‘Old Men’ by Kenneth Fearing explores the depiction of being old, but, still, have lots of hope for the future left under the surface. Although Fearing suggests that society thinks of old men as useless and frail, he argues there is much more to it. They, although subtle, have ‘deep dreams’ still to achieve. The poem balances hope and melancholy, attesting to aging, and the promise of the future.
Explore Old Men
Fearing suggests that old men have the potential that society doesn’t really understand. The first stanza is designated to explore the stereotype of old men. Particularly, Fearing looks at how they are forgotten, fading into the background. Yet, stanza two focuses on the promise of the future. Many of these forgotten old men have the potential to do great things. Fearing suggests that they can achieve their dreams and should not be underestimated.
You can read the full poem here.
Form and Structure
Kenneth Fearing splits ‘Old Men’ into two stanzas. Each of these stanzas measures 6 lines. Although the poem has no rhyme scheme, it is still very regulated. The strict adherence to a 6 line stanza reflects the perceived notion of old men in society – still and stubborn. Fearing uses his structure to represent the characters of the poem. The two stanza format also provides a mechanism of exploring appearance versus reality. The first stanza looks at the stereotype of old men, while the second looks at the actuality.
One of the main themes Fearing explores in the poem is the perception of aging. Indeed, Fearing’s ‘Old Men’ are forgotten, fading into the background. Fearing addresses the perception of these men, undermining the common perception of this part of society. They are often seen as useless, something that Fearing rallies against.
Another theme that Fearing explores in the poem is hope. There is an underlying potential for these old men that is left to achieve. One day, Fearing believes that they will be able to read their desires. The ‘defeats’ of life will be reversed, bestowing ‘deep dreams’.
Fearing uses many literary techniques in writing ‘Old Men’. Of these, caesura and enjambment stand out the most. There is the frequent use of caesura within the poem. This could be reflecting the stunted dreams of the old men. Fearing uses the interrupted meter as emblematic of these unachieved dreams – a life stopped short.
Another technique that Fearing uses when writing ‘Old Men’ is enjambement. Enjambement allows for one line to run onto the next without interruption. In the second stanza, once Fearing is discussing hope for the future, enjambment is used much more. This could reject the surge of positivity, the interruptions of caesura reduced, and enjambment allowing the poem to flow. This increased pace of the poem due to the flow allows the poem to feel more positive to read, changing the tone.
Old Men Analysis
They are the raw, monotonous skies,
The faded placards and iron rails
Heard in a long sleep that fails
In strange confusion and numb pain.
The poem begins with a sentence interrupted by both caesura and end stop. Beginning with ‘raw, monotonous skies,’ creates an interrupted flow on this opening line. The stunted rhythm of the poem instantly builds the tone of ‘Old Men’, Fearing pointing to the tragic depiction of the characters. Both caesura and end stop slow down the rhythm of the poem, allowing the slow methodic progression of verse to be symbolized through ‘monotonous’. Moreover, the collection of people under ‘They are’ suggests that all old men are the same. Fearing is pointing to the stereotype of old men, elaborating on this with the slow and fractured meter.
The poet employs pathetic fallacy in the first stanza. The use of ‘streets of rain’ creates a dilapidated and gloomy scene. This is emblematic of the old men themselves, their broken spirit has shown through this torrential downpour. The lack of specificity within ‘street’ also demonstrates the lack of interest the public pays to old men. Even the adjective used on this street, ‘narrow’, demonstrates a constriction. Fearing is suggesting that ‘Old Men’ are perceived as useless and dry by society, the slow rhythm and gloomy scene reflecting this.
The enjambement across the final three lines of this stanza builds up the speed of the poem. The lines flow into one another, building speed until they are derailed by the harsh end stop of ‘pain.’. The placement of ‘pain’ as syntactically final in this stanza emphasizes the word. Fearing is attempting to point out the tragic circumstances that old men live in. All they have is ‘confusion’ and ‘pain’, their lives reduced in importance due to society’s perception of them.
But old men have their deep dreams
They follow on quiet afternoons
Of tonic hope. And orange moons
Shine magically on stark defeats.
This second stanza acts as a Volta for the depiction of the old men. Fearing begins the stanza with ‘But’, signaling the oncoming change. The placement of ‘deep dreams’ is syntactically important, being placed last on the line. The alliteration across ‘deep dreams’ of /d/ creates a solemn and certain tone. The extended /d/ sound is confident, Fearing believing in the potential of the old men. He argues that they have ‘deep dreams’ inside of them, hopes that they have yet to fulfill.
Although their dreams are represented as ‘distant streets’, they are still present. The use of the semantics of distance allows this image to flourish. Although their dreams are ‘distant’, they eventually become closer, ‘come near them’, Fearing presenting that they can eventually achieve their desires. The use of ‘warm’ furthers this image, with the joyous connotations of this heat reflecting the happiness of achieving life goals.
Even the melancholic image of the ‘moon’ is subverted. Fearing writes ‘orange moon’, bathing the image in a certain warm light. This subversion points to the image of old men, Fearing arguing that it does not suit their characterization. Although old men are beaten down due to their age, they ‘Shine magically’, turning those ‘stalk defeats’ into a promise of the future – rising up against all odds.
Hope is a theme that is commonly explored in the literature. Emily Dickinson’s perhaps best-known poem is ‘Hope is The Thing With The Feathers‘. This poem explores hope in a similar context to ‘Old Men’, the promise of the future being a central idea in both poems.
Another poem that explores Hope is ‘The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High‘ by ‘Carol Ann Duffy‘. This poem focuses on the female voice, a contrast with ‘Old Men’. The different age groups and gender explored in both poems provide an interesting contrast. Despite their differences, hope is a central theme of both Stafford and ‘Old Men’.