Once Upon a Time by Gabriel Okara

The Poem 'Once Upon A Time' Tells of Conversation Between Father and Son.

'Once Upon a Time', was written by Gabriel Okara, who is a Nigerian poet. He often explains what happens when a traditional African culture meets the forces of the Western way of life. I think the poem was written to outline the fake personalities of many people and to try and get them to return to a natural and innocent state.

The poem tells of the conversation between what seems to be a father and son, where the father wants to learn from his son how to go back to normality and no longer be fake. The poem 'Once Upon A Time' starts by the father telling his son how the people, or 'they', 'used to laugh with their hearts'. I think that the word 'they' refers to western people who are white. Also this description in the poem gives the impression of genuine emotion given off by the people.
He then moves on to say that now they only, 'laugh with their teeth, while their ice-block cold eyes search behind his shadow'. This gives off very negative, fake and false feelings and it is a very cold description. This affects the tone of the poem that now becomes sinister and bitter.
Stanza two of the Gabriel Okara poem then reveals more of the past when it is said that, 'they used to shake hands with their hearts', again this image reveals true and genuine emotion. But just as in the first Stanza the present reality is then discussed when it is said that, 'that has gone, now they only shake hands without hearts while their left hands search his empty pockets'. This shows that, again the people are fake and seem to be using the man to see what they can get.

'Once Upon A Time' Poem, Stanza Four, Presents the Adaptations and Solutions.

Stanza three of poem 'Once Upon A Time' then goes to explain more about the changes he has noticed in these false people. Again the Stanza starts positive with the phrases, 'feel at home', 'come again', but then goes on to say that he will come again, 'once, twice' but there will 'be no more thrice' for then 'I find doors shut on me'. This shows that the people lie when they say the positive phrases and after a few visits they have all that they want from the man; their falseness is reflected in the language they use.
The first three Stanzas of the poem 'Once Upon A Time' have the same structure. They start by telling the past and explaining how things used to be, but then they tell the negative reality. I think this is used to compare the times and introduce the reader to the situation.
Stanza four presents the adaptations and solutions that the man has found to counter the problems. It starts by saying that the man has, 'learned many things', already suggesting that he has changed to fit in.
He then explains the things he has learnt. He tells of the false personalities or of his 'many faces'. He tells that he has learnt to 'wear' these faces, suggesting that he wears faces for different situations. For example, he says he has an, 'office-face, street-face, and host-face, proving that he acts differently under different circumstances. He then adds that they have, 'conforming smiles, like a fixed portrait'. This suggests even more falseness and changes.

Poem Stanza Five: Learned to Laugh With Only His Teeth.

Stanza five of the poem tells of the fake attributes to go along with the fake looks. It also repeats some of the acts that were mentioned earlier in the poem. Repetition seems to be a key technique in this poem. He says that he has also, 'learned to laugh with only his teeth' and 'shakes hands without his heart'. This suggests that he has copied the western ways as this is what they did earlier in the poem. He then goes even further by saying he has learned to say, 'Goodbye' when he means, 'Good-riddance' and 'Glad to meet you, without being glad'. I think that the man is ashamed of himself and is confessing to his son how far the fake attitudes have developed, he seems to hate what he has done. Stanza six and seven then show the man showing his regret as he says, "I want to be what I used to be when I was like you", showing that he wants to be honest and truthful again.

My Laugh in the Mirror Shows Only My Teeth, Like a Snake's Bare Fangs'.

He then calls his new personality muting which suggests he thinks they are boring and have no expression. It is as though he can no longer find his own voice to express what he really thinks and feels. He then says he wants to, 'relearn how to laugh, for my laugh in the mirror shows only my teeth, like a snake's bare fangs'. This gives off negative feelings as a snake is seen to be poisonous and not to be trusted; a symbol of deceitfulness and treachery from the bible. I think this is a very good description as it really makes the reader realise that the man loathes himself. The final Stanza, number seven, shows the man asking his son, 'how to laugh. Show me how I used to laugh and smile, once upon a time, when I was like you'. This shows the man's true regret and he realises his fakeness and problems. An ironic and hopeful ending as he wants to learn from his son how to be what he used to be.

Two Poems Compared Many Similarities and Differences.

