What were they like?
This is a famous poem, written in 1971, as a protest against the Vietnamese War (1954-1975. This was originally a civil war between communist North and capitalist South Vietnam; the south received support from western countries, notably the USA. In 1973 President Nixon withdrew the US forces, in 1975 the armies of North Vietnam were victorious, and the country was reunited the following year. More recently, Vietnam has adopted democratic government and opened itself up to visitors from the west.) Denise Levertov protested in public against the war, and spent time in jail. In the poem, inspired by the violence of the US bombing campaign, she imagines a future in which the people have been destroyed and there is no record or memory of their culture. (In the light of the Nazis’ genocide of European Jews, this was not an unreasonable fear.) In fact, the people and culture of Vietnam are thriving today but attempted genocide (now we call it “ethnic cleansing”) has devastated Cambodia, Ruanda and Burundi and the former Yugoslavia.
The poem is in the form of a series of questions, as a future visitor might pose them to a cultural historian. The questions are mostly straightforward, but the answers are quite subversive. Together they create a sympathetic portrait of a gentle, simple peasant people, living a dignified if humble life amid the paddy fields. This contrasts with the violent effects of war, as children are killed, bones are charred and people scream as bombs smash the paddy fields. The final lines of the poem show how utterly the people have been forgotten – the report of their singing (of which there is no record) is hopelessly vague – it resembled, supposedly, “the flight of moths in moonlight” – but no one knows, since it is silent now. Happily the reader today can readily find examples of Vietnamese song, and we can satisfy ourselves that it is nothing like the flight of moths in moonlight.
I can still imagine the powerful blasts echoing through my grandfathers mind as he dove for cover in one of our trenches. The year was 1972 and our great nation of Vietnam was at war with the Yankees, the United States. In the end it was a war that we won even though the Americans argue that it was the other way around. The war was not an easy one to win though. Thousands of lives were lost and ...
The poem shows the Vietnamese as rather childlike, innocent and vulnerable – a way of seeing them that seemed to be confirmed by some events in the war, lie the destruction of the forests with napalm, and by the notorious photographic image of a naked burning child running from her devastated village. But the people of Vietnam eventually proved more resilient than in this well-meaning but rather patronising western view. On the other hand, it was protests like that in the poem that changed US public opinion, so that President Nixon withdrew their forces from combat – which helped the Northern Communist forces win the war, and reunite Vietnam by force.
• This poem became very well-known when it was first published – but the poet’s fears for Vietnam have not come true (though things that are perhaps just as bad have happened in Cambodia, Ruanda-Burundi and the former Yugoslavia).
Does it still have anything to say to us or has history made it irrelevant?
• What do you think of the question and answer format in the poem?
• Do you think that Vietnamese people would like to be depicted as gentle peasants who know only “rice and bamboo”? You may have some Vietnamese friends – so you could ask them. Is it ever a good idea for people from one culture to try to describe another, or is there a risk of stereotyping and patronizing?
• How might singing be like “the flight of moths in moonlight”? Does this mean anything or is it pretentious and misleading? You might check this by finding out what traditional Vietnamese music is really like.
• This poem is not about individuals but about big political events. What do you think of the way the poet presents history and politics here?