Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Once” deals with Walker’s own involvement in the Civil Rights Movement in the South during the 1960’s. The collection of poems in which it appears, Once: Poems, was published in 1968, the year of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. In the collection, “Once” is followed by six more poems dealing with civil rights. This poem, informed by a strong black consciousness and a somewhat youthful didacticism, shows universally bigoted and inhuman white Southerners confronted by witty and courageous black and white activists from the North. Each numbered section is another image or event Walker remembers from her own experience: She appears in ten of the fourteen sections, if only to say, “I remember.”

The effect of Walker’s continually putting herself in the scene is to make it clear that the horrors she presents are true: She can verify that they are true because she was there. For young readers, this is especially important because they do not remember what went on in this country during the days of segregation and struggle. Walker is not concerned only with her own experiences. Although she writes about what she has seen or heard herself, she avoids making this a poem about particular people or events. Only one person, activist Dick Gregory, is precisely identified, and one of the poet’s friends, Peter, is identified by first name only.

The rest of the people in the poem are identified by type or by their...

(The entire section is 524 words.)