “lanterns of stone?” and “their light hearts turned to stone/ It is not remembered whether in gardens stone lanterns illuminated pleasant ways” (Levertov, Poems 234). The stone itself being part of the natural environment is of great value for the Vietnamese people, who seem to be in harmony with nature. The image Levertov creates with the reference to the “lanterns of stone” (Levertov, Poems 234) seems to be bringing together two incompatible things. This combination of words provokes in the readers’ mind a different number of associations that set the mind in motion. Once this is done, the inscape of the poem starts developing, leading the readers to a different understanding of the events included into it. Nichols makes a very important comment regarding the previous lines: “The lines were written at about the same time that General Curtis LeMay was proposing that the United States bomb North Vietnam into the Stone Age. The play on stone suggests, in addition, paralysis of feeling and the obliteration of memory” (65). The paralysis effect mentioned here may be the result either of fear or terror, but either way, the victims were unable to save themselves. The “lanterns of stone” are used for illumination, and Levertov plays with the meaning of the word by referring to the hearts as being “light,” full of hope and light as not heavy by worries or guilt (Levertov, Poems 234). The stone which is by nature heavy is juxtaposed here with the image of the “light” heart; what has been light and floating, it is now heavy and grounded. The letter “l” that is found in the words “lanterns,” “light,” “illuminated” and “pleasant” enables the bridging between them as it stands here for a positive and hopeful attitude. However, the stone now acquires a negative meaning not representing a lively natural object anymore. The way the same words move between the affirmative and interrogative lines in the poem challenge the readers’ expectations by creating different associations each time which expand the vision of things since more meanings and juxtapositions can be generated.

 The second question refers to the “ceremonies” held “to reverence the opening of buds” (Levertov, Poems 234). Instead, these ceremonies are now of a funeral nature, since “the children were killed” (234). The letter “l” that previously stood for joy and hope can be found also in the second answer in the words “delight” and “blossom,” turning now into a mocking double in the word “killed” which cancels whatever positive connotations it had triggered before. As the poem further develops, the “l” from killed is now found in the word “laughter” which creates an ironic feel either because it is reminiscent of the laughter of the dead children, or it may be Levertov’s own sarcastic laughter that cauterizes the horrors of the Vietnam War. The image of the “buds,” being a symbol of joy, energy and fertility, is now contrasted to the words “bitter” and “burned,” words that are far from positive. The “buds” are nothing more than “bones” completely burned, “charred”; there is not the slightest glimpse of hope here; it seems as if optimism has completely perished, disappeared. As for the word “ornament,” it is now the “bones” which have become the “ornament” of death, but even these are no longer to be found anywhere, since they “were charred.” The letter “o” found in “ornament,” “ivory” and in “joy” has been consumed by the flames that charred the “bones” which further intensifies the horror that the war has left behind.

 What follows further down in the poem is the distortion of memory. The negation of the interviewee in the poem to recall what has happened combined with words such as “perhaps,” reinforce the sentiment of doubt whether what is presented is real or trustworthy (Levertov, Poems 234). The lines “A dream ago, perhaps” and “It is not remembered” (234) create a cloudy memory effect, which is neither concrete nor complete. Like a dream that has passed and gone, such is the fate of those who have died. Although the media will make a fuss about what has happened, once something else comes forth, the Vietnam War will be forgotten along with its victims and no one else will ever “remember” them (234). The peaceful character traits of the Vietnamese people are highlighted by the sound /p/ found in the word “peace” as well as in “peasants,” “peaceful” and “paddies” (234). The “b” letter comes center stage again in the juxtaposition of the images of the “bamboo” and the “buffalo” with the “bombs” (234). What is more, the word “bombs” entails the letter “m” as well, which is also found in “mirrors” that are being “smashed.” As for the word “scream” (234), it creates a synaesthetic effect, because it evokes both a visual and an aural experience intensifying even more the ferociousness of the war for the Vietnamese people. The /s/ sound in “smashes” and “scream” is followed by the words “song” and “speech” that are “silent now” (234). These are followed by the line “their singing resembled the flight of moths in moonlight” (234) which creates an interesting but contradictory lyrical effect. The sound effect the word “singing” creates turns with the use of the word “flight” into motion, creating thus a juxtaposition of sound and movement. This process activates and energizes the procedure behind the poem’s inscape, since the reading and thinking process the readers are engaged with moves from static visual images to active animation through the juxtaposition of various images and senses triggered here. The experience the poem communicates opens up to multiple stimuli which enliven the whole poetic practice.

