Summary of Once Upon a Time by Gabriel Okara

Once Upon a Time by Gabriel Okara

Gabriel Okara was a Nigerian writer born in the 1920s he died in 1999 and much in his work explores the contrast between Nigerian and Western culture I'll share with you a reading of once upon a time in just a second but when you listen to it think about this context think about tour cars interest in Nigerian culture and when you think that he feels a sense of loss whether he feels perhaps that the African identity has been swallowed up through its immersion in Western values.


Once upon a time, son
They used to laugh with their hearts
And laugh with their eyes:
But now they only laugh with their teeth
While their ice-block-cold eyes
Search behind my shadow
There was a time indeed
They used to shake hands with their hearts
But that's gone, son
Now they shake hands without hearts
While their left hands search
My empty pockets
"Feel at home!", "Come again":
They say, and when I come
Again and feel
At home, once, twice
There will be no thrice -
For then I find doors shut on me
So I have learnt many things, son
I have learned to wear many faces
Like dresses - homeface
Officeface, streetface, hostface
Cocktailface, with all their conforming smiles
Like a fixed portrait smile
And I have learned too
To laugh with only my teeth
And shake hands without my heart
I have also learned to say "Goodbye"
When I mean "Good-riddance":
To say "Glad to meet you"
Without being glad; and to say "It's been
Nice talking to you", after being bored
But believe me, son
I want to be what I used to be
When I was like you. I want
To unlearn all these muting things
Most of all, I want to relearn
How to laugh, for my laugh in the mirror
Shows only my teeth like a snake's bare fangs!
So show me, son
How to laugh; show me how
I used to laugh and smile
Once upon a time when I was like you

Structure and Form

Once Upon a Time is written in the form of a dramatic monologue so here one person addressing another person which is obviously classic dramatic monologue style. In this case, it's a father talking to his son actually asking his son to teach him how to be honest again how not to be fake anymore. Because this is supposed to sound like somebody speaking then it's fitting that the poem doesn't rhyme and there's no obvious rhythm either so it sounds very natural like spoken English. so Okara is used free verse to make the poem sound authentic to make the sound like real speech.



The tone of this poem is full of sorrow in that Okara lamenting the loss of his identity really he feels that he's become like everybody else around him fake he feels a hypocrite and he wants to return to the innocence of his childhood. And that's why he's asking his son to help him so it's a bleep poem it's one about loss and regret and it longs for are turn to the past so there's a nostalgia there as well a nostalgia for time when people were more honest and open and when they didn't hide their real sadness.

Use of Language

The poem begins with the phrase once upon a time which we associate with fairy tales. So already we see that this is a nostalgic poem that looks to the past. it's also cast some doubt really doesn't it as to whether Okara dream of living an authentic life again of rediscovering sell himself can never come true fairy tales were never real were they and is he saying that we are so far removed from what we should be we are so lost that the notion of rediscovering ourselves is just a dream it's a fairy tale. Certainly, the opening of the poem isn't very hopeful in that respect.

Summary of Once Upon a Time

The first two stanzas are structured in the same way in that they begin with a description of the past so they're written in the past tense first three lines and then they switch to the present tense obviously we also get a shift in tone from positive to very negative. Okara juxtaposed to past and present in this way so that we cannot fail to notice the stark contrast so in the past there used to laugh with their hearts and laugh with their eyes two important images their hearts and eyes which are repeated through the poem actually so hearts cannot honest deeply felt emotion and the cliche has it the eyes are the windows to our souls so through a person's eyes were able to see what they're really feeling we can see inside them. So Once Upon a Time laughter was the expression of genuine happiness but now they only left with their teeth while they're ice block cold eyes search behind my shadow. Let's look at that image teeth first of all in contrast to the eyes which are classically windows and soul teeth are white hard and expressionless aren't they they reveal nothing so laughter now shows nothing about what might really be feeling it's a mask certainly not sincere because the eyes are doing something very different they search behind my shadow which is a sinister image shadows connote something sinister don't lay something shady going on something dark. Okara is suggesting that people laugh when they want something that would search suggest they're looking for something there's an ulterior motive laughter isn't any longer the expression of genuine feeling it's a cover it's a manipulative thing ultimately. And the eyes again far from being windows to the soul apart of the current part of the concealment because they become iceblock cold that series of three stressed syllables reinforces those harsh adjectives and we get a chilling sense of people totally devoid of any kind of warmth.

