Everyone ages. There is no avoiding it, no changing it; there is no
fountain of youth, or magical pill one can take. It is simply inevitable.
However, not everyone ages in the same way. There are those who age
gracefully, happy with the way their lives have been lived; people that
stay young at heart, and never choose to stop living. In contrast, there
are those who mature full of regret. Those that question what might have
been, regret the folly of a misspent youth. In Virginia Hamilton Adair’s
poem, “Dirty Old Man” and Robert Pinsky’s poem “An Old Man”, both examine
the state of the aged mind. Adair studies the regretful side of the aging
process through the eyes of an old man reflecting on his past. Pinsky,
however, illustrates the more upbeat side of growing older, through his
description of an upbeat, boisterous “Dirty Old Man”.
Adair uses vivid, picaresque images and language in her poem, to
illustrate the character of the old man. However Adair also leaves plenty
of room for the imagination. In the concrete, the man is a drinker, tells
offensive jokes and stories, lusts for younger women, and challenges even
God. In the abstract thought, which is determined by interpretation, the
man appears carefree, content, somewhat cocky, and very real. In true
dirty old man form, he has an”…eye for nymphets more rapacious, / with
older women most ungracious;” (Line III-IV). Not only is this
disrespectful to females, but it directly reflects the man’s arrogance.
Despite his age and “his appetite for fat, voracious, / swells his manly
gut capacious” (Line V-VI), the man seems to believe that he is capable of
attaining a beautiful young woman. The man is portrayed as vile and
disgusting, but turns his own head in disgust to older women. Another
image of his cockiness is reflected in his statement ” ‘Save me a bed in
Heaven so spacious / that it will hold a hundred geishas’ ” (Line IX-X).
The “Dirty Old Man” is so confident in the fact that he has lived a good
life, and will reach Heaven, that he requests a bed full of Japanese
prostitutes to be ready when he arrives. One could easily interpret that
this man has no respect for himself or others, yet he takes pleasure in his
age. He lives without regret and holds a fiery passion for life that has
not abandoned him even in his old age, and with thanks to Adair, this is
Another element that is prevalent in this poem is the use of rhyme.
Using words such as “…pugnacious…salacious…rapacious…”(Lines I-III)
Adair rhymes every line throughout the poem. For some reason, using this “-
ious” sound gives the poem a positive, almost humorous feel, which sets a
tone for the reader to relate to. From my experiences, I am sure that most
people in this world have seen or experienced someone like this: an aged
uncle, neighbor friend etc. Observing from a distance casts this character
in a humorous light and allows the reader to really connect with the poem
through relation to the situation. The humorous tone of the poem also
alludes to the personality of the old man. He is very happy-go-lucky and
proud of his age; a man who believes in living life to the fullest extent,
until the bitter end.
Aside from setting the tone, the words also give a very accurate
physical and mental description of the man. Adair describes him as having
a pugnacious mood, a rapacious eye, a capacious gut, and audacious piety.
Through using these words Adair paints a visual image of this man. I see
him as a one of the regulars in a neighborhood a bar, one who grabs the
rear-ends of the waitresses and tells stories of his youth, very loudly and
very drunkenly. He is arrogant and believes himself to be on top of the
world. And these words only reinforce the abstract image.
In connection with the rhyme of the poem is the rhythm and structure
of it. This poem is written as one stanza, ten lines long. By choosing
not to break it in the middle Adair creates an air of fervency and urgency
about it. With the rhyme as it is, the poem flows from the mouth very
easily, but one has a tendency to read it very quickly as well, which
heightens the sense of passion. This feeling is almost essential to the
poem, in my mind, as it helps the reader relate to the feeling of the old
man. He has a passion for life, and all that comes with it. Though, as
stated, he can be portrayed in a poor way, can also be interpreted in a
positive light. As opposed to being womanizing, he could be seen as having
an eye for beauty. Instead of being fat, he has an appreciation for the
culinary arts. He is not so pompous about going to Heaven that he requests
a bed of prostitutes, he just believes that he has lived his life so as to
deserve that. He believes that is what heaven is. Every way this man is
interpreted in this poem is changeable dependant on the element that is
examined. With the simple structure, rhythm and flow of this poem, the man
comes off as zealous and vivacious as opposed to a “Dirty Old Man”. Though
Adair has set several stages for interpretation of her character, she
allows for a different personality to arise through her element of rhythm
In contrast to Adair’s poem, Robert Pinsky’s poem “An Old Man”
reveals the poignancy of growing older. Pinsky’s images are dreary and
heartrending causing the reader to want to reach out and comfort this man.
