Once Upon A Time-Gabriel Okara

A Reading of the Poem



A parent is talking to his/her’s son and telling him how things used to be. The parent tells the son that people used to be sincere, but are now superficial and seek only to take from others. The persona tells the child that he/she has learnt to be just like these people, but does not want to be like that anymore. The parent  wants to be as sincere as the son.





The people’s eyes are as cold as ice. This means that there is no warmth or real feeling in the words that they say, or how they behave. This metaphor literally allows you to visualize a block of ice, cold and unwelcoming.


Stanza 4, lines 20-21 emphasizes the constant changes in the persona’s face. If you think of how often a woman changes her dress, then that is how often the persona adjusts his/her’s personality to suit an audience. The list of faces that follow this line emphasizes this point.

Stanza 4, lines 23-24 compares people’s faces to smiles in a portrait. If you think about a portrait, it is usually very formal and stiff, even uncomfortable. Therefore, the implication is that the smiles are actually fake and stiff. They are conforming, or trying to fit, to a preconceived mold that is set up by societal expectations.

Stanza 6, lines 38-40 compares the persona’s laugh to a snakes. When you think of a snake, words such as sneaky and deceitful come to mind. Therefore, the implication is that the persona is fake, just like the people he/she despises.


This phrase is repeated at the beginning and the end of the poem. This usually signals the beginning of a fairy tale. Therefore, it is implied that the persona is nostalgic about the past.



4.’they only laugh with their teeth’

This emphasizes the insincerity of the people around the persona. To laugh with your teeth means that only the bottom half of your face is engaged, the laugh does not reach the eyes.

  1. ‘shake hands with their heart’

To shake hands with your heart implies a strong handshake that is sincere, this is the opposite of what now occurs between people.

  1. ‘search behind my shadow’

This implies that the person cannot look the persona in the eye, they are looking everywhere but there. Looking someone in the eye during a conversation implies that one is sincerely interested in what you have to say. Not being able to do so implies shiftiness.

  1. ‘hands search my empty pockets’

People are only ‘seemingly’ nice to get something from you. So, they smile with you, but it is not sincere, they are seeking to get something from you.

  1. ‘unlearn all these muting things’

The word mute means silence, think of what happens when you press the mute button on the TV remote. Therefore, there is an implication that the insincere actions that the persona describes are muting, they block, or silence, good intentions. Hence, the persona wants to ‘unlearn’ these habits.


The mood of the poem is nostalgic. The persona is remembering how things used to be when he was young and innocent, like his son.



The tone of the poem is sad. The poet’s response to his nostalgia is sadness.



  • Childhood experiences,
  • Hypocrisy,
  • Loss of innocence, 
  • Appearance vs reality

* It is IRONIC that the persona is behaving in the exact way that he/she despises. There is an implication that things cannot go back to what he remembers, due to the influence of societal expectations. 


A Stone’s Throw (Poem)

A Reading of the Poem

Overview of the Poem
         A crowd has caught a woman (Line 2: ‘We’ve got her! Here she is’). The persona implies to the reader that the woman is not decent (Line 6: ‘A decent-looking woman, you’d have said,’// Lines 11-14: And not the first time//By any means//She’d felt men’s hands//Greedy over her body’).  The persona states that the woman has experienced men’s hands on her body before, but this crowd’s hands were virtuous (Lines 15-16: ‘But ours were virtuous,//Of course’).
          He also makes a proviso that if this crowd bruises her, it cannot be compared to what she has experienced before. The persona also speaks about a last assault and battery to come. He justifies this last assault by calling it justice, and it is justice that feels not only right, but good. The crowd’s ‘justice’ is placed on hold by the interruption of a preacher, who stops to talk to the lady. 
          He squats on the ground and writes something that the crowd cannot see. Essentially, the preacher judges them, thereby allowing the lady to also judge the crowd, leading to the crowd inevitably judging itself. The crowd walks away from the lady, still holding stones [which can be seen as a metaphor for judgments that can be thrown another day.
Literary Devices
          The persona is making the point that the lady was in fact NOT decent looking.
         This device is particularly effective because the word ‘kisses’ is used. Kiss implies something pleasant, but it is actually utilized to emphasize something painful that has happened to the lady; she was stoned.
 PUN :
Title: The title of the poem is itself a pun on two levels. A stone’s throw is used by many people in the Caribbean to describe a close distance. eg. “She lives a stone’s throw away”. The other use of the title is to highlight the content of the poem. It is a figurative stoning, or judging, of a woman.
 ALLUSION (biblical) The content of the poem alludes to the story of Mary Magdalene in the Christian Bible. See John 8 v 5-7.
Lines 13-15: These lines show that the men who were ‘holding stones’ believe they are more morally upright than the other men with whom the woman associates.  
One would think that men with ‘virtuous’ hands would have only pure thoughts, but these men intend to stone the woman , who  seems utterly defenseless. Also, images of cruelty are used, such as ‘bruised’, ‘kisses of stone’, ‘battery’ and ‘frigid rape’. 
         The tone of the poem is mixed. At times it is almost braggadocious, then it becomes sarcastic, moving to scornful.


Additional Analysis

This poem is a very closely and cleverly crafted dramatisation. It illustrates the way poetry uses implicit dramatisation to reveal and comment on issues. This is done without any specific reference, without explanations. It shows something without telling it. There are no explicit details, but the dramatic nature of the narrative in the poem directs the minds, the thinking, of the readers to the issues the poem wants to focus. There is a speaking voice – a man who narrates an event in his own words, providing details of the incident while unintentionally revealing much about himself and his companions.

