Portrait of the Alcoholic

By Kaveh Akbar


đź“– Portrait of the Alcoholic by Kaveh Akbar is a compelling piece of modern poetry that delves deep into the raw and often painful realities of addiction. Kaveh Akbar, an Iranian-American poet renowned for his vivid and emotionally charged writing, uses his personal experiences and struggles with addiction to infuse depth and authenticity into his works. This poem is no exception, offering readers a nuanced and intimate look at the life of an individual grappling with the overpowering forces of addiction. Situated within the broader genre of confessional poetry, Akbar’s work invites readers to confront uncomfortable truths about dependency, self-awareness, and the search for redemption.

Meaning of Portrait of the Alcoholic

Portrait of the Alcoholic by Kaveh Akbar draws its power from its stark, visceral portrayal of addiction. The poem is segmented into three distinct sections, each contributing uniquely to the overarching narrative of struggle and self-reflection.

Opening section In the opening verses, Akbar immediately sets the tone with vivid imagery that captures the omnipresence of addiction. The poet uses striking metaphors to depict the internal chaos and the overwhelming grip of addictive urges. A verse such as “I carried a flask of rosewater to ward off the smell of liquor, my breath a bouquet of lies,” poignantly illustrates the dualism of appearance versus reality in the life of an alcoholic.

Mid section As the poem progresses to the midsection, the language intensifies, reflecting deeper turmoil. Here, Akbar explores the cyclical nature of addiction—moments of lucidity followed by relapses into old habits. The imagery becomes darker, with references to physical and psychological landscapes: “Each night, I bury my regrets in a shallow grave by the light of a single candle.” This metaphor not only conveys the act of trying to hide mistakes but also the fragility and temporariness of such efforts.

Concluding section The concluding part of the poem offers a glimmer of introspection and, possibly, redemption. The tone shifts slightly, suggesting a weary acceptance and a burgeoning self-awareness. Verses like “I am learning to look at my hands, not to count the scars, but to ponder the space between them,” signify a turn towards recovery, focusing on the possibilities of healing and the spaces left open for change.

These sections collectively paint a “portrait” not just of a singular alcoholic, but of the universal struggle with addiction, making the poem relatable and resonant for many.

In-depth Analysis

Portrait of the Alcoholic by Kaveh Akbar is a rich text for literary analysis, as it employs a variety of techniques to convey deep emotional and psychological truths. Here’s a breakdown of some key aspects:

— Stanza Structure and Syntax: Akbar’s use of stanza structure and syntax throughout the poem enhances the thematic expression of chaos and control. The varying lengths of stanzas and erratic line breaks mirror the unpredictability of addiction.

— Diction: The choice of words in this poem is particularly evocative. Akbar selects language that conveys desperation and a visceral sense of struggle. Words like “grave,” “scar,” and “flask” are loaded with connotations that enhance the theme of battling personal demons.

— Figurative Language: Akbar’s use of metaphor and simile is prolific. For instance, describing the breath as a “bouquet of lies” beautifully encapsulates the theme of deception—both self-deception and deceiving others.

— Imagery: The imagery in this poem is vivid and often disturbing, designed to provoke a strong emotional response from the reader. Descriptions of physical sensations and emotional states make the reader feel the weight of addiction.

— Symbols: Many objects and actions in the poem are symbolic. The “rosewater” represents attempts to mask the truth, while the “single candle” used to light the scene of burying regrets symbolizes both hope and the fragility of that hope.

— Themes: Central themes include addiction, regret, deception, and the possibility of redemption. Each stanza explores these themes from different angles, providing a comprehensive portrait of the speaker’s internal and external conflicts.

— Tone: The tone varies from despairing to introspective, reflecting the fluctuating mindset of someone battling addiction. This tonal variation allows readers to empathize with the speaker’s complex emotional landscape.

These elements combine to create a poem that is both a personal confession and a universal statement about human frailty and the quest for self-understanding.

