Once Upon A Time by Gabriel Okara 11th Poem Summary & Explanation Notes in English


In this poem, the poet tells us about how fake society and people have become. Greetings and smiles have lost all meaning and are empty customs that hide malicious intentions.

The poet tells us that even though he is aware of how fake these niceties are, he too is forced to put on different masks and act fake to adjust in this brutal world. He tells his son that he wishes to unlearn these things and feel innocence and happiness again. The poem is 43 lines long and has seven stanzas. It is written in free verse.

Stanza 1-2

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.

The poet assumes the voice of a father talking to his son. The father is telling his son that once upon a time people used to laugh with their hearts and their eyes. But now they only laugh with their teeth or fake their laughs. These people fake their laughs while their ice-block-cold eyes search behind his shadow.

This means that they have eyes lacking real warmth or affection and they are hypocritical and do not mean what they say. The poet says that there was a time when people used to shake hands with their hearts but that is gone.

Now they shake hands without hearts while their left hands search his empty pockets. Therefore, they only pretend to be outwardly friendly while on the inside they calculate the speaker’s worth and power to see how he can be exploited. The poet is talking about how fake society has become.

Stanza 3-4

“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 – home face
Office face, street face, host face
Cocktail face, with all their conforming smiles
Like a fixed portrait smile.

These people tell the poet to feel at home and come again when he visits their house. He does feel at home the first two times he visits but there will be no third time because then he finds doors shut on him. So, these people’s hospitality does not go very far, they say those words only to keep up appearances.

The poet tells his son that he has learnt many things because of these circumstances. He has learned to wear many faces like dresses- home face, office face, street face, host face, cocktail face. Therefore, he too has adopted different facades that he puts on in different settings.

All these faces have their conforming smiles like a fixed portrait. The poet wears a standard deceitful artificial smile on all occasions. He too adopts fake faces to blend in with all the fake people around him.

Stanza 5

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.

The poet says that he too has learned to laugh with only his teeth and shake hands without his heart. He has also learned to say goodbye when he actually means good-riddance. So, he has adopted what all the fake people around him are doing. He puts on fake laughs and shakes hands without cordiality.

He tells people goodbye when he is actual glad to see them go. He has learned to tell people he is glad to meet them without being glad and to say it has been nice talking to someone when he was actually bored. This shows us how society forces one into fake niceties and civilities even if they do not like it.

Stanza 6-7

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.

But the poet wants his son to believe that he wants to be what he used to be when he was like his son. He wants to unlearn all these muting things. And most of all, he wants to relearn how to laugh, because his laugh in the mirror only shows his teeth like a snake’s bare fangs.

So, the poet wants to go back to a state of innocence where he was not suffocating under the burden of acting fake to maintain societal decorum. His laugh looks like a poisonous snake’s because of how deceitful it is. So, he really wants to learn to laugh properly again.

He asks his son to show him how to do it. He asks him to show him how he used to laugh and smile once upon a time when he was like his son. So, he wants to unlearn fake greetings and customs and go back to a childlike state like his son to feel innocence and pure happiness again.


The poet makes us aware of how fake people have become. This poem urges us to leave behind the fake smiles and civilities that society forces us to adopt, and instead relearn how to be innocent and happy again.