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Vultures and What were they were like

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In the poems ‘Vultures’ by Chinua Achebe and ‘What were they were like? ‘ by Denise Levertov, the poets use of highly descriptive language, vivid visual imagery and interesting form of layout, instantly captivate the attention of the reader as you engage and learn of the powerful themes evoked in the poems, linking to topics such as War, Evil and the power of Love. The main topic explored by Chinua Achebe in the poem ‘Vultures’ is the relationship between evil and love. The beginning of the poem is an unpleasant description of a pair of vultures who are nestling lovingly together just after feasting on a corpse.

The poet comments on how strange it is that love can exist in places where it is not thought possible. Here the Vultures are used as a symbol of the fact that evil and love can co-exist and work together. Achebe then goes on to describe the ‘love’ a concentration camp commandant shows to his family; for after spending his day burning human corpses, he buys his children sweets on the way home.

”Thus the Commandant at Belsen Camp going home for the day with fumes of human roast clinging rebelliously to his hairy nostrils will stop at the wayside sweet-shop and pick up a chocolate for his tender offspring waiting at home for Daddy’s return … ‘ L. 29-38 Achebe uses the Commandant as a real example of how love and evil can co-exist as he shows that even the most evil people experience kindred love, but that love is not powerful enough to overpower the evil. In the above quote the word roast makes us think of food, and this is even more repulsive when he then buys chocolate for his ‘tender child’ on the way home. Also from the poem, the reader can tell that the poet has no respect for the commandant, and his description makes the reader almost want to hate this man.

In the poem the poet describes the vultures in the past tense but the Commandant is described in the present tense. I believe that this is to remind us that evil is still around us now. The conclusion of the poem is undecided. Achebe praises the fact, that even the cruellest of beings can show love, but despairs as they show this love only towards their family, and commit acts of evil towards others. The poem has been structured in a way which emphasises the hidden meanings buried beneath the negative language used.

Achebe has divided the poem into four sections, each marked by an indented line rather than a new stanza, perhaps to emphasise the different idea which is portrayed in that stanza. The poem is written with lines of different lengths, has no rhyme scheme and no regular pattern or rhythm meaning it is written in free verse. The lines are quite short, which causes the reader to read the poem slowly and appreciate its full horrors and as there is little punctuation, it causes you to take it all in at once.

The language used In this poem such as: ‘broken bone’; ‘smooth bashed-in’; ‘telescopic eyes’ – are grotesque and suggest something cold, hard, lifeless and feeling almost like a skeleton. These images are mixed in with other images of dampness and foul smelling decay: ‘swollen corpse’; ‘water logged trench’ and when the two sets of images come together there is a feeling of horror and disgust. Despite the title of this poem being ‘Vultures’, it is not really about birds. The poem is a metaphor about good and evil and their place in this world and humanity.

The main purpose of the vultures is to introduce us to the theme of the poem. The poem ‘What were they like? ‘ by Denise Levertov, is a poem based on the effects of war, and images of its victims are presented all throughout the poem. This poem protests about the damage done by the American military to the people of Vietnam in the 1960’s and 1970’s and talks about what happens when one culture enters into conflict with another culture. The structure of the poem is very unique. It is split into two verses. The first of is a list of questions and the second verse represents the answers.

This causes the reader to think more about the questions before you read the answers. The questions are mostly straightforward and the questioner’s tone is curious and almost innocent as the questions display a lack of knowledge about other cultures. However the tone of the questioner also conveys a lack of sensitivity and seems to be laughing at the ways of the Vietnamese. In the first line the word Vietnam is split into two, which also highlights the ignorance of the questioner. ‘Did the people of Viet Nam use lanterns of stone? ‘ (L. 1-2)

The words of the person answering these questions seem to convey anger, bitterness and even impatience with the questioner, as if the answerer was not happy with the events that occurred. However, on the surface they answer with a polite tone which gives the idea that the Vietnamese people were gentle and kind. Together, these verses create a portrait of simple peasant people, living a happy and humble life among the paddy fields.

This contrasts with the terrible effects of war, as children are killed, bones were charred- ‘All the bones were charred’ (L. 8) and people scream as bombs smash the paddy fields- ‘there was time only to scream. ‘ (L. 26) It is in the second part of the poem, where Levertov emphasizes some words to highlight the terrible effects of the war, for example: ‘children were killed’, ‘bombs smashed’, ‘napalm burnings’. This is to make sure the reader absorbs the effects of the brutality on the poor Vietnamese people.

However, the poem also describes the beauty of Vietnam before the war, and images of the peaceful life are presented in the poem with words such as, ‘their light hearts’, ‘gathered once to delight in blossom’, ‘speech which was like a song. The final lines of the poem show how completely the people have been forgotten – their singing is remembered vaguely, sounding like “the flight of moths in moonlight” – but no one knows, since it is ‘silent now. ‘

Both poems have an interesting structure and format. In both poems the structure helps to emphasize hidden meanings and emotions of the poems and helps the reader to understand what the poet is trying to teach us. In Vultures the structure helps the reader to understand the themes explored in the different stanzas and to be able to compare and contrast the separate stanzas as they are based on different concepts.

The Poem ‘What were they like’, also uses its structure as a key feature, as the question and answer format of the poem helps the reader to understand the poem better, and they can also go back and refer to the questions as they read the answer. In both poems the theme of war appears. ‘What were they like’ is based around war; ‘Vultures’ is based on the power of love and evil, but also uses the theme war to emphasize these subjects by using the commandant, who is a direct link to all the themes presented.

Both the poems use a number of different literary devices. Achebe’s poem ‘Vultures’ uses a lot of imagery in the opening of the poem to immediately attract the reader’s attention. The opening is dark as words like ‘greyness’, ‘drizzle’ and ‘dawn’ are used. There is also use of alliteration in ‘drizzle of one despondent dawn’ (l. 2) which fills the reader’s mind with images of misery and despair.

There are metaphors of horror and death: the ‘dead tree’ (L. 6) branch on which the vultures are roosting is described in as a broken bone (L. ), while the male vulture’s ‘bashed-in head’ is a ‘pebble on a stem’ (L. 9) and its body is a ‘dump of gross feathers’ (L. 11) In the second section, the vultures’ affection leads the poet on to think about the nature of love. Love is personified as a woman finding a place to sleep in a charnel house, somewhere love would not be expected to be found. ‘Strange indeed how love in other ways so particular will pick a corner in that charnel-house tidy it and coil up there, perhaps even fall asleep – her face turned to the wall! ‘ (L. 21-29)

There is a lot of imagery and some alliteration in the poem, but little sound imagery as Achebe concentrates on using visual imagery rather than sound to present his ideas. In ‘What were they like’ Levertov uses alliteration such as ‘bitter to the burned mouth’ (L. 16) to emphasize the horrors and terrible effects the war brought upon the poor people of Vietnam. Levertov’s language also bring images of these deeds into the readers mind and his use of vivid imagery helps the reader to imagine what the war was really like, just by reading this poem. Sound is also used in this poem to add effect.

Denise Levertov uses words such as ‘laughter’ and ‘singing’ so that the reader can hear what life was like for the peasants in Vietnam before the war. These words create a happy sound and image of how life was. However, with the use of ‘scream’ and ‘smash’ we also learn the sounds of life during and after the war which fills the reader’s mind with sounds of terror. Both of these poems are written with completely different structures, but use similar language and literary devices. The themes are based around powerful subjects and although they are different, they are still based around horror, evil and love.

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