One of the earliest poems I remember reading that voiced opposition to the war in Việt Nam was Denise Levertov’s ‘What Were They Like?’ I read it years ago at a reading of poets who had influenced the readers. I’m reading it next week at a Poets for Peace reading.
Perhaps because I grew up in Việt Nam, that war — and subsequent ones, as a result — felt personal to me. Biên Hòa wasn’t the name of a battle to me; it was where we went for Sunday drives in the blue & white Buick. Villages weren’t ‘collateral damage.’ They were the homes of childhood friends, places I visited, playing with pot-bellied pigs and baby ducks. I knew very well what many people of Việt Nam were like, and they never deserved to be carpet bombed…
There were plenty of anti-war songs in the 60s and 70s, but if you were taking poetry — even at the college level — there wasn’t much anti-war poetry. Nothing like the large & impressive reaction to WWI and WWIIi from veterans who suffered the fall-out. So finding Levertov was like hearing an echo of my own horror at terms like ‘collateral damage,’ and the PTSD that back then didn’t even have a name. Just the broken shells of boys I’d known who came back a piece of someone else’s nightmare..,
What I didn’t know was what this poem — and others like it — cost Levertov: the friendship of a friend & mentor. That’s the thing about following our principles, though. There’s often fallout. But just as often (except perhaps less noticed) is how the example of one person can bloom within another. How Levertov’s poem helped me, many years later, find my own voice.
Here’s Levertov’s poignant poem:
What Were They Like?
Did the people of Viet Nam
use lanterns of stone?
Did they hold ceremonies
to reverence the opening of buds?
Were they inclined to quiet laughter?
Did they use bone and ivory,
jade and silver, for ornament?
Had they an epic poem?
Did they distinguish between speech and singing?
Sir, their light hearts turned to stone.
It is not remembered whether in gardens
stone gardens illumined pleasant ways.
Perhaps they gathered once to delight in blossom,
but after their children were killed
there were no more buds.
Sir, laughter is bitter to the burned mouth.
A dream ago, perhaps. Ornament is for joy.
All the bones were charred.
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.
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.