Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“What Were They Like?” illustrates Levertov’s political concerns; here, her interests lie in questioning, quite literally, the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The poem itself is little more than a list of six questions and answers. The questions come forth from a voice almost childlike in design and naïveté, while the answers solicited are dismissive and irritated in their tone and content.
The questions show concern for the loss of knowledge about the Vietnamese people, but they are by no means of an outwardly political or journalistic nature. Rather, the persona, which seems youthful but is not, asks questions germane to a deeper understanding of the culture of Vietnam: What were their religious mores? What made them laugh? Can the person answering the questions tell the persona anything of their literature? The persona seems aware that the idea of Vietnam might already be lost or be in the process of being expurgated rather than studied or illuminated.
The responses, while not terse, are stultifying and try to obviate the discussion. They are also sarcastic in tone, as the responsorial voice twists the wording of the questions to mock the person asking them. For example, when the questioner asks whether the Vietnamese used stone lanterns, the responsorial voice declares that the Vietnamese people held light hearts that had turned to stone. In this dismissal, the respondent echoes and amplifies the idea that, even if any of these questions had once been germane, most of this otherwise arcane knowledge has long since been forgotten.
American military policy is illuminated here as destructive and unconcerned with the collateral damage of the war brought about by its tactics. Frequently mentioned are allusions to fire, burning, bombing, and the charred remains of a people and their civilization. Given Levertov’s political stances, it is almost self-evident that the respondent’s voice is to be vilified as destructive and genocidal, as it is more concerned with reporting the decimation of the Vietnamese people than with knowing anything about them. The ultimate answer of the respondent is that it is impossible to know these people now, as they are largely silent and forgotten.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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