Apart from “What Were They Like?,” the poem “Life at War” is one of Levertov’s well-known political poems. The poem opens with the oxymoron title “Life at War” that “prefigures the ‘impossible’ juxtapositions” that will appear later on in the poem (Rodgers 85). Life and war are terms in complete opposition. Throughout her poem, Levertov plays with this dualism revealing at the same time that the life and death polarity can be subverted, since her poem focuses on an in limbo space between life and death, where these two elements are mingled so as to offer a different perspective by energizing readers towards an much more in-depth engagement with these two states of being. The “disasters” of the Vietnam War that are supposed to reawaken people and make them realize its horror are paralyzing them instead. Levertov writes in her poem: “The disasters numb within us/ caught in the chest” (Poems 229). Despite the fact that horror paralyzes, it does not remain inactive; on the contrary, the horror of disasters is “rolling/ in the brain like pebbles” (229). The “disasters” here are compared to “pebbles” which creates an interesting tactile and visual effect. Similarly to the pebbles rolling, this is how disasters occur, in an intermittent manner which makes it difficult for the mind to understand and contextualize them. This has a particular effect on the individual. Levertov talks in her poem about the numbing sensation this creates: “The feeling/ resembles lumps of raw dough/ weighing down a child’s stomach” (229). The juxtaposition between the “rolling” and “numb” effect of the disasters reflects the poet’s ambivalent emotional situation, which is elaborated on further with the image of “lumps of raw dough” (229). This image is not a static one, because the “lumps” are “weighing down a child’s stomach”; however, the words “weighing down” remind of the Earth’s centripetal powers, actions that underline the passivity of the subject and its gravitational status. The effect builds up more and more images which are added to the picture created or emerging here in the readers’ mind. In the line “The feeling/ resembles lumps of raw dough/ weighing down a child’s stomach” (229), Levertov’s irony becomes evident, since despite the fact that this is “a baking day” the child cannot satisfy its hunger, because the “dough” is “raw” (229). The “dough,” which as a word has certain nutritional connotations as for example the dough of bread, is in this poem connected to the remains of “disasters” (229), leaving readers with an unpleasant aftertaste. Levertov may be referring in this way to the starving children of the Vietnam War, an aspect of the war that probably the media did not pay much attention to.

The image of the child not being able to feed himself or herself takes on a poignant dimension here. However, the effect created is not melodramatic. The “bitterness” that she feels is given form, it is “balled” but at the same time the “lumps” are “formless” (Levertov, Poems 229) which creates a paradoxical effect. The bitter feeling is something that she cannot get rid of and so does the speaker. In order to emphasize the duration of the war, Levertov uses an enjambment: “The same war/ continues” (229). Just like breathing never ceases in a living creature, so does the ongoing horror of war which seems to be incessantly intertwined with human existence. The “disasters” that previously have been “pebbles” that were “rolling,” now become “grits” that are “breathed” in (229). Levertov’s irony can be detected in the way she uses the word “breathed” (229). Although the grits are “breathed” in, the “lungs are pocked with it” and the body is suffocated and unable to breathe (229). The suffocating effect is elaborated on further with the image of “the mucous membrane,” which completely distorts “dreams” and “imagination” (229). Any hope is muffled, since “dreams” and “imagination” are coated with “the mucous membrane” and “filmed over with the gray filth of it” (229). The choking effect this image creates here does not leave any breathing space leading to the paralysis effect the poem creates even from the very beginning with the line, “The disasters numb within use/ caught in the chest” (229). This line has got a very strong effect on readers, who find themselves bewildered as they discover that danger lies in such close proximity, as in the “chest” (229). In addition, disasters are no longer distant events but they can be physically experienced. This endows Levertov’s poem with synaesthetic qualities, for the inscape of the poem is based to a great extend on the sensory experience transmitted, as Levertov argues in “Some Notes.” For Levertov sensory experience, such as “the sight of the sky” and “the sound of music” (629), is what creates poetry. However, the crystallization or experience and its intertwining with the intellect is often endowed with irony and sarcasm which are also part of the poetic inscape.

