Gabriel Okara was born in 1921 in Ijaw country in the Niger Delta, in Nigeria. He was educated at Government College, Umuahia, and then slowly rose from a humble bookbinder to international success. He began to write plays and features for broadcasting and his poetry appeared regularly in ‘Black Orpheus’, a newspaper, starting with the first number. He became an Information Officer in Enugu, then Head of the Newspaper Division, Ministry of Information, Port Harcourt and is now currently Writer-in-Residence of the Rivers State Council on Arts and Culture.
However, his poems strike a chord with many of the population, namely “Once upon a time”. Craig Raine was born in Shildon, County Durham in 1944. He was briefly educated at Exeter College, moved on to Oxford, and finally became a man of many qualities that led to his wide range of jobs – editor, essayist, journalist, librettist, literary critic, playwright, publisher, scholar and translator. Like Okara, he is also famous for being a critically acclaimed poet famous for his figurative language and concrete details.
It begs the question somewhat, how did these two men from very different backgrounds manage to write two separate poems that, however differently the style of writing was, conveyed a similar message that brought the two together? In “Once upon a time” by Gabriel Okara, the poem consists of 11 couplets, and states in the first couplet- ” 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”. These lines trap the reader into wanting understand these lines properly, who is the “they” in question? It goes on- “There was a time indeed
They used to shake hands with their hearts; But that’s gone son. Now they shake hands without hearts”. It is left to the reader’s common sense to determine what this poem is really about, as there are no specific details given to what it might mean. To try and resolve what the story is behind the poem, the reader will have to skim through the text and try to see where the poet is coming from. The first line contains the line- “Once upon a time, son”, and the poet’s name is Gabriel Okara, which gives some idea that the poet may originate from Africa or Nigeria, “son” indicating the Afro-Caribbean slang that is commonly used.
Judging from this discovery, one can now read on and start to uncover the message at what the poet may be aiming towards. It continues- “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”. One’s imagination must start to delve deeper and deeper into the mind of this narrator who so far has not included in his writing where he has come from and where he is now. Well, as the reader has already guessed what country the poet hails from, it is now the time to solve whereabouts the narrator is situated now.
The customs he describes seem very westernised, such as “shaking hands with no heart”. The words “Feel at home, come again” seem to be written in a very British manner, so one can guess the narrator has immigrated to the United Kingdom, although this might not be true. Nigeria, the poet’s roots, is a very close-knit country, where there are tribal groups situated, and the people are genuinely warm and friendly towards each other. It is possible that the narrator in the poem is actually speaking from the poet’s point of view on how life is in a westernised country, in stark contrast to their native Nigeria.
In the seventh couplet, we make a startling discovery of the narrator, who so far has been critiquing the country he is in (United Kingdom? ). “And I have learnt too To laugh with only my teeth And shake hands without my heart And to say ‘It’s been nice Talking to you’ after being bored”. It seems the narrator, has now too, become one of the many cold people of Britain that he has despised ever since he experienced them. However, the narrator has not completely forgotten his warm roots- “But believe me, son I want to be what I used to be When I was like you. I want
To unlearn all theses muting things”. The narrator has seemingly panicked about becoming, in his opinion, some sort of robot, one that has totally lost all sense of warmth and friendliness and doesn’t speak from the heart. It seems that he is longing to retain the innocence he had as a child when everybody seemed to welcome him from the heart. He has now turned his son (I am guessing it’s his own child, or it could just be slang), to help him find his sense of belonging and inner innocence to protect him from the dark world he is in.
The poem concludes with the stanza- “So show me, son,How to laugh; show me how I used to laugh Once upon a time, when I was like you”. The poet has written this poem in such great understanding and detail that it is greatly possible he is speaking from his heart in his writing, and not from another person’s point of view. We know understand that the poem is entitled “Once upon a time”, (like a fairy tale, indicating a long time ago), because it discusses how people used to be in contrast to what they are nowadays. In “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home,” Craig Raine uses many metaphors to describe what a Martian would see if he came to earth.
The poem consists of seventeen stanzas. All of the stanzas have two lines. We know it’s about this subject by the title and simply skimming through the text, which makes it all very understandable. However, the language used is more difficult to interpret and takes some thought. It is mysterious from the very first stanza- “Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings and some are treasured for their markings – They cause the eyes to melt or the body to shriek without pain”. This is a reference to William Caxton who was the first to print books in England in the late 1400’s.