Once Upon A Time – Gabriel Okara

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 learned 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.

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13 comments on “Once Upon A Time – Gabriel Okara
  1. Profile photo of Kerry-Louise Boyne says:

    Once upon a time
    Through out the poem connotations are made relating to fairy tales and how things used to happen and don’t anymore.
    The poem is a father teaching his son about the dangers of fake friends and how times have changed,‘but now they only cry’ This implies that it used to happen by the use of the word, ‘now’ because it shows that in the present tense it doesn’t happen anymore because they’ve grown up. The use of the words, ‘but’ and ‘only’ represent an emotion of disappointment and that she wished he had learnt earlier on how to put on a fake smile and deal with people that don’t want to be his friend.

    The poet shows how they used to be his friends and something must have changed for them friends to keep running back to him even though they aren’t true friends, ‘They used to laugh’ this shows the connotations of happiness which is what modern day fairy tales portray and furthermore, shows that when they were younger they used to be close which is the message of the poem that the poet is trying to teach his son.

  2. Profile photo of Deana says:

    The poem ‘Once Upon A Time’ is a conversation between a father and a son. I think the poem illustrates how people of society have fake personalities and they are trying to return to being more innocent and pure again. The quote ‘laugh with their teeth, while their ice-block cold eyes search behind his shadow’ implies a great deal of negativity and falseness. This affects the tone of the fairytale-like poem as it changes to become bitter.

    Stanza two reveals quite truly genuine emotions but then it changes to highlight the fake personalities by saying- “now they shake hands without heart”. This can be portrayed as quite manipulative as if man is using each other to achieve what they want. The first three stanzas all have the same structures, they start by recreating a story of the past and describing it in a positive manner, but then throughout the stanza it changes describing how negative reality has turned out to be. Stanza four explain how he has changed his ways to fit in with this negative reality and he now wears these faces and takes on this actions to fit in with society.

    I think the last stanza contains a feeling of regret and guilt as the man has yearns for the past. Through the entire poem the man is talking to his son to warn him about the dangers of society. Also the ending juxtaposes the opening line “Once upon a time” to imply that there are no fairytales.

  3. Profile photo of Evelina Peterson says:

    In the poem “Once upon a time” the writer reminisces about a time when people were honest and loving towards one another. He speaks regretfully about the present time, dwelling about the fact that people have changed too much. The writer emphasises on two main themes of innocence and experience, and how over time, both of them have evolved into something other. The poem begins on a line of “Once upon a time, son”. From this, we can immediately tell that this is a father having a conversation with his son, about something which he deems important for him to know. This use of a classic fairy tale opening implies that what he is about to tell his son is so far-fetched, it may not even be believed. This further implies that honesty in expressing emotion is so rare nowadays, that it is virtually a fairy tale.

    Further on, the poet creates a contrast between ‘hearts’ and ‘faces’, by saying that “they used to shake hands with their hearts” but nowadays they only “laugh with their teeth and shake hands without my heart”. This imagery is used to describe that there was once a time when they shook hands with emotion and love, whereas now, they have become “ice-block-cold” who show no emotion, who “search beyond my shadow”.

    Moreover, in the last stanza, the father mourns over the loss of his innocence, saying that he wants to forget all the ways which he has learnt to silence his emotions. “Unlearn all these muting things”, this suggests that he wants to get rid of his ‘false laugh’ and ‘many faces’ because he believes that letting go of these he will regain his innocence. Throughout the whole poem, the father is teaching the son how to learn from his mistakes. However the end line “Once upon a time when I was like you” juxtaposes this idea, implying that in real life there are no happy endings, and the father doesn’t want to give the child ‘false hope’ because overall, life is tough.

  4. Profile photo of amy p says:

    The poem ‘Once Upon a Time,’ has main themes of knowledge, experience and innocence.The first 5 stanzas revolve around innocence and discuss how people change over time. For example the phrase “their left hands search my empty pockets,” give an essence of being paranoid as the author can not trust the people who surround him. The word “pockets,” implies the idea of money and that money can change people. Furthermore, the word ’empty,’ highlights how the author is confronted with people who do not trust each other and are ‘searching,’ for their own personal gain, even the author has nothing left to give.
    The phrase overall indicates a sense of helplessness and innocence as the author does not appear to know how to react.

    However, the line “Show me, son, how to laugh,” in the final stanza, portrays how the author wishes to return to his former self, thus implying that the author has gained too much experience, and that he wishes to regain a sense of innocence again. The poem appears to be a father passing down knowledge to his son to prevent him from making the mistakes that the father (the narrator of the poem)made himself.

