I have been assigned an English poetry coursework. I was given the option of choosing one poem from the following two: ‘I am not that women’ and ‘Once upon a time’. I have chosen ‘Once upon a time’ because I feel that the poem is much more interesting and it has a deeper inner meaning to itself compared to ‘I am not that women’ by Kishwar Naheed, a very well known poet born in 1940 in India.
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This poem ‘Once upon a time’ was written by a Nigerian poet known as Gabriel Okara. Gabriel Okara was born in 1921 in Nigeria. The poet was highly self sophisticated and did not get influenced by other poets around at the time. Gabriel’s poems would hold very great sensitivity, perceptive judgements and tremendous energy. Gabriel Okara was brilliant at changing the moods of people with his poems.
‘ONCE UPON A TIME’ is a poem consisting of seven stanzas each containing between four and eight lines. The title of this poem ‘Once upon a time’ straight away makes you feel as if you are going back in time, it also makes you feel as if what happened was a fairy tale and it will never happen again. I think that the poet has used this title to make the reader feel as though what he will read i.e. what he experienced will never happen again and when a person reads the title it will make him feel as if he is about to read fairy tale.
In stanza one Gabriel Okara writes ‘Once upon a time, son’ , so when he writes son it shows that he is talking to his son or someone who is younger than him likely to be in his childhood days. He then writes ‘they used to laugh with their hearts, and laugh with their eyes’, by saying ‘used to’ shows that it happened in the past and does not happen now and he says that before people would laugh with their hearts and would really laugh out of happiness but now ‘they only laugh with their teeth, while their ice-block-cold eyes, search behind my shadow’. When the poet says now they only laugh with their teeth he means that people now when they do laugh they only laugh for the sake of laughing and not out of real happiness, and then he goes on to say ‘while their ice-block-cold eyes search behind my shadow’ , by using a metaphor the writer says that the person who is laughing laugh with his/her eyes as cold and as solid as ice and there is no happiness what so ever inside the persons eyes while they search behind his shadow as in they look right past him without paying any attention to him whatsoever. Stanza one summed up is talking about when he was young when people would laugh with their hearts and how people have changed to laugh without happiness and to ‘fake laugh’ while their cold eyes would be dead with grief.
In stanza two Gabriel says ‘they used to shake hands with their hearts; but now that’s gone’ when he says this he means that in the past people would shake hands and be happy i.e. they would actually shake hands with pleasure ‘but now that’s gone’ shows that this is no more. He means that people would have shook hands with happiness before but now they shake hands without any joy and be in boredom as he goes on to say ‘now they shake hands without hearts;’. The next line in the same stanza says ‘While their left hand search my empty pocket’ this shows that the writer is indicating that the person who he is meeting is searching his pockets while they are empty, which give you an idea that the poet would not have any valuables in his pocket. To summarise stanza three would be that people in the early nineteenth century, would meet and greet each other with their full hearts, out of utter happiness and with a good intention, where as nowadays it has turned completely opposite and people don’t just shake hands without heart, they search in your pockets while they are doing so.
Stanza three starts with ”feel at home’! ‘Come again’: they say,’ By this we can understand that the poet is reminding us of how we invite people to our homes and for tea then he later says ‘and when I come again and feel at home, once, twice, there will be no thrice’ by saying this the poet means that when the invited person does feel at home once then it is okay; when he does this a second time then it is also accepted; but when he tries the third time…well there will be no third time as in the person inviting will not allow you to come as he goes on to say ‘for then I find the doors shut on me’. In the third stanza the poet is saying that when people invite each other for tea, for dinner or just to his/her house then they will allow them to come a couple of times with pleasure but after while they will get fed up and slam the doors shut on you; in other words not allow you to come into their house.
Gabriel Okara says in the second line of stanza four ‘I have learned to wear many faces’ which shows that he has adapted to using different faces for different occasions when he goes on to saying some of the occasions and their faces ‘officeface, streetface….’, then he finally goes on to say ‘like a fixed portrait smile’ which indicates that all these faces never change and it is like a smile fixed for its own occasion. Summing up stanza four, this stanza has been focused on how people tend to change their facial expressions for different occasions and how for each occasion people tend to have a different smile like a fixed picture that never changes.
The poet starts off stanza five by signifying that he also has adapted to the environment around him and that he has also picked up the bad habits that are hovering around him by saying ‘and I have learned too’, he then says ‘to laugh with only me teeth’ which suggests that he also has learnt how to laugh without happiness and laugh only for the sake of laughing and then the writer goes on and writes ‘I have also learned to say,’ goodbye’, when I mean ‘good-riddance’: to say’ glad to meet you’, without being glad’ this demonstrates that that now he has also learnt how to say goodbye in a nice way and not mean it in a good way at all as he says when he means good riddance, he now says ‘glad to meet you’ without being pleased as he says ‘after being bored’ which indicates that it was boring meeting the person ,however he put on a smiley and cheerful face whilst talking to him. To summarize this stanza the writer is saying that there are no true emotions in his words and feelings and they are said with just his tongue and not his heart. Overall in this stanza the writer shows how his environment has had impact on how he behaves, how he is emotionally detached from other people, how it has destroyed his passion and made his heart unfeeling.
In stanza six the poet describes how he used to be. It seems that he is talking to a child or a young man who has not yet experienced the changing of heart who has not yet been influenced by the environment and the society in which he lives. The poet says in the first line of stanza six ‘but believe me, son’ emphasising with regret ‘I want to be what I used to be…I want to unlearn all these muting things…I want to relearn how to laugh’ these lines describe his desperation to go back to his old and innocent ways where he felt life was simple and his emotions were honest emotions. It also describes his hope and desire to unlearn all the bad habits he has picked up over the years.
In stanza seven he asks the ‘son’ almost pleads with him to ‘show me, son, how to laugh; show me how I used to laugh and smile’ the writer sums up what he has been trying to say through out the whole poem to the person he is having the conversation with that teach him all the good habits he has lost and teach him to have true emotions.
The poem does not rhyme but the poet has used repetition to slow the poem down and make the reader feel the heaviness of heart that the poet feels. The poet uses similes and metaphors throughout the poem for example when he says ‘I have learned to wear many faces like dresses’ implying different expressions for different occasions. The poet has used a very strong metaphor when he writes that his laugh in the mirror is ‘like a snakes bare fangs’. A snake is commonly used in mythology and fairy tales to describe evil, insincerity and dishonesty. This suggests that when he laughs you see his teeth and smile but his intentions are also insincere and dishonest.
The poet Gabriel Okara uses this poem to convey his feelings about the loss of traditional African culture against western influences. The overall theme of this poem is about happier times gone past and hopes for a happy ending, for which the writer longs for, as in a fairy tale and therefore the use of ‘ONCE UPON A TIME’ as the title of this poem.
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