Year 10

Understanding the poem 'What Were They Like?'

I can explain how Levertov presents the atrocities of war.

Year 10

Understanding the poem 'What Were They Like?'

I can explain how Levertov presents the atrocities of war.

Lesson details

Key learning points

  1. Levertov was active in protesting against the Vietnam War.
  2. The poem was written before the withdrawal of American troops in 1973.
  3. The Vietnam War was about defeating communism.
  4. The US used napalm, a particularly harrowing weapon, against civilians.
  5. This poem explores what may have happened if the US and anti-communist forces had won the war.

Common misconception

The Vietnam War was a conflict fought between the US and the country of Vietnam.

Following the First Indochina War, Vietnam was split into two regions: communist controlled North Vietnam and South Vietnam, controlled by a non-communist government (supported by the US). The Vietnam War was fought between these two regions.


  • Civilians - non-military individuals who are not actively engaged in armed conflict

  • Napalm - highly flammable sticky substance, typically used in warfare to create firestorms

  • Agent Orange - a powerful herbicide and toxic chemical used by the US in Vietnam to eliminate forest cover and crops

  • Culture - the shared customs, beliefs, practices and social institutions of a particular group of people or society

  • Communism - an ideology where resources are owned collectively and distributed, aiming for a classless society

Help students to explore public perceptions of the Vietnam by exploring video coverage of the conflict and global protests.
Teacher tip


Edexcel Poetry Anthology ('Conflict' cluster).

Content guidance

  • Contains conflict or violence.


Adult supervision suggested.


This content is © Oak National Academy Limited (2024), licensed on Open Government Licence version 3.0 except where otherwise stated. See Oak's terms & conditions (Collection 2).


6 Questions

When did the Vietnam War take place?
Correct answer: 1955-1975
1982 - 1982
What is chemical warfare?
using prisoners of war for scientific experiments
using chemicals to treat injured soldiers or civilians
Correct answer: using chemical substances as weapons to injure or kill enemy forces or civilians
the use of missiles or other nuclear weapons
What is a rhetorical question?
a question with more than one correct answer
a question with no correct answer
a statement that is phrased as a question
Correct answer: a question posed for effect or emphasis that doesn't require an answer
What is repetition?
Correct answer: the recurrence of words, phrases, images or ideas
when two or more lines of poetry begin with the same word(s)
words, phrases, images or ideas that parallel or mirror earlier ones
two or more adjacent words that begin with the same letters or sounds
Where is Vietnam?
South America
Correct answer: South-east Asia
What does culture mean?
the physical characteristics of people who all originate from a certain place
geological formations found in a particular geographical location
Correct answer: the shared customs, beliefs, arts and practices of a particular society or group

6 Questions

Why were many people critical of anti-communist military strategies during the Vietnam War?
People believed that there were too many different countries involved.
Many people thought that the US exploited Vietnam's natural resources.
Correct answer: Many believed that the use of chemical weapons was unnecessarily brutal.
Powerful propaganda persuaded people that the war was unnecessary.
Complete this sentence: 'What Were They Like?' was written in ...
1955, the year the Vietnam war began.
Correct answer: 1967, while the conflict of the Vietnam War was still on-going.
1975, the year the Vietnam war ended.
2000, to mark the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War.
How might the Vietnam War be described as the first 'modern war'?
it was the first war that used automated weapons like machine guns
it was the first war be fought across multiple continents
Correct answer: it was the first war with extensive global media coverage
it was the first war to have occurred since the invention of the internet
Complete this sentence: 'What Were they Like?' is set ...
in an alternate future, with two observers watching the conflict take place
Correct answer: in an alternate future, as two people discuss what remains of Vietnamese culture
in modern day, exploring the many reasons why the war in Vietnam was inevitable
in Vietnam during the war, depicting a photographer who sees a napalm attack
Identify the correct statement about the structure of 'What Were They Like?'
It is written as a sonnet, exploring a love of Vietnamese culture.
The poem has a strict rhyming pattern that gives it a musical quality.
Correct answer: The poem is in two sections: six numbered questions and corresponding answers.
The poem has a cyclical structure, beginning and ending on the same image.
In 'What Were They Like?', how does Levertov imply that there is very little knowledge of Vietnamese culture in her alternate future?
The noun "strangers" implies the Vietnamese people are a mystery to the speaker.
Correct answer: She uses repetition to suggest not much is remembered of Vietnamese society.
She spells Vietnam wrong, implying the speakers aren't very familiar with it.