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Vultures and What Were They Like

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Vultures” was written by a Nigerian poet, Chinua Achebe. It is a modern poem. This poet writes a lot of poems about warfare, conflict and the effects on human beings. He lived in Nigeria during the civil war in 1967 and writes of his personal experiences and this poem is no exception. From this title we expect a description of scavengers and disgusting animals associated with death. It gives us unpleasant expectations. The structure of the poem can be divided up into four verses. Two of which are descriptive and the other two based on the poet’s philosophical thoughts.

The opening twenty one lines of the poem are descriptive; they describe the vulture’s daily routine. In the first four lines of the poem the mood is miserable and bleak, “greyness. ” It is dull, “drizzle,” raining, with a “despondent dawn. ” There is no sign of sunlight. Alliteration is used to emphasize the negative atmosphere, “drizzle of one despondent dawn. ” The vulture lives, “high on broken bone of a dead tree,” he has personified the tree to associate the image of the vultures with death; they live on the bones of a dead tree and eat carcass bones, suggesting they are vulgar animals.

The vulture’s head is described as, “bashed-in,” this makes us feel that they have had violence in their lives in the past. Their feathers are described as “gross,” indicating that they are ratty and rotten. The description of the appearance of the vultures makes us feel abhorrent. The vulture, “picked the eyes of a swollen corpse,” they are evil birds that look ugly, do ugly things and live in an ugly place. They are vile, menacing, violent creatures. Despite the vulture’s vile appearance and aggressive behaviour, he has found a mate and reciprocal love, “nestled close to his mate. ”

The poet relates the vulture’s relationship to a human one, suggesting that even the most repulsive creatures have the capacity to love; I the same way the most attractive person has evil in them. Lines twenty two to twenty nine are the poet’s thoughts as oppose to the previous twenty one lines of description. The use of the punctuation “……. ” Tells us that he has not finished what he wanted to say. In the second verse he personifies love, “love in other ways so peculiar,” love is normally fussy. However, once love has discovered them, they are prepared to ignore their mate’s worst qualities, “face turned to the wall! ”

As with humans, love overpowers everything else. Achebe is expressing the idea that love is blind. The poet uses, “charnel house,” where corpses are kept before they are buried, turning a blind eye to your partner’s worst qualities could be a positive thing but the poet looks at it as being negative. The third part of the poem picks up from the first part “……… ” The poet returns to description but has now developed the theme to focus on humans. The poet concentrates on a commandant at Belsen. He relates the idea of the unattractive, inhumane vultures to the commandant, “hairy nostrils. ”

His job is described as a typical everyday job, going home for the day. ” He has created a sense of normality. However, everyday he kills thousands of Jews, “fumes of human roast clinging rebelliously to his hairy nostrils. ” Black humour is used to make us feel disgust; we usually roast chicken or lamb. Although he relentlessly kills children everyday, he goes home to his children every night and, “picks up chocolate for his tender offspring. ” He acts as if he is a normal “daddy” as his children think he is. The vile vulture had a mate and so did the cruel commandant. How does this treacherous man have reciprocal love from his wife and children?

He lacks humanity; he leads two separate lives that his children are unaware of. He is “daddy” to his children at home but at work he is a killer. He keeps the second aspect of his life away from his home and family. Everyday he incinerates thousands of Jewish children but yet he is compassionate at home towards his own children. He is a ruthless killing machine by day and has a normal family life at night, after work. The idea of good and evil living side by side. The commandant’s children are described as “tender” linking back to the idea of “human roast” they are fresh pieces of meat.

In the final verse of “vultures” the poet questions why are people like that? He offers us two theories as to why life is like it. His first theory is that we should praise nature and the world because “even an ogre,” has a little warmth inside it, although it has “icy caverns of a cruel heart. ” It still has a “tiny glow-worm” inside it suggesting affection and love, even though it is an evil monster, it still has the capacity to love. We should be thankful for that. The poet is saying that all people are evil but everyone is capable of love. This is an optimistic view of the world, suggesting there is a chance for everyone.

The poet’s second theory is that we should despair, that people are good with the capacity of evil, “lodged the perpetuity of evil. ” Evil is “lodged” or living in everyone forever. This is a pessimistic view of the world suggesting that evil will eventually take over and that there’s no chance for anyone. The poet does not reach a conclusion although his final word is “evil. ” He could think life is too complicated to know or that it is a mixture of both. He has also left the reader to make our own mind up to which theory we think is correct. “Vultures” is an argument about the nature of evil.

The poet takes a disgusting animal and makes a comparison to a vicious, ugly devastating event during the Second World War. Although we initially think the poem is going to be a description of an ugly bird, which at the beginning it is, it relates closely to mankind and tells us that man can be just as inhumane as these unattractive, carcass-eating creatures, and that people don’t realise it. The poem leaves the reader puzzled as to which theory they agree with. I don’t agree with either of the theories, I think that it is a mixture of both and it depends on the individual.

War is an everyday experience, there is no escape and everybody is affected by it. “Vultures” concentrates on a western war, World War 2. Whereas “What were They Like? ” focuses on an eastern war, the Vietnamese war and was written by Denise Levertov. “What were They Like? ” Show us a before and after the Vietnamese war. It tells us about ordinary people’s lives before the war and how their lives changed after the war. Verse one is before the war. It asks six questions about the people’s way of life, culture, behaviour and language. The questions are written in the past tense; the war has finished its over.

The second half of the poem, verse two is the six “answers” although her answers are vague. The answers are after the war and the poet portrays a sense of loss, destruction and devastation and a clear sense of change. The opening question tells us that the poet’s sympathies lie with the Vietnamese people; we can tell this by the way she spells “Viet nam,” this is the traditional spelling. “Did the people of Viet nam use lanterns of stone? ” All the questions are in the past tense, they ask what life was like before the war and how it changed during and after the war.