Overall I think that Gabriel Okara expresses her views very well with this poem as she shows how, when things change, people adapt, and it is not always positive. She also deals with things such as regret and self-respect. The poems 'Coleridge Jackson' and 'Once Upon a Time' have many similarities and differences. For example both of the poem's main focuses are racism, but the theme is expressed differently. In Coleridge Jackson, the man receives direct verbal racism and discrimination when he is called 'Sambo' and a 'sorry nigger' whereas the main character in 'Once Upon a Time' is subject to racist treatment and personalities in a less direct way. Another similarity between the two poems is that the two main characters are black males. Also each poem shows how each man reacts to his racist abuse. In 'Coleridge Jackson' the effect is that he turns violent and lets frustration out on his family who become the victims in the so called cycle of violence. In 'Once Upon a Time' the man's reaction is that he regrets that he followed and copied racist and false attitudes of the western people, and in this case, the man's family is a form of hope where he turns to his son for help.

Poems, 'Once Upon a Time' and 'Coleridge Jackson', Both Slow Paced Poems.

Also both of the poems show how black people have been treated in western society, by racist individuals. The structure of the poems are very similar as they are both slow paced, with lots of punctuation and no rhyming. This is a technique used to slow down the poem and make the reader think about what is being said. The two main differences in the structure of the two poems is that firstly 'Coleridge Jackson' is written in a third party style whereas the style in 'Once Upon a Time' is first person. Secondly, 'Coleridge Jackson' is a narrative story telling style whilst, 'Once Upon a Time' is a personal monologue explaining personal experiences. Both of the poems use similes and metaphors to describe the character attributes. The endings of the two poems are very different. 'Coleridge Jackson' has a very negative, depressing, and hopeless ending, as we see the cycle of violence is not going to end. The ending of, 'Once Upon a Time' is full of hope and positive feelings as the man decides he is going to do something about the problem and asks his son for help. Overall I think that both poems express their views on racism very well, but I prefer 'Coleridge Jackson' as it uses shock tactics, direct speech, and a narrative style to explore a theme which is just as relevant in today's society.
THE speaker in this poem reminisces about a time when people were sincere and caring in their dealings with one another; he speaks regretfully about the present time, when people are not like before. He seems to feel that people have lost the innocence and openness which he now sees in his young son; he wants to regain that innocence.
The poem starts with the well-known words “Once upon a time”, suggesting that what the speaker is going to say is a fairy tale, something so far-fetched it might not even be believed. This makes us think that honesty in expressing emotion is so rare nowadays that it practically is a fairy tale.
The poet creates a contrast between “hearts” and “faces”. “Hearts” suggests deep, honest emotion. Thus, when people laughed or shook hands “with their hearts”, their emotions came from within. Now, however, they laugh “with their teeth”, not with their eyes. It is a cliché that the eyes are the windows of the soul, but they do let us see what a person might be really feeling.
If someone laughs with their eyes, we can see their emotions. But teeth, which are hard, white, and expressionless, reveal nothing. And the people’s eyes have now become “ice-block-cold”, revealing no warmth. People are now dishonest (while shaking hands, they use the free hand to “search my empty pockets”) and insincere, saying things they do not mean.
The speaker tells us that he has learnt to deal with this hard, insincere world by becoming just like all the other people; he too hides his real emotions and speaks words he clearly does not mean. He describes his behaviour in an interesting way, saying that he has learnt “to wear many faces / Like dresses” – like dresses, he changes his ‘face’, taking one off and exchanging it for something more suitable: “homeface / officeface / streetface” and so on.
We can look at these faces as a series of masks or false faces, which show no real emotion. These faces, unlike hearts, are not sincere. But they are not the faces of evil people either. They are, in fact, the ‘social’ faces that everyone has to put on in order to deal with all the people they are likely to encounter in their lives. Most of us do wear different ‘faces’ – that is, we do behave differently – depending on whether we are at home or the office or school or a party.
The speaker wants to be as innocently sincere as his young son. He wants to “unlearn all these muting things”; this suggests that he has learnt how to behave in a way which “mutes” or silences his real emotions. He wants to get rid of his false laugh which “shows only my teeth like a snake’s bare fangs” – the comparison with the snake’s fangs makes the false, mask-like smile seem dangerous. The speaker regrets the loss of his innocence, but hopes his son can teach him.

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  1. why do you think that the "they" refer to the white people? Is there any reference to the white people in the poem? Why can' "they" refer to his own black people whose mannerisms have transformed with the passage of time?

    1. The use of “they” refers to the society as a whole. The metaphor, “laugh with their hearts”, is a metaphor for innocence as laughing with one’s heart is impossible. The metaphor means that they laughed out of pleasure, not out for the sake of laughter. The tone of this line is quite friendly and reminiscent/ nostalgic of the days when there was black and white, no shades of grey. The persona looks back through rose-tinted glasses and this may suggest some exaggeration.

  2. Please read the questions i have raised. I don't want answers to your presumed questions.