In particular, Levertov’s sarcasm is evident when she refers to “delicate Man” and “the knowledge of humankind” as “gray filth” (Levertov, Poems 229) bringing to the forefront the twofold nature of human existence. After the bleak images of the first stanzas, there come two new stanzas that mockingly refer to the greatness and superb existence of human beings, who are presented as being superior to other beings: “whose music excels the music of birds,/ whose laughter matches the laughter of dogs,/ whose understanding manifests designs/ fairer than the spider’s most intricate web” (229). The repetition of the word “music” is juxtaposed to the “mucous membrane” and to a certain degree succeeds in softening the suffocation effect that the image of the “mucous membrane” creates (229). Despite Levertov’s irony, a kind of poignancy is found and lyricism in these lines as well in the reference to “eyes,” “flowers,” “stars” and “birds” (229). A sensory experience supplements the emotional and intellectual one Levertov builds up here, for all the senses are now involved in the poetic effect she creates: hearing in the “music of birds” and seeing in the “eyes” that “perceive the stars” and touching in the way “flesh/ responds to a caress” (229). Taste, however, has no positive connotations, because one cannot forget the bitter taste “of raw dough/ weighing down a child’s stomach on baking day” (229). In keeping a balance between positive and negative images, Levertov avoids any melodramatic overtones and, at the same time, retains her lyricism which does not attempt to tone down the effect her poem creates but, on the contrary, further enhance the juxtapositions created.

As Lacey notes, it is not possible in Levertov’s poetry for one to overlook “the inner and outer lives” of humans which are “in conflict” (61). This is evident in the lines about the “delicate Man” and his double nature being capable of both noble and atrocious acts: “still turns without surprise, with mere regret/ to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk/ runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,/ transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,/ implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys” (Levertov, Poems 230). Having used such grotesque images, Levertov is even more sarcastic towards the way the media presented and approached the Vietnam War at that period of time in the U.S. The word “still” adds to the irony, implying that although the man is aware of what he is about to do, he does not hesitate to commit his atrocities; as for the “still-alive babies” (230) although they have survived the war so far, they stand no chance for survival, since their mothers’ have been murdered. Despite the fact that “humans, men” can “make” “mercy” and they are “mirror[…] forms of a God,” they seem to be focusing only on “burn[ing] human flesh” (230). The sense of smell of the “burned human flesh” together with the sense of taste of the bitter “raw dough” enriches the poetic inscape Levertov creates here, allowing readers to empathize with the Vietnamese people. This is further enhanced by the lines “the knowledge that jostles for space/ in our bodies” (230) making the “nerve filaments twitch with its presence/ day and night” (230). Levertov’s diction is of great importance here, since she chooses words that entail a certain feel of constant motion, such as “jostles” and “twitch” (230). The effect created is that of restlessness since everything constantly reacts to the external stimuli. The constant movement reflects also the oscillation of human nature between evil and benevolent deeds. War is what brings onto the surface the evil nature of humans; and the man’s inner conflict will never end in reconciliation unless the war is over, for “living at peace” will provide “the deep intelligence” (230) humans need in order to resolve the struggle that takes place within their inner being.

