“What Were They Like?” was published in British-American poet Denise Levertov’s 1967 collection The Sorrow Dance. It is an anti-war poem. Levertov had been active in the movement against the Vietnam War (1955-1975). The war gave rise to massive opposition in the United States, particularly in the 1960s. She wrote the poem after hearing a talk given by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. As she mentioned in a letter to fellow poet Robert Duncan at the time, she thought Vietnamese was a “melodious, most caressive language.” This inspired her to describe various beautiful aspects of Vietnamese culture in the poem.
The poem takes place in a hypothetical future in which the Vietnamese people and their ways of life (their tools, ceremonies, stories, speaking, and songs) have all been destroyed by war. It attempts to humanize the Vietnamese and make the reader aware of how much could be lost if the war continues. The poem’s main themes are the costs of war, the common humanity of all people, and the importance of preserving cultures. Levertov touched on these themes in many of her anti-war poems from the 1960s and 1970s, most famously “Life at War.” In the same period, many other American poets like Allen Ginsberg and W.S. Merwin also wrote poems against the war and tried to raise public awareness about the issue.
The poem is written in free verse without a consistent meter or rhyme scheme. Levertov called her style of free verse “organic verse.” In her poetic writings, she argued against using conventional forms like sonnets and asserted that each poem’s topic has a unique form that can be discovered through careful attention and imagination. She makes frequent use of enjambment (the breaking off a poetic line mid-sentence) to stress certain words in the poem and give it a musical quality.