What Were They Like?
by Denise Levertov
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 that their singing resembled
the flight of moths in moonlight.
Who can say? It is silent now.
by Wislawa Szymborska
“Woman, what’s your name?” “I don’t know.”
“How old are you? Where are you from?” “I don’t know.”
Why did you dig that burrow?” “I don’t know.”
“How long have you been hiding?” “I don’t know.”
“Why did you bite my finger?” “I don’t know.”
“Don’t you know that we won’t hurt you?” “I don’t know.”
“Whose side are you on?” “I don’t know.”
“This is war, you’ve got to choose.” “I don’t know.”
“Does your village still exist?” “I don’t know.”
“Are those your children?” “Yes.”
Every poem deserves a solo and not just a brief duet, and such is the limitation of this twin poem exercise. Pairing poems is merely my own one-eyed lens, and not the best way to see them in all their glory.
That’s an apology to these wonderful poems and a prelude to say, readers, bear with me through a few such more pairings and feel free to weigh in with more expansive commentary.
Here we have two poems with the same subject—the suffering of Vietnamese people during the war they call “The American War.” Both Denise Levertov’s “What Were They Like?” and Wislawa Szymborska’s “Vietnam” use a question-and-answer format to spotlight the inhumanity of war and the humanity of the people living through it. Both poems take aim at Otherness. Thinking of a people as Other Than Us opens up the gates to colonization and aggression, and Vietnam has a long history of being subjected to both. France, Britain, Japan, U.S. and China have all laid claim to Vietnam.
“You’ve got to choose,” the interrogator says to the woman in “Vietnam.” It’s a statement, not a question, but she answers nonetheless, I don’t know. It makes no sense, at least from the point of view of the questioner. But to someone living through trauma it’s an appropriate answer. I don’t know! The only side she’s going to choose is the side that insures the survival of her children. Levertov’s poem, too, brings us close to the suffering of wartime parents—
Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
but after their children were killed
there were no more buds.
Looking plainly at that kind of loss removes any trace of Otherness or justification for violence.
In both poems there’s a power imbalance between the questioner and his subject. It’s more obvious in “Vietnam,” the interrogator being a soldier and presumably armed; and very subtle in “What Were They Like?” The person being addressed calls the inquisitor Sir in 1) and 3).
The Q&A format in “Vietnam” creates a dramatic scene. The woman is found in a ditch and questioned. She fights back in the only way she can, being uncooperative and biting. The questions and answers move at a brisk pace—you can feel the intensity of the moment. The language is everyday, rough, unadorned.
Levertov uses more traditional poetic tropes—metaphor, alliteration, beautiful language, imagery—and separates the questions from the answers. The questions reveal a questioner stuck in an outmoded view of the Vietnamese as an exotic, romantic people; lumping the questions all together shows how misguided, silly, and harmful such a mindset is. One clueless person might be charming; a crowd of clueless people can be a mob.
I am bowled over by this poem. It’s as ingenious as it is beautiful, and a poem about the devastation of war has no right to be as beautiful as this one is. Beauty is what the questioner is after—he wants flower ceremonies and bejeweled ornamentation. Levertov is sly in making the reader, who can’t help but delight in the beauty of both the questions and the answers, complicit in the man’s myopia.
Like the woman in “Vietnam,” the person being questioned in this poem says, in so many words, I don’t know. The hedging—perhaps, it is not remembered, maybe—reminds us how little we know and knew about the Vietnamese people. And how asking the wrong questions will never bring out the truth.
I left the poems on a picnic bench at a park called Memorial Park. Seemed to fit.
Bios of both poets from previous posts:
Denise Levertov was born in a suburb of London in 1923 to politically active parents. Her mother was Welsh and her father was from a Russian Hassidic Jewish family. Levertov was homeschooled and she began writing early. From age five she had a strong sense of her destiny to be an artist, and when she was 12 she sent T.S. Eliot some of her poems. He responded with two pages of encouragement and advice.
During the London Blitz, she served as a civilian nurse. She married an American writer and eventually became an American citizen. She was poetry editor of The Nation and Mother Jones and taught at Stanford, among other universities.
Later in life she converted to Catholicism and became a political poet, speaking out against Vietnam War, nuclear arms, the U.S. involvement in El Salvador, and the Gulf War.
Levertov died in 1997 at age 75.
Wislawa Szymborska was born in 1923 in Poland and died in 2012 at age 88. Early in her career she was a communist intellectual but later grew disillusioned and became active in the Solidarity movement. She had a modest career as a reviewer at a literary magazine and a poet popular in Poland but unknown elsewhere until she was the surprise winner of the Nobel Prize in 1996.
Like fellow Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who was her friend and mentor, Szymborska lived through Poland’s dark days of Nazi occupation and Communism. I’m always amazed that anyone experiencing such hardship doesn’t write exclusively of darkness and despair. But a playful spirit was her trademark. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, she had this to say about humor and sadness in her poems:
The two things are easily reconciled. You cannot have just one feeling toward the world. Going through this adventure, which I call life, sometimes you think about it with despair, and sometimes with a sense of enchantment. Sometimes the motivation for poetry is being awed by things. As a child I was never surprised by anything; now I am surprised about everything. Every little thing I look at, a leaf or a flower, I say, “Why this? What is this?”
There is also another motivation: Curiosity. I am curious about people, their feelings, what they live through, their fate, what this life means. So this wonderment, curiosity and sadness, all of that comes together for me.