Gabriel Okara’s ‘Once Upon a Time’ has a fairy-tale-like beginning. In the guise of such a title, Okara reveals a harsh fact about modern times. Nowadays, people greet others only with their expressions, not with all their hearts. Besides, this poem also features the clash of cultures, African culture, and modern western culture. The poet depicts how modernity has changed their culture as well as the mindset of people. It is told from the perspective of a father who is telling this story to his son.
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‘Once Upon a Time’ by Gabriel Okara presents a conversation between a father and son. The father describes how the art of greeting one another has transformed into a mere give-and-take of fake smiles.
This poem begins with a series of three images: greeting someone, welcoming them to their house, and saying goodbye. The speaker of this poem tells his son how people react in those given situations. Firstly, they greet their relatives or known ones with fake smiles. Verbally they welcome their closed ones, but mentally they keep their doors closed on them. Lastly, at the time of parting, they wear a fake smile again and bid each other hiding their selfish emotions. Thinking about such things, the speaker becomes so sad that he somehow wants to unlearn such void customs. He wants to be a child again like his son and relearn the art of innocence and pure happiness.
You can read the full poem here.
This poem consists of 43 lines that are separated into seven stanzas. Each stanza does not contain a specific line count. The lines are segregated according to the subject matter. This poem is written from the point of view of a first-person speaker. So, it’s a lyric. As the text does not contain a specific rhyming scheme, it is a free verse poem. In some instances, readers can find rhyming but they don’t occur in a regular fashion. Apart from that, the poem is mostly composed of the iambic meter with some metrical variations.
Okara’s poem ‘Once Upon a Time’ contains the following literary devices that are not limited to the devices mentioned below:
- Enjambment: It occurs throughout the text; For example: “they used to laugh with their hearts/ and laugh with their eyes”
- Repetition: In the first stanza, the word “laugh” is repeated for the sake of emphasis. A similar scheme also goes for the following stanza. The words “shake hands” are repeated there.
- Metaphor: Okara uses several metaphors in this poem such as “ice-block-cold eyes,” “homeface,” “officeface,” etc.
- Simile: “with all their conforming smiles/ like a fixed portrait,” and “shows only my teeth like a snake’s bare fangs?”
- Imagery: This poem contains several images that include shaking hands, smiling, and facial expressions in different situations.
- Alliteration: “So show me, son,” “But believe me”
Okara incorporates the themes of cultural crisis, selfishness, loss of innocence, and real emotion vs fake expression in his poem ‘Once Upon a Time’. The main theme of this poem is the cultural crisis. Though readers cannot find this theme directly in the text, it is an integral part of the poem. For example, when the poetic persona speaks of the contemporary fashion of greetings, he actually speaks on the crisis in his indigenous culture. The sense of loss is reflected in his tone. Besides, the loss of innocence is another theme of this poem. This theme is integrated into the lines “I want/ to unlearn all these muting things…” How people express their fakeness by hiding their real emotions also gets portrayed throughout the text.
Once upon a time, son,
they used to laugh with their hearts
while their ice-block-cold eyes
search behind my shadow.
Gabriel Okara’s poem ‘Once Upon a Time’ begins in a tale-like fashion. The title is the very first line of this piece. From this line, it becomes clear that the speaker is the father or grandfather of the child referred to as “son”. He is the speaker of this piece and describes the lack of compassion in modern times. He begins his story by talking about how they used to laugh wholeheartedly. Here, “they” represent the native Africans.
They not only laughed with their faces but also with their eyes. Eyes are the canvas of a person’s mind. So, what appears in the mind, gets portrayed in his or her eyes. Okara refers to this fact for creating a contrast. According to him, now people “only laugh with their teeth.” Readers can sense the irony of this fragment.
Their eyes are like ice blocks. It is a metaphorical reference to their coldness. The warmth of conjugal love and compassion is missing in their eyes. When they meet a person, they search whether he is alone or someone else is behind him. Okara says they search behind his shadow to make sure if he is alone or not. Otherwise, they have to bear the pain of another guest!
There was a time indeed
my empty pockets.
In the second stanza, the speaker creates another contrast by portraying the custom of shaking hands. There was a time, indeed, when “they used to shake hands with their hearts.” It means there was a warmth of happiness in their hearts. Their hands were not cold metaphorically. They responded warmly to the person standing in front of them.
The speaker sadly says, “but that’s gone, son.” There is a sense of grief and despair in his tone. Nowadays, people shake hands as a customary gesture only. The basic essence of happiness is absent in both their eyes and hands. Satirically, the speaker remarks on how people search his empty pockets with their left hands.
This peculiar gesture points to another interesting idea. It is materialism and selfishness. Now, people only think about what the other person has for them. If they don’t have what they need they feel like ignoring the person even if they were in touch in the past.
‘Feel at home!’ ‘Come again’:
for then I find doors shut on me.
The third stanza describes another humorous incident that occurred with the speaker. He says, when he visits his relatives they welcome him by saying “Feel at home!”. While parting, they bid him come again. But, his frequent visits made them so annoyed that the third time, he finds their doors closed on him. It was not the case in his childhood days. Then people used to become happier than if a person visited their house. It was a time of conjugal happiness. One’s happiness mattered to the other and vice versa.
