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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Once” is written in very short lines that combine to form generally straightforward sentences. Often, a numbered section will contain only one sentence, as section 14, which closes the poem, does: “then there was/ the/ picture of/ the/ bleak-eyed/ little black/ girl/ waving the/ american/ flag/ holding it/ gingerly/ with/ the very/ tips/ of her/ fingers.” Some commentators have wondered whether, in fact, this is poetry at all. Clearly, this poem is neither as substantial nor as sophisticated as those in Walker’s later collection, Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems (1973). There is much to recommend “Once,” though, and its simplicity is essential to its beauty and power.

One effect of the very short lines is that they force the reader to slow down, to notice each element in the stanza. A child holding a flag is a common enough sight—so common that people tend not even to see it. Walker presents simple images in a simple style, but alters the typography so that the reader is forced to notice, to ponder. Thus, “american” is spelled with a lowercase letter and set off in a line by itself. The reader cannot help but pause over that line, stopped for a moment by the lowercase a. By forcing the reader to pause, Walker emphasizes the word so that the irony (this integration battle is going on in America) is not lost in hasty or careless reading. Walker creates similar effects, drawing attention to particular...

(The entire section is 422 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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Christian, Barbara. “Novel for Everyday Use: The Novels of Alice Walker.” In Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Lauret, Maria. Alice Walker. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

McMillan, Laurie: “Telling a Critical Story: Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.” Journal of Modern Literature 23, no. 1 (Fall, 2004): 103-107.

Noe, Marcia. “Teaching Alice Walker’s ’Everyday Use’: Employing Race, Class, and Gender, with an Annotated Bibliography.” Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction 5, no. 1 (Fall, 2004): 123-136.

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Tate, Claudia. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983.

Willis, Susan. “Black Woman Writers: Taking a Critical Perspective.” In Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism, edited by Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn. London: Methuen, 1985.