The second stanza follows precisely the same pattern. So there was a time indeed they used to shake hands with their hearts that's gone some notice the conversational son mix the poem feel very personal isn't it listening in. So they used to shake hands with their hearts that's a metaphorical expression of shaking hands in a way that used to mean something. It was an honest way of greeting another person once and if there was a warmth suggested again by that important idea of the heart that's what's gone and in the shifting present far from shaking hands with hearts. Metaphorically people now shake hands with their left while their left hands search my empty pockets. Again we've got this strong idea that people only really communicate with one anotherwhenafter something communication is about getting what you can out of another person. Notice Okara refers to his empty pockets does that suggest perhaps tha he's been exploited by these dishonest people who are always on the make certainly that's an interpretation isn't it you could offer. The verb search is repeated from the first stanza like the word hearts and that reinforces this idea that people aren't happy anymore with what they have they're always looking for something better it can and personal ambition over any sense of community and ultimately in a society like this smiles handshakes any gestures empty meaningless they're part of an act.

Feel at home come again but in Okara's experience the door was a on head I find doors shut on me not literally I would have thought in a society where people are as honest and open as to do anything quite so obvious but on a metaphorical level he fails shut out he feels alienated from this community that he used to be part of feels his lost his home. And into this sense of alienation is there Okara's use of the word "they" they being other people and that creates a distance between us and then doesn't it also the word they suggest that they're all the same he's describing a group of people as if they're one person most. But he's not just criticizing others in this poem Okara is including himself in the attack. So it's learned that to get on in life you have to be false you have to wear many faces and uses a series of compound words to describe the different parts that we play in life really homeface, officeface, streetface, hostface, cocktailface. These aren't necessarily evil faces are that he's not talking about evil he's just talking about in authenticity and how with age we lose our capacity to communicate in a direct and honest and open way. So we learned to conform with what society expects changing our faces in the same way that we would change our clothes and we are no more authentic than a portrait hanging in a gallery. The repetition of face and smile through this stanza also creates a sibilant now sibilance in poetry always evokes sinister forces with clear self-loathing.

Okara puts himself in the same bracket as the people that he describes and start the poem so he - now only laughs with his teeth and shakes hands without his heart he too speaks a fake language and he says goodbye when he really means good riddance and glad to meet you when he knows he isn't glad. The word bored at the end of the line is emphasized because of its position at the end of the line and we get the impression that life is dull and boring because everybody's a conformist everybody is doing what's expected and nothing is real and Okara hates himself for being part of that.

Notice the repetition of "I" in this stanza as if Okara trying to rediscover himself he trying to get back to the real I and he says believe me son I do want to change that's what this stanza is about. He talks about and learning all those horrible lessons that have taken him way away from himself and those muting things lessons which have stopped him showing any real emotion stopped him saying doing anything honest. Most of all he says he wants to really learn how to laugh which is very sad the idea that his laugh is so joyless he's actually forgotten how to laugh properly. And then the stanza ends with a sinister image and again one that expresses hisself-loathing my laugh in the mirror shows only my teeth like a snake's bare fangs, that references back to the opening stanza and the idea of laughing without using your heart or your eyes but only revealing your teeth in aessentially empty gesture but it's worse now isn't it it's it is more sinister for this comparison to the snake obviously the snakes are dangerous poisonous creature and it's one which through the Bible we associate with treachery and betrayal. So Okara is suggesting here that he betrayed his real self and the exclamation at the end of the line shows his strength of feeling about this his desperation.

The final stanza of the poem Once Upon a Time is the shortest which gives it an impact in itself and Okara repeats the phrase show me show me is imploring his son to lead them towards an honest and authentic way of life one that is free from social rules which are so corrupting in Okara's view. That phrase once upon a time that begins the poem also concludes it and it reminds us of the distance a Okara has traveled from his boyhood when he was like his son when he was a real honest open and free human being and the phrase cast some doubt as to whether Okara will ever be able to return there because it gives the impression that phrase doesn't it that this is a bygone age and maybe the idea of ever going back there is the stuff of fairy tales in the end. 
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