On the basis of what has been examined so far, in her poems “What Were They Like?” and “Life at War,” Levertov mingles her personal experience with the Vietnam War effect. In building up a unique inscape of experience in each poem, Levertov enables readers perceive the reality of the poem as an extension of the real world that can be approached from different perspectives. Her attention to the plasticity of form is what makes her poems so special; it is through organic form that she links the personal to the public. In addition, Levertov underlines the importance of everyday events that tend to be overlooked and ignored compared to the big historical ones. It is through the use of irony and sarcasm that Levertov attacks the rhetoric of the media of the time by placing emphasis on the distortion of the information delivered. Levertov brings all that is hidden in the recesses of the everyday onto the surface and mixes it with the sensory, emotional and intellectual so as to create a kind of poetry that does not restrict itself to what is printed on the page, but to a kind of poetry whose words become themselves the carriers of active living experience.

 Both collections are included in Levertov’s collected poetry volume entitled Poems (1983) which is where all poem citations for this paper come from.



Combs, Maxine. “Denise Levertov, The Sorrow Dance.” Northwest Review 9 (1968): 128-30. Print.
Hoerchner, Susan. “Denise Levertov.” Contemporary Literature 15 (1974): 435-7. Print.
Lacey, Paul A. “The Poetry of Political Anguish.” Denise Levertov: Selected Criticism. Ed. Albert Gelpi. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1993. 151-61. Print.
Levertov, Denise. Poems: 1960-1967. New York: New Directions, 1983. Print.
---. “Some Notes on Organic Form.” Postmodern American Poetry. Ed. Paul Hoover. New York: Norton, 1994. 628-33. Print.
Nichols, Judith, and William Nichols. “Denise Levertov’s Political Imagination.” Poet Lore 87 (1992): 63-74. Print.
Olson, Charles. “Projective Verse.” Postmodern American Poetry. Ed. Paul Hoover. New York: Norton, 1994. 613-21. Print.
Rodgers, Audrey T. Denise Levertov: The Poetry of Engagement. London: Associated University Presses, 1993. Print.

Lizzy Pournara
MA student in School of English, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece


Denise Levertov

Life at War

The disasters numb within us
caught in the chest, rolling
in the brain like pebbles. The feeling
resembles lumps of raw dough

weighing down a child’s stomach on baking day.
Or Rilke said it, ‘My heart. . .
Could I say of it, it overflows
with bitterness . . . but no, as though

its contents were simply balled into
formless lumps, thus
do I carry it about.’
The same war

We have breathed the grits of it in, all our lives,
our lungs are pocked with it,
the mucous membrane of our dreams
coated with it, the imagination
filmed over with the gray filth of it:

the knowledge that humankind,

delicate Man, whose flesh
responds to a caress, whose eyes
are flowers that perceive the stars,

whose music excels the music of birds,
whose laughter matches the laughter of dogs,
whose understanding manifests designs
fairer than the spider’s most intricate web,

still turns without surprise, with mere regret
to the scheduled breaking open of breasts whose milk
runs out over the entrails of still-alive babies,
transformation of witnessing eyes to pulp-fragments,
implosion of skinned penises into carcass-gulleys.

We are the humans, men who can make;
whose language imagines mercy,
lovingkindness we have believed one another
mirrored forms of a God we felt as good—

who do these acts, who convince ourselves
it is necessary; these acts are done
to our own flesh; burned human flesh
is smelling in Vietnam as I write.

Yes, this is the knowledge that jostles for space
in our bodies along with all we
go on knowing of joy, of love;

our nerve filaments twitch with its presence
day and night,
nothing we say has not the husky phlegm of it in the saying,
nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness,
the deep intelligence living at peace would have.

What Were They Like

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

1) Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
    It is not remembered whether in gardens
    stone lanterns illumined pleasant ways.
2) Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
    but after their children were killed
    there were no more buds.
3) Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
4) A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
    All the bones were charred.
5) 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.
6) 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.