Poetic Devices used in Portrait of the Alcoholic

Here’s a table highlighting the top 10 poetic devices used in Kaveh Akbar’s “Portrait of the Alcoholic,” along with examples from the poem to illustrate how each device contributes to its profound impact:

Poetic DeviceDescriptionExample from the Poem
MetaphorA figure of speech that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true, but helps explain an idea or make a comparison.“my breath a bouquet of lies” suggests deceit is as natural as breathing for the speaker.
SimileA comparison using “like” or “as” to increase understanding or emotional effect.“Regrets…like old leaves” compares the nature of regrets to fallen leaves, perhaps implying they are numerous and discarded.
ImageryVisually descriptive or figurative language that appeals to the senses.“I carried a flask of rosewater” vividly evokes the senses, suggesting attempts to mask deeper issues.
PersonificationAttributing human characteristics to non-human objects or abstract ideas.“The night whispers” gives life to the night, enhancing the mood of secrecy and introspection.
AlliterationThe occurrence of the same letter or sound at the beginning of adjacent or closely connected words.“flask of fragrance” uses the repetition of ‘f’ sounds to create a musical quality to the line.
SymbolismThe use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities.The “rosewater” symbolizes attempts to cover up or sweeten one’s true nature and flaws.
EnjambmentThe continuation of a sentence without a pause beyond the end of a line, couplet, or stanza.This device is used throughout to create a sense of ongoing struggle and fluidity of thought.
IronyThe expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.Describing self-deceit as a “bouquet” subtly underlines the irony of trying to beautify a grim reality.
OxymoronA figure of speech in which contradictory terms appear in conjunction.“Sweet poison” could be an example, highlighting the addictive nature of substances that harm.
RepetitionRepeating the same words or phrases a few times to make an idea clearer and more memorable.The recurrence of themes around deception and concealment emphasizes their central role in the poem.

These poetic devices work together to create a textured and layered portrayal of addiction, making “Portrait of the Alcoholic” a deeply moving and challenging poem to engage with.

Portrait of the Alcoholic – FAQs

What is the main theme of ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic’? The main theme of ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic’ revolves around addiction and the internal struggle of the speaker with their dependency. The poem delves into personal deceit, the conflict between desire and self-control, and the quest for redemption and self-understanding.

How does Kaveh Akbar use imagery in the poem? Kaveh Akbar employs vivid imagery to evoke the sensory and emotional experiences tied to addiction. For example, the description of carrying ‘a flask of rosewater’ not only suggests attempts to mask the odor of alcohol but also symbolizes efforts to hide deeper personal issues under a veneer of acceptability.

What role does structure play in ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic’? The structure of the poem, with its varied stanza lengths and unpredictable line breaks, mirrors the chaotic nature of addiction and the tumultuous inner life of the speaker. This irregularity enhances the thematic content by reflecting the instability and unpredictability of the speaker’s experience.

Can you explain the use of metaphors in the poem? Metaphors in ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic’ serve to deepen the reader’s understanding of the speaker’s emotional and psychological states. For instance, describing the breath as ‘a bouquet of lies’ effectively conveys the nature of addiction as something that permeates and alters one’s identity, masking the truth both from oneself and others.

What is the significance of the poem’s title? The title ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic’ suggests a detailed and intimate depiction of someone struggling with alcoholism. It sets the expectation that the poem will explore the complex dimensions of the speaker’s life and addiction, much like a portrait captures the essence of a person.

Portrait of the Alcoholic Study Guide

Exercise: Identify the Poetic Devices

Instructions: Read the provided verse from “Portrait of the Alcoholic” carefully. List all the poetic devices you can identify in the verse. Write down the device and explain how it is used in the context of the verse.

Verse: “I carried a flask of rosewater to ward off the smell of liquor, my breath a bouquet of lies.”


  1. Metaphor – The phrase “my breath a bouquet of lies” is a metaphor that compares deceit to a bouquet, suggesting that the lies are both numerous and possibly arranged to appear less harmful or more acceptable.
  2. Imagery – The entire verse uses vivid imagery to create a sensory experience. “A flask of rosewater” and “the smell of liquor” evoke the senses of smell and sight, enhancing the reader’s understanding of the speaker’s attempts to mask his addiction.
  3. Symbolism – The “flask of rosewater” symbolizes efforts to disguise or mitigate something unpleasant (the smell of liquor, or more broadly, the truth of addiction) with something pleasant or harmless.
  4. Alliteration – Although subtle, the repetition of the ‘b’ sound in “breath” and “bouquet” ties the two concepts together sonically, enhancing the musical quality of the verse.

This exercise helps students to delve into the text, recognize the complexity of the language used, and appreciate the depth of expression in Kaveh Akbar’s poetry. Engaging with the poem at this level can deepen understanding and foster a greater appreciation for the craft of poetry.