Before the war the Vietnamese people were very old-fashioned, “lanterns of stone? ” They had no electricity. “Ceremonies to reverence the opening of buds? ” They followed traditions similar to western traditions like harvest, had a respect for the natural world and were religious people. “Were they inclined to quiet laughter? ” They were quiet, modest and gentle. “Did they use bones and ivory? ” They had jewellery made of ivory, not the “bling bling! ” people wear today, and this was an old-fashioned way to decorate yourself.

Their “epic poem” tells the people’s history. Did they distinguish between speech and singing? ” Their language sounded happy as though they were actually singing unlike the German language that sounds harsh. At the end of the first verse and questions, a very clear sense of the Vietnamese people has been created by the poet. Levertov obviously admires them as the tone is respectful and the mood in this verse is positive. “Singing” and “laughter” are used to create this mood. Despite the fact that the first verse was questions, we already learn some answers to the title before we read on to the answers in the second verse.

In the second half of the poem the questions from the first half have been answered in turn, one by one. The war has brought about a change to Vietnam and its people. All Vietnams traditions have been destroyed along with the vast majority of its people’s lives. The survivor’s lives have been altered and there is no turning back. At this point the mood changes, it is a contrast to the mood in the first half of the poem which was an informal and chatty tone and was positive. Now the tone is formal “Sir” and the mood is violent and negative. The answers repeatedly contrast the Vietnamese people’s life before and after the war. Hearts turned to stone. ”

We learn that the way in which the war affected them has turned their hearts to stone. The tone is impersonal, “it is not remembered. ” She doesn’t say they, he or she do not remember. “Children were killed. ” Brutal language is used. The metaphor “buds” suggests that now the children are dead the flowers no longer “bud” like the children did when they were alive. The feeling of uncertainty continues throughout verse two, “perhaps” there is no one left to ask. The people of Vietnam no longer laugh, “laughter is bitter to the burned mouth. ”

Alliteration is used to emphasize the shock of the attack. The bomb burned everything including the inside of the mouth so they literally can’t laugh but they wouldn’t want to any way. Before the war the people wore bones to decorate themselves in a traditional and old-fashioned manner, after the war the “bones were charred. ” These were now the burned bones of the dead bodies.

The most emotional description by far is the answer to the fifth question. It is also the longest, most detailed, answer and it creates an idyllic image of a perfect world, “clouds were reflected in the paddies. Sons and fathers worked side by side, a tradition, at this point the mood is tranquil, “peaceful. ” However this beautiful image is then shattered, “when bombs smashed those mirrors. ” The verb “smashed” emphasizes the brutality of the bomb attacks on the paddy fields or “mirrors. ” Any illusions of peacefulness have disappeared. The final answer, answer six, focuses on the language and voices of the people of Vietnam. “speech which was like a song. ”

Again the tone is impersonal, “it was reported. ” A beautiful image of, “The flight of moths in moonlight,” s used, the soft alliteration suggests that the moths are gentle creatures just like the Vietnamese people. The poet shows us that there was unnecessary devastation caused by the war. The final line of the poem is extremely emotional, “it is silent now. ” At this point the poem changes tenses from past to present “it is” because this is what it is like now due to the affects of the war. The poet asks a question, “Who can say? ” There is no one left to ask, nobody knows why or what the point of it was. At the end of the poem the questions we were asked at the beginning have been answered.

We know about the Vietnamese peoples traditions and culture, however, what we do not know is why they were attacked and why the Americans caused so much destruction to their country. The poet respects the Vietnamese people and their past for being gentle, kind and traditional. There is a clear sense of loss in the poem; many lives have been lost along with lots of their traditions and culture. They are gone and they cannot get them back. Although the tone throughout the poem is formal, there is a strong sense of emotion which doesn’t suit the poem and its impersonal tone.

The poet attacks the pointlessness of the war, What were They Like? ” This refers to what the Vietnamese people were like, but this could also refer to the Americans, what kind of people were they to virtually destroy a country like they did? There is silence on both sides; there is no one left to ask in Vietnam and the Americans won’t justify why they went to war. The poem is full of implicit criticisms throughout, the poet is suggesting that the Americans were to blame, however, she does not actually say it out right. Both “Vultures” and “What were They like? ” portray the poets own personal experiences from the two wars.

Chinua Achebe experienced the civil war in Nigeria and Denise Levertov experienced the Vietnamese war in America. The poems both focus on common human experiences. In “Vultures” the commandant at Belsen leading two separate lives and in “What were They Like? ” the sense of loss that every family feels in any war or situation. Both poets make a number of moral points about people’s behaviour in the past and future. The main focus of both poems is the universal idea of war and its affect on people and their lives and cultures. Although the poems were focused on Vietnam and Africa, you can relate them to any war taking place around the world.

Vultures” suggests a theory that there is the capacity of good and evil in everyone. “What were They Like? ” suggests that people are either good or evil. The poet thinks that the American people are evil and the Vietnamese people are good, this is linked with the idea of civilised and uncivilised society. People can justify anything. The commandant in “Vultures” his job is justified as is the Americans inhumanity in “What were They Like? ” Both poems use specific events in history to portray something else, warfare and the effect of it and victims and their attackers.

Both poems illustrate a clear picture of war and the cruelty and unfairness of it, they are both effective in displaying the effects of war. “Vultures” displays a graphic view of the devastating effects of war, whereas “What were They Like? ” displays a not so graphical and vivid image but is more emotional and hard-hitting. I don’t think that either poem was more effective than the other. They were both extremely shocking in different ways and both poems raised awareness of the effects of war and they both shocked and horrified me.

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