Once Upon a Time: Summary

About the Poet:

Gabriel Imomotimi Gbaingbain Okara (born April 21, 1921, in Bumodi, Nigeria) is a Nigerian poet and novelist who may be pronounced as highly original and uninfluenced by other poets. He has been extremely successful in apprehending the moods, sights, and sounds of Africa. His poems show great sensitivity, perceptive judgments, and tremendous energy. Okara also shows concern on the topic of what happens when the ancient culture of Africa is faced with modern western culture.

Once Upon a Time: Summary

The poem “Once Upon A Time,” written by Gabriel Okara, illustrates the changes a father has seen in him throughout his life, which have been influenced by the way society has changed.

In the first stanza, 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 him. Everybody is only focusing on their own personal gain. A metaphor emphasizes 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 left feeling empty and alone.
In the next stanza, Okara shows the change in him 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 recognizes his younger self in his son, the self that was genuine and true, which had not yet been beaten down by society.

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  1. Gabriel Okara in his poem ‘Once Upon a Time’ speaks about Africa’s cultural changes with the coming of western cultures. What I realized is that these changes can relate to what happened to Sri Lanka, the country that once stood together to face the British invasions to Kandy. Once the British left us Sri Lanka, as Africa described in this poem was left insincere and fake.
    One of those changes the poet speaks about is the handshake. The handshake was not originally present in the African culture. However, with the invasions of the European nations and the coming of the western cultures the people got used to the handshake and the ‘left hand work’.
    “Now they shake hands without hearts
    While their left hands search
    My empty pockets”
    Am not trying to be racist or anything here. Am just wondering if Sri Lanka was affected by the western culture like Africa was. I’m not talking about fashion, English language or cool music. Did the Sri Lankans lose their real wealth (their good qualities such as hospitality, friendship and genuineness) and become “empty pockets” the same way Africa did, according to Okara? Personally, I think the Sri Lankan “ayubowan” is a much better greeting than the handshake, though I am against the Sri Lankan custom of worshipping elders. The gesture of ‘ayubowan’ gives our neighbor much more respect than a handshake which is often forced, as not many people like to make any kind of physical contact with a stranger. If one thinks that the gesture of ‘ayubowan’ has too less kindness and connection between two maybe a hug is a better substitute.
    Then we have Gabriel Okara speaking about the art of appointments.
    “…and when I come
    Again and feel
    At home, once, twice,
    There will be no thrice-
    For then I find doors shut on me.”
    Sri Lanka and Africa, both countries were known for the hospitality of the people. This countries were said to have people who welcome strangers in and offer them food, drink and lodging generously. But now we live in an age where we don’t open a door to almost anybody. People have become cruel and dangerous. Further if no one takes an appointment to visit us we find them annoying and an intrusion to our privacy. Though the local people found this appointment thing an extreme pain when we were under the British rule (when the Gam Sabha was abolished they had to take appointments, blah blah blah) it is the descendents of the very same people who follow this trend today.
    And the other thing Okara is speaking about is the fakeness of people. This could have come to both countries with industrialization and business. In a business, everybody is out for themselves and all they think about is there profit. This is the heart of fake kindness and stuff like these mask like faces;
    Officeface, streetface, hostface, cock-
    Tailface with all their conforming smiles”
    We’ve got to admit, all of us have these multiple faces. And the other thing that Okara speaks about?
    “…to say ‘Goodbye’
    When I mean ‘Good riddance!’
    To say ‘Glad to see you,’
    Without being glad; and to say ‘it’s been
    Nice talking to you,’ after being bored.”
    We all have done these at least once in our lives. Is it that we care about hurting the other person’s feelings? Or are we just selfishly concerned about what kind of impression we would leave on the other person? Anyway, why should we be fakes in our lives? People should love us for who we are and not what they want us to be. This poem really gives us a lot to think about…

    Tweet me your comments @Leonvictorious

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