Though there is no physical allusions about the old man, one can infer that
he is a sad sight, and not only is he aged in body, but he is aged in soul.
As I gathered, he is a contemplator, and a quiet, pensive man who would
rather be alone in his own world, as opposed to in the middle of any sort
of chaos. Images such as “Back in a corner, alone in the clatter and
babble / An old man sits with his head bent over a table” (Lines I-II) only
reinforce this image giving an awesome picture of a regretful, depressed
older gentleman. This is in complete disparity to Adair’s cheerful “Dirty
Old Man. Pinsky’s old man is “…sour with old age…” (Line V) would
rather ponder the past and how poorly he lived it than to take advantage of
the time that he possesses now. “He knows he’s quite old now: he feels it,
he sees it, / And yet the time when he was young seems-was it? / Yesterday.
How quickly, how quickly it slipped away” (Line VII-IX). The images imply
disgust for himself, and the way he chose to live his life. “He ponders
the dreary truth-/ How little he enjoyed the years when he had youth”
(Lines IV-V). The old man let discretion betray him, and procrastinated
until there was little time left. Everything Pinksy writes alludes to the
fact that there is no longer a tomorrow. His old man is simply finished
with life. This is a powerful image to deal with and Pinsky is very
successful in portraying the lifeless, saddened old man through the
concrete and the abstract aspects of the poem.
Rhyme is a great feature in this poem. Pinsky chooses to loosely
rhyme the first two lines of each stanza, and then the last lines of all
the stanzas. For example “…in the caf…clever things to say…it
slipped away…Some day.” (Lines III, VI, IX, XII) The fact that he
loosely rhymes the first two lines of each stanza is an effective use of
rhyme, because it slows down the poem a great bit. It is not a strict
pattern and not an obvious connection, but subconsciously the reader
recognizes it. The poem does not have that sense of urgency that Adair’s
possesses but instead moves at a lagging pace in order to set a scene.
Along with this, Pinsky’s choice to rhyme the last lines of each stanza
provides a tie from piece to piece. Through the structure of the poem,
which will be discussed later, the reader is able to take a break between
stanzas, and the rhyme scheme provides a connection in thought to the one
prior. It allows for each stanza to stand on its own, yet together they
paint a move vivid image. It is in conjunction with the mood that the
rhyme scheme is extremely effective in the portrayal of the feelings of the
Contrary to Adair as well, Pinsky chooses a very different structure
and flow. Aside from a completely different rhyme scheme, his poem
consists of four, three-lined stanzas where as Adair’s is one, ten line
stanza. Pinsky’s choice to break his poem up aides greatly in the tone and
feeling of the poem. It allows for pauses in reading and time for the
reader to ponder and form visions in one’s head of this gentleman. The
reader is able to form one’s own ideas of the past of this forlorn man,
what he may have done to regret his actions, what the future holds etc.
The division of the poem also completely slows the flow of the poem and
helps set the tone. There is no tendency to read this poem quickly; there
is no urgency about it. It is bleak in its outlook, and full of regret.
“How little he enjoyed the years when he had youth, / Good looks and
strengths and clever things to say” (Lines V-VI). A mood of depression and
sadness seems to loom over this poem, and the fact that is flows from the
mouth and thoughts very slowly only adds to that. Not only that, but the
poem is very conversational, as it is written in middle diction. It flows
from the mouth with ease, and one need not stumble over words and various
rhymes so much as just speak. This tends to bring the poem to a level of
empathy with the common person, which in turn allows the reader to
physically feel what the old man feels, and think what the old man thinks.
It evokes an emotion from the reader, which is the main goal of poetry in
general. Pinsky wrote this poem very effectively in that respect.
Though both of these poems focus on the same topic of the aging
process, each takes a different stance on it. Virginia Hamilton Adair very
effectively uses different images, rhymes and structure to paint a
stunningly real picture of a “Dirty Old Man”. However, this picture is
almost entirely dependent on how one examines the poem. The man can be
interpreted as vivacious with a lust for life, or as a grungy, aged
pervert. Pinsky, on the other hand, has a very straightforward approach to
his character. One is able to infer the physical nature of “The Old Man”,
yet the mental aspects of him are very blatant. Despite this, Pinsky is
able to evoke a very somber mood from the reader and creates an empathetic
atmosphere for this regretful gentleman. Both of these poets, though
taking different stances on the effects of aging on one’s mind, body, and
soul, create an incredible story in which the reader is heavily involved,
and is able to make a connection.