A group of men caught a woman who seems to have committed some serious offence or violation punishable by stoning to death. The poem does not tell us what it is, but the several lines and references suggest it is something of a sexual nature and the men are about to carry out their judgment. They are, however, interrupted by a stranger who causes them to take a good look at themselves, have doubts and abort their mission. The final stanza suggests that, though prevented on this occasion, the men have not changed or repented and are prepared to do the same thing again.

While the poem does not tell explicitly what was happening we are not really left guessing, because the poem is obviously using a biblical allusion. It retells a story from the Bible (John 8; 3 – 11), well known even to many who might not be Christians or who might not know the Bible. A woman was caught in adultery, punishable at that time, according to the law, by stoning to death. She was taken to Jesus, who was urged to pronounce the expected sentence of death. But Jesus spoke quietly to her while writing in the dust on the ground and, instead, challenged her accusers, uttering the oft quoted words “let him that is without sin cast the first stone.” This effectively halted them and the woman was spared.

The poet uses the technique of narrative point-of-view. A great deal is gained by having the story told in the poem by one of the men eager to stone the woman. Several lines in the poem tell us about him and his companions who take a very perverse, greedy, sexual pleasure out of their mission – “we roughed her up”; “men’s hands/Greedy over her body”; “our fingers bruised/Her shuddering skin”; “it tastes so good”, and “Given the urge”. The poem uses several ironies. The men are self-righteous, ready to condemn others while they themselves are guilty. They describe their own greedy hands as “ours were virtuous, /Of course”; their violation of the woman as being “of right”, claiming “Justice must be done.”

Another important technique used by Mitchell is the central metaphor or central imagery of the poem, which has to do with sex and violence. The woman is roughed up, indecently handled by her captors who are about to stone her; note the startling chilling crude imagery (typical of Mitchell) of sexual violence in the fourth stanza especially, but running through the poem. Note also the other sexual innuendos elsewhere. Note as well the use of almost throw-away understatements, such as those remarks in brackets which come from the dramatisation – the conversational tone of the narrative which reveals the speaker’s thoughts and biased, prejudicial, judgmental attitudes.

Then in stanza six the poet pinpoints that people are quick to pass judgment upon others but hardly ever look at themselves. Probably for the first time these men are forced to do that and are quite uncomfortable and wrong-footed. The final stanza, though, shows that they are unrepentant, unchanged. This brings to mind a powerful statement of the poem – that even in modern times, long after biblical days our society has not changed because men behave the same way.

The poem’s title is significant in this respect. The poem is about the throwing of stones, but it also refers to the troubling issue of violence against women; the occasional cases of women condemned to death by stoning in extreme Islamist states according to Sharia law. What took place in the Bible all those years ago is still with us. It is only “a stone’s throw” away.

reference site: stabroeknews.com

  • Discrimination-  The poor treatment the persona receives by the men in the poem as a result of her profession. 
  • Religion
  • Appearance vs Reality
  • Hypocrisy 
  • Oppression
  • Power and Powerlessness


Read the following poem carefully and and answer the questions which follow it.
Growing pains
My child-eyes cried for chocolate treats
And sticky sweets
‘Twill rot yu’ teet’!
Tinkly silver wrapper hides
5 Germs
How can a child-eye see?
This child-heart cried for mid-teen love
10 A blow, a shove
Study yuh’ book!
Leather jacket
Football boots
Are not the most sought-after truths
15 How can a child-heart know?
So watch the young-girl-heart take wing!
Watch her groove
And watch her swing
She’s old enough
20 She’s strong and tough
She’ll see beneath the silver wrapper
Beneath the flashy football boots
She’ll find the great sought-after truth
That child-eye tears are not as sad
25 And child-heart pain is not as bad
As grown-up tears and grown-up pain
Oh Christ, what do we have to gain
From growing up
For throwing up
Our childlike ways
For dim
Grown-up days.
(a)(i)Who is likely to have said the following lines:
‘Twill rot yu’ teet’! (line 3) and Study yu’ book! (line 11) (ii)What effect is the writer trying to create by using them? (3 marks)
Suggested answer(a) The words would have been spoken by an adult, possibly a parent.
Question(b) In what ways is the content of the first two stanzas (lines 1 – 15) similar?
(3 marks)
Suggested answer
(b) The content of the first two stanzas is similar in that they show the views/concerns of the adult with regard to the child. Also, both stanzas offer guidance from the adult.
Question(c) Why does the poet refer to leather jacket (line 12) and ;football boots (line 13)? (2 marks) 
Suggested answer
(c) The poet refers to leather jackets and football boots, items which we associate with the male, to indicate that these attract teenage girls.
Question(d) Comment on the poet’s choice of the following words:
(i)Tinkly (line 4)(ii)dim (line 31) (2 marks)
Suggested answer
d)(i) Tinkly is an example of the figurative device, ono- matopoeia; hence it appeals to the sense of hearing. Children will be attracted to the sound of the paper.
(ii) Through the use of dim, the poet maintains the contrast between childhood and adulthood, innocence and experience.
(e) What do the following lines,
She’ll see beneath the silver wrapper
Beneath the flashy football boots … (lines 21 – 22) tell us about the young girl?
(2 marks) 
Suggested answer
(e) The lines tell us that the young girl realises later on in life that things are not what they seem to be. She would arrive at this position because of her maturity and experience.
Question(f)What is suggested by the poet in the last seven lines (lines 27 – 33) of the poem? (2 marks) 
Suggested answer
(f) The poet is saying that it is difficult for anyone to see why adulthood, with all its problems, should be preferred to childhood.
Total 14 marks