  5. Profile photo of Sophie says:

    The poem Once Upon a Time by Gabriel Okara revolves largely around the pressures of society and people conforming to it; in comparison to the youthful innocence of childhood. The poem is directed at his son and because of this, uses simple lexis so that he can understand. Additionally the phrase ‘Once Upon a Time’ is often the beginning of fairy tales which typically warn children of dangers in society, this idea is reflected throughout the poem. The lines ‘And I have learned, too, to laugh with only my teeth and shake hands without my heart’. This conveys how he feels like he has to present himself in a certain way and therefore has conformed in society. It also shows how society has dulled his beliefs and ideas, as well having to hide his true emotions in order to please people. All of which he does not want for his son, who has not yet been exposed to the things that changed his father.

  6. Profile photo of Brooke Roberts says:

    ‘Once upon a time’ by Gabriel Okara is a poem in which a parent is warning their son about what adulthood does to people.

    The fact that the title resembles the start of childish fairytail’s which steryotypically end in ‘and they lived happily ever after’ empahsises how the sotry does hold a childish aspect to it, however how the poem actually ends by saying ‘once upon a time, when i was like you’ brings a negative side to it. Thischange also links to how theparent tells the child people change: how they start as childish , like the poem, and end up looking back at their child self with envy.

    The use of mentioning how ‘they used to luagh with their hearts’ but now with their ‘…teeth while their ice-block-cold eyes search behind my shadow’ emphasises how dark adulthood can be and how major the change is.

  7. Profile photo of jenna says:

    The poem “Once Upon A Time” written by Gabriel Okara illustrates the changes a father has seen in himself throughout his life which have been influenced by the way society has changed.
    At the start of the poem Okara writes “they used to laugh with their hearts and… eyes; but now they only laugh with their teeth while their ice-block cold eyes search behind my shadow.” This phrase illustrates the change in the way people act showing that their laughs used to be genuine and heartfelt however now their attitudes have changed. The description of “laugh with their teeth” illustrates someone showing false interest. The dark imagery “ice-block cold eyes” which follows shows that there is no emotion or feeling in the action.
    In the next stanza Okara describes how “they used to shake hands with their hearts” implying that the actions were genuine and were also symbolic of good intentions however “Now they shake hands without hearts while their left hands search my empty pockets.” This phrase illustrates that all good intentions have gone and how now it is every man for himself. Everybody is only focusing on their own personal gain. The use of a metaphor emphasises how there is a lack of trust as everybody is trying to use each other. The phrase “empty pockets” could connote that he has been stripped of all genuine happiness and has been left feeling empty and alone.
    In the fifth stanza Okara shows the change in himself as a man. “And I have learned, too,… to say ‘Goodbye’, when I mean ‘Good-riddance’”. Here there is an evident shift in the stanza due to the fact that he is now talking about himself and how he too has learned to be false. This could imply that society has pressured him into changing in a negative way.
    At the end of the poem Okara confesses “I want to be what I used to be” showing instant regret and sadness at the choices he previously made. This piece of dialogue could suggest that he can only be himself around his son as he recognises his younger self in his son, the self that was genuine and true, which had not yet been beaten down by society.

  8. Profile photo of Vicky Murkett says:

    The poets use of a child like lexical field contradicts the poems morals about growing up. “once upon a time” leads the readers to believe it to be like a story and the poet does present it in a narrative way, but once we realize she is talking to her son it could suggest the fairy tale feel is for his behalf. The poem is also structured like a mirror as the first 3 stanzas talk about innocence whereas the next 3 portray experience, furthermore the poet is constantly reflecting on the two times of their life.
    The speakers expression of the adult society are extremely negative “shake hands without hearts .. doors shut on me”. However we are told “I have learned, too,” which portrays how the harsh view f society is actually what she resents about herself. This implies her child may not be very young as they don’t want to see the bad in their parents but we know he still has innocence as she asks him “show me how I used to laugh”. This want to return to the beginning of the poem shows how the poet is desperate to not let him end this way yet it is at the end of the poem that he wants to return to the start. This circular structure imitates how many people want to be older when they are young but want to be young when they are older. This also links to how the poet conveys society as he talks about the experienced people in general instead of personally.

  9. Profile photo of Rhianna Creasey says:

    The main speaker in the poem “Once Upon A Time” by Gabriel Okara reminiscences about a time in the speakers life 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 title of the poem has connotations of well-known words which could suggest that 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.

  10. Profile photo of Felicity Hale says:

    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 to behave in such 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.

  11. Profile photo of Sofia says:

    ‘Once upon a time’ was written by Gabriel Okara. The title of the poem has connotations of innocence, childhood and has a fairytale like quality. The poet wrote this poem to warn people about the dangers of society. Similarly, fairy tales were originally used to warn children about the things happening in society and this was what the poet was trying to do. “they used to laugh with their hearts…” “ but now they laugh with their teeth,” The reader can tell that in first quotation they were genuine laughs as they came from the heart which implies that they meant it. However, the second quotation suggests that something has changed and their laughs are false and has not got that genuine nature anymore. The personal pronoun ‘they’ could be referring to their enemies, bullies or the two faced nature of their ‘friends.’

