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Thanks to New Directions and Pollinger Ltd., for permission to reproduce the text of ‘What Were They Like?’ by Denise Levertov (Selected Poems’; Bloodaxe.

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Presentation on theme: "Thanks to New Directions and Pollinger Ltd., for permission to reproduce the text of ‘What Were They Like?’ by Denise Levertov (Selected Poems’; Bloodaxe."— Presentation transcript:

1 Thanks to New Directions and Pollinger Ltd., for permission to reproduce the text of ‘What Were They Like?’ by Denise Levertov (Selected Poems’; Bloodaxe Books, 1986)

2 All photographs in this presentation are subject to copyright; (R.P.Moger 2008). Please use following link for further information: nd/3.0/

3 The slides are composed of timed elements, with pauses for discussion. A click of the mouse should move the presentation forward…

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6 ‘What Were They Like?’ By Denise Levertov

7 1. Did the people of Viet Nam use lanterns of stone? 2.Did they hold ceremonies to reverence the opening of buds

8 1. Did the people of Viet Nam use lanterns of stone? 2) Did they hold ceremonies to reverence the opening of buds? The poem opens with a series of questions about the past.. The questions seem to suggest an ancient, religious civilisation, grounded in old skills and an appreciation of nature..

9 3 Were they inclined to quiet laughter? 4 Did they use bone and ivory, jade and silver, for ornament ?

10 3 Were they inclined to quiet laughter? 4 Did they use bone and ivory, jade and silver, for ornament ? The questions continue, like a catechism… Answers seem to be required.. The materials seem to be traditional, almost primitive.. What is the effect of the list on the reader?

11 5 Had they an epic poem? 6 Did they distinguish between speech and singing?

12 5 Had they an epic poem? 6 Did they distinguish between speech and singing? Again the reference is to an ancient mythical civilisation.. There’s a strong sense here of a gap between the culture of the poet and that of the people of Vietnam.. This seems to be examining the possibility of no difference between ‘speech’ and ‘poetry’

13 5 Had they an epic poem? 6 Did they distinguish between speech and singing? What is the poet suggesting about the culture of the people of Vietnam when she asks this question?

14 1)Sir, their light hearts turned to stone. It is not remembered whether in gardens stone lanterns illumined pleasant ways.

15 1)Sir, their light hearts turned to stone. It is not remembered whether in gardens stone lanterns illumined pleasant ways. The ‘catechism’ provides numbered answers which correspond to the questions.. This phrase is signficant; it removes the subject and uses the passive voice Why?

16 1)Sir, their light hearts turned to stone. It is not remembered whether in gardens stone lanterns illumined pleasant ways. The poet puns on the word ‘light’ here Why? What do you think is her intention? The language here is archaic creating the sense of a vanished culture..

17 2) Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom, but after the children were killed there were no more buds

18 2) Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom, but after the children were killed there were no more buds This phrase suggests a strong sense of community, at one with nature, now disappeared.. How does this help to convey the poet’s meaning? The structure is beginning to become clearer now.. Nouns like ‘stone’ and ‘buds’ are explored for their associated - metaphorical - meanings

19 3)Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.

20 Alliterative use of the ‘B’ is combined with the simplicity of the line to produce a dramatic effect Who is this ‘Sir’ and what is the effect of this way of addressing the reader? There is no repetition of ‘quiet’ but the implication of silence is clear

21 4) A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy All the bones were charred

22 4) A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy All the bones were charred Time is important in the poem; it separates the perfect culture of the past from the horror of its passing Back to the now predictable structure; this time it is the noun ‘bones’ whose meaning is changed by war… What is the effect of ‘charred’, when combined with ‘burned’ two lines above..?

23 5)It is not remembered. Remember most were peasants; their life was in rice and bamboo.

24 Here, the poet draws further attention to the whole issue of ‘official’ memory and remembrance A new lexical field here, that seems much more factual, more historical.. How do these nouns help us to understand what the poet wants us to value in their culture? What is the effect of placing these two words together?

25 5) When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces, maybe fathers told their sons old tales

26 5) When peaceful clouds were reflected in the paddies and the water buffalo stepped surely along terraces, maybe fathers told their sons old tales The alliterative force of the ‘s’ runs on into the final line - the effect links the exotic location with a culture where family life is valued and celebrated There’s a transferred epithet here; the adjective can’t really refer to the noun, but we clearly understand the meaning..

27 5) When bombs smashed those mirrors there was only time to scream

28 5) When bombs smashed those mirrors there was only time to scream The whole issue of time is re-visited as the poem draws to its climax; the culture which took so long to build disappears in the time it takes to scream… The alliteration runs on here - and turns into sibilance to increase the effect

29 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.

30 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. The value of a culture seems to be associated with the ways in which people communicate- the suggestion here is that speech is gentle- even ‘lyrical’… Back to the impassive passive again. The damaged culture is exotic and fragile - like ‘moths in moonlight’

31 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. The poem ends with a short, simple and forceful statement which avoids any poetic devices. What is the poet;s intention in using such an ending, and how effective do you find it?

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34 Some questions How helpful do you find the structure of the poem in your understanding of the poet’s intentions? How might the ‘voices’ be differentiated if the poem were to be read aloud? How far does the use of imagery in the poem help you to gain a sense of the culture of the people Is this simply an anti-war poem, or does it say something more profound about the way in which cultures are destroyed? What other poems in the anthology would you choose to compare/contrast with ‘What Were They Like’?

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