So I have learned many things, son.
like a fixed portrait smile.
After describing such peculiarities of the modern age, the speaker tells his child that he has learned many things. The most important thing is that he has learned to imitate others. He now wears many faces like dresses. The following lines present a series of facial expressions. According to the poet, nowadays a person puts different expressions on his face. The facial expression at home does not resemble the expression at public places such as the office, street, and bar. Such uniformity of smiles in respect to different situations somehow troubles the poet. That’s why he compares their smile to a “fixed portrait smile.” Like a portrait has no sign of life in it, their smile does not have any sign of liveliness or compassion.
And I have learned too
nice talking to you’, after being bored.
The ideas of the first stanza “smiling with teeth” and “shaking hands with heart” reappear in this stanza. But, the context is different. Previously, the speaker criticized such attitudes. Now he has shaped himself in society’s order. He smiles by showcasing his teeth and shakes hands just for the sake of it.
He has also learned to hide his real emotions in the guise of saying something else. This theme of expression vs reality is portrayed in these lines “I have also learned to say, ‘Goodbye’,/ when I mean ‘Good-riddance’.” Readers have already felt the ironic smite. These lines contain an antithesis.
He presents another contrasting idea in the following lines. Ironically, he has learned the art of saying “Glad to meet you” even if he is not glad to meet the person. If he is bored with a person, he fakes his real emotion by saying, “It’s been nice talking to you.” Such things are not uncommon in the modern age. People are so artful in creating facial facades that they can deceive a person easily.
But believe me, son.
I want to be what I used to be
how to laugh, for my laugh in the mirror
shows only my teeth like a snake’s bare fangs!
However, the speaker is not quite relieved even if he has learned the art of faking real emotions. He expresses his desire to go back to the past when everything was simple. In his childhood, innocence reigned in people’s hearts. They never knew the art of deceiving someone by hiding real emotions. Then they did not have any hidden intention to fulfill. That’s why they didn’t need to hide something.
He wants to unlearn these “muting things”. It is a nice metaphor for describing the expressions that kill the spirit of compassion and sympathy for one another. In contrast, he wants to learn again the art of smiling wholeheartedly that he has forgotten in the course of time. When he looks at the mirror, he finds only his teeth like a snake’s fangs. It is a roundabout hint to the mindset of selfish, modern people. The “snake’s bare fangs” is a symbol of mischief and selfishness.
So show me, son,
once upon a time when I was like you.
The last stanza is short as here the speaker tries to present an important idea. He finds the source of innocence and simplicity in his son. If he imitates his child, he can unlearn the peculiarities that intruded in his heart. He tells his son to show him how to smile. The child can remind him how he smiled in his own childhood days. So, there is a sense of “going back to the past” in his tone. His heart longs for the old days when everything was simple, true, and heartwarming.
Gabriel Imomotimi Okara was the first Modernist poet of Africa. In his works, he portrayed African thoughts, religion, folklore, and imagery. ‘Once Upon a Time’ is one of Okara’s famous poems along with ‘Piano and Drums’ and ‘You Laughed and Laughed and Laughed’. In this poem, Okara’s poetic persona is concerned with the happenings with the ancient culture of Africa. The crisis in indigenous culture due to the impact of Western culture gets portrayed in this poem. This poem was published in his “Collected Poems” published by the University of Nebraska in 2016.
The poet of ‘Once Upon a Time’ Gabriel Okara wants to relive the past as then people were true to each other and greeted wholeheartedly without having any hidden intentions.
The phrase “laugh with their hearts” means expressing the happiness in one’s heart truly by laughing. Whereas “laugh with their teeth” means suppressing the real emotions behind restrained grinning.
The irony of this piece is that the speaker who once despised how modern people reacted while meeting others, starts to imitate their style for social acceptance. The turning point comes when he realizes that by imitating he has become cold at heart and his inner child has died.
The speaker of this piece is a gullible person who goes through a mental crisis at the beginning of the poem ‘Once Upon a Time’. Besides, he is sympathetic to others as he was brought up during a time when people were happy with their innocent and simple lives.
The phrase “ice-block-cold eyes” is a metaphor for suppressed emotions. It is also a reference to the coldness in one’s heart.
Here is a list of some poems that similarly tap on the themes present in Gabriel Okara’s poem ‘Once Upon a Time’.
- ‘Smiles’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox – In this simple and uplifting poem, Wilcox inspires readers to face their life head-on with a smile. Read more Ella Wheeler Wilcox poems.
- ‘We Wear the Mask’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar – This poem describes the way we put on and accept the presence of masks to hide our real emotions. Explore more Paul Laurence Dunbar poems.
- ‘No More Boomerang’ by Oodgeroo Noonuccal – This poem features how the Aboriginal Australian culture is in crisis for the Western culture. Read more Oodgeroo Noonuccal poems.
- ‘Everybody Is Doing It’ by Benjamin Zephaniah – This poem celebrates the indigenous cultures across the globe with the metaphor of dance. Explore more Benjamin Zephaniah poems.