    The fourth stanza begins with, “So I have learned many things, son.” This implies that the speaker has now gained experience and the pronoun ‘they’ has changed to the first person pronoun, ‘I’ which makes the poem more personal and fits with their experiences. The first three stanzas, the speaker is innocent. The fourth and fifth stanza he has gained experience and the last two are about hope. “I have learned to to wear many faces…” This quotation portrays to the reader that the speaker can now also wear fake faces like their previous ‘friends.’ This suggests that they were fed up of the situation and decided to go along with them. The speaker has learnt to do what the people that they had once condemned. However, towards the end of the poem, it says, “I want to unlearn,” You could say that they have gained too much experience and does not like what they become which reinforces the idea about society. He believes that only his son can help him get back to being genuine again as he is truly innocent. It is quite ironic as people spend all their innocence wanting to be experienced and spend all the experience trying to be innocent.

  12. Profile photo of Lauren McCorkell says:

    ‘Once Upon a Time’ is a poem which main theme is innocence to experience and how society corrupts people. From the start it seems like an advisory piece with a parent telling a story to their son but turns out to be a plea from an adult who is tired of putting on a front from experience. “now they only laugh with their teeth” is a phrase which shows how people change into being fake. This fakeness is said to be in the poem because society has turned them into sad, bitter people. “I have learned to wear many faces” shows how the parent was not born with the falseness but learnt how to put on a front for people because innocence got them no where. The parent wants his innocence back as he sees how his son still has his. “So show me, son,/how to laugh” implies to the reader that he really wants it back, his only hope left and innocence in his life is his son. Gabriel Okara is trying to show us how innocence is only found in childhood before the world corrupts them.

  13. Profile photo of Rhianna King says:

    ‘Once Upon a Time’ is a poem written almost as if it were a dramatic monologue. The poet, Okara uses this poem to express his dislike for certain aspects of Western Society and the contrast he feels between the young and innocent compared to the older and experienced.

    To begin with, the title invokes connotations of fairy-tales and innocence. However, even within fairy-tales there was originally the intent to warn children of dangers in society and this poem does that. The speaker is addressing his son and pleads with him to never revert to the ways of those he know- collectively described as “they”. Okara was born in Nigeria which is significant as he had a traditional upbringing which differs to the Western society he’s now surrounded by.
    It is made evident he has a distrust for those surrounding him through “search/ my empty pockets” which shows that he believes these people would rob him if they could and despite his lack of material wealth, they continue to search due to there being a possibility of them being able to take anything from him. However, regardless of the dislike he has for these people, he also dislikes himself. This is shown through “like a snake’s bare fangs” as ‘a snake’ could be referring to one of the dangerous African snakes found where he was raised, showing that he now feels he has become a dangerous creature, perhaps poisonous which suggests he feels he could ‘poison’ even his own son’s life and innocence which scares him- much like an attacking snake would scare someone.

    It is clear that Okara believes his own childhood innocence has been destroyed and he not only regrets this but blames society and therefore he wants to protect his son from the same fate. The second to last stanza shows that he longs to regain the innocence he once had so much so that he wants to “unlearn all these muting things.” Learning is usually seen as a good, positive thing; however, in this case he hates the lessons life has taught him and shows that knowledge and moreover experience is not always the best thing. He suggests that when adults enter the real world they forget how to “laugh with their hearts” and instead “now only laugh with their teeth” which shows emotions to be lost through experience. This even implies that life is a vicious, unending circle where adults become emotionless and cold and then turn others to be like them. This is then repeated so that when adults are introduced to the world, society infects them and breaks them.

    Overall, the poet appears to be determined to change and revert to the person he used to be. However, the final stanza suggests that he does not believe it possible to change for now he is too used to the ways forced upon him. Therefore, despite his longing to once more be the innocent child he used to be, he focuses instead on ensuring his son will not become as he was, corrupted by society and that his son will not have his innocence ripped away. Although it seems that the poem is a conversation between the two, the final stanza questions this because he realises he may not be able to regain the sincerity of his past. However, although this might be the conversation and truth he wants to impart to his child, he may realises to do so could destroy part of the innocence his son has and therefore he is simply content to watch his son “laugh and smile” and remember how he “used to laugh and smile/ once upon a time when I was like you.” After all, ‘once upon a time’ signifies the beginning of a story, not the end so maybe Okara realises that his son has his whole life ahead of him, and foretelling him of the horrors of society is not meant to be a part of the childhood innocence.

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