The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Once” is a poem consisting of fourteen numbered sections in free verse. The sections range from fifteen to forty-one lines, each presenting one image or short narrative from Alice Walker’s work in the 1960’s with the American Civil Rights movement. Together, the sections add up, like the pieces in a stained-glass window, to a complete picture.

“Once” opens with Walker in a Southern jail. Her companion points out the irony of the pretty lawn and flowers outside the jail, while Walker dryly comments on the irony that “Someone in America/ is being/ protected/ [from me].” This ironic tone informs most of the poem. At this point, the reader knows only that someone, assumed to be Walker (although no name or gender is specified), is in jail in the South. There is no reason given and no mention of when this happened.

In the next two sections, hints of the Civil Rights movement and the 1960’s begin to emerge. The speaker appears carrying a sign as she runs through Atlanta’s streets, and there are daily arrests. The fact that there is a “nigger” in the company of “white folks” is observed. By the end of the fourth section, the setting for the poem is clear. As soon as the reader becomes aware that this poem is about the Civil Rights movement, it is time to contemplate the title, “Once.” Does Walker intend to conjure up the atmosphere of a fairy tale, to say that this happened “once upon a time” in a land long ago and...

(The entire section is 537 words.)