‘The Man with the Saxophone‘ uses many clear and powerful images in order to speak on themes like solitude and the power of music. The latter is described through the moments of elevated peace and happiness the speaker experiences while hearing a man playing saxophone on a lonely New York street.
Explore The Man with the Saxophone
‘The Man with the Saxophone’ by Ai is a powerful poem about solitude and the importance of music.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker describes walking down Fifth Avenue in New York City and experiencing feelings of solitude and injection. The city is quiet and empty. The speaker walks in the streets, thinking about how they would like their life to be different before meeting a man with a saxophone and feeling a moment of connection in the midst of their continual loneliness.
Structure and Form
‘The Man with the Saxophone’ by Ai is a fifty-one-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Despite this, the poet’s use of literary devices, like repetition, creates a rhythmic flow to the poem that is only enhanced when the speaker meets the man with the saxophone.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something nonhuman with human characteristics. This literary device can be seen in line twenty when the poet refers to “solitude” as their companion.
- Allusion: can be seen with the poet refers to something that is outside the scope of the information provided within the text. In the first few lines, the poet alludes to the practices of Buddhist meditation and how, if one only doesn’t “try” they can empty their mind of thoughts. But, this occurs for the speaker as they walk down Fifth Avenue.
- Repetition: can you see them in the pot repeat elements of the poem. This could be an image, word, phrase, a formal element, or an entire line or stanza. For example, in line twenty-three the poet uses the word “don’t” twice.
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines thirty-five and thirty-six Another example can be seen between lines forty-one and forty-two.
New York. Five A.M.
that bearded the face of the city.
In the first lines of ‘The Man with the Saxophone,’ the speaker begins by providing readers with a few details about the setting. It’s early in the morning, and the sidewalks are empty. By describing, in the fourth line, how only the “manhole cover seems alive,” the speaker is suggesting that nowhere else does the city feel lively.
They are presenting readers with an image of New York that they have likely not seen before, one of the city empty, quiet, and asleep. Rather than the fast-paced, chaotic, and energetic scene, one might be expecting, readers are given empty streets, last week’s snow, and the speaker ambling slowly down the road.
The poet uses a simile in the eighth and ninth lines, describing last week’s snow as brittle and unrecognizable as “the soft, white hair / that bearded the face of the city.” Here, readers are provided with an example of more lyrical-sounding language that contrasts against the simple opening lines of the poem. It’s clear that although the city scene is fairly simple that it is not without meaning to the speaker. They are paying close attention to their surroundings.
I head farther down Fifth Avenue
and solitude is my companion.
The speaker provides readers with exact details about where they are. They are walking down Fifth Avenue, towards the thirties (or towards a specific collection of addresses). Again, readers are presented with a quiet and contemplative version of New York that is meant to capture one’s attention. Through the poet’s use of imagery, readers are capable of imagining how quiet the scene might be, with the sidewalks empty and everyone else still in bed. The speaker is walking alone, with their mind empty, contemplating existence.
In an interesting allusion, the speaker suggests that by emptying their mind, they’ve accomplished what Buddhists “tell you is possible” but only if you “don’t try.” Here, the poet is alluding to Buddhist meditation practices and how, without trying, one should be able to empty their mind of all thoughts and simply exist at the moment. This is exactly what the speaker feels as though they are doing.
But, the following lines suggest that while they may feel their mind is empty, they are actually engaged in a series of contemplations about the nature of their life.
Starting in line fifteen, the speaker suggests that ideally, they would like to be able to turn themselves into a bird, like a shaman. Here, the poet is suggesting that they would like to have similar powers to a “shaman” or a person with access to good and evil spirits, someone who can enter into a trance state (as the speaker suggested they were in), and someone who can do magic and practice healing. This is how life was “meant to be.” Speaker seems to feel that they were, and someway, meant for something more. They should be able to transcend the mundane boundaries of their life (seen through the previous images of the empty New York street) and experience something more. But, unfortunately, they are “earthbound.”
In line twenty, the poet uses a very simple example of personification. Here, the speaker says that “solitude is my companion.” This is not an uncommon feeling in historic or contemporary poetry. Often, speakers and poets contemplate their own isolation, alienation, and loneliness. Here, the speaker suggests that the only person, or feeling, they have to walk the earth with is their own solitude.
the only one you can count on.
his face also,
In addition to solitude being the speaker’s only companion, they note in the next line that solitude is the only one they can count on. No one else in their life, nor any other circumstances they may encounter, is as dependable as their own solitude. While this feels like something positive and something trustworthy, it is alluding to something far sadder and darker. No matter what the speaker does, where they go, or who they meet, solitude is always their one true companion. They cannot get away from it.
In line twenty-three, the poet uses repetition in order to create a conversational-sounding line in which the speaker repeats the word “Don’t,” emphasizing its importance in this line and ensuring that readers feel their determination in regard to their own reality. They know their life and their relationship with their own loneliness. No one should try to tell them that they “aren’t alone” or that there are people who “care about them.” These classic turns of phrase are unlikely to move the speaker away from their opinion about their reality.
They provide some reasoning for this dark and determined outlook in the following lines. The speaker has been through a lot, they imply, having “had it all and lost it.” They’ve had the highs of happiness, passion, and likely companionship and have since lost it. The pain resulting from losing the unnamed happiness of the past has inspired the speaker to avoid seeking that same happiness again.
In the following lines, the speaker says the only thing they want is “this morning to keep.” They’re taking pleasure and finding some measure of peace in the quiet New York morning and from, as the twenty-eighth line says, the “man with the saxophone.”
This is the first piece of evidence that there is anyone awake in the entire city besides the speaker themselves. On the corner of two streets is a man with a saxophone who is wearing fingerless gloves covered in grime. It’s clear from just the single line of description that the man is either homeless or suffering from the extremes of poverty. He is playing the saxophone on the corner, likely, with the hope of making some money to support himself.
the layers of clothes welded to his skin.
I suck the air up from my diaphragm
The speaker also describes how the man was wearing layers of clothes, “welded to his skin.” Despite his disheveled appearance, the next lines focus on the pleasure the speaker takes from hearing the man play and the clear happiness his own playing brings him. They do not speak to one another, but as the man steps backward, the speaker knows that they are “welcome” to stand and listen for a few minutes. Before the man starts to play, the speaker describes the “silence so complete” that radiated through the surrounding streets. For a moment, it feels as though these two are the only people in the entire city.
In fact, the speaker says that they feel as though they must be “somewhere else, not here.” The silence and peace of this one moment are entirely at odds with the speaker’s and likely the reader’s own idea of what New York City is like. This makes the silence all the more meaningful. In line thirty-nine, the man puts the saxophone to his lips, beginning a series of notes that elevates the speaker out of their everyday life.
and bend over into the cold, golden reed,
into the unforgiving new day.
In the final lines of ‘The Man with the Saxophone,’ it appears that the speaker describes “bend[ing] over into the cold, golden reed.” Here, the poem seems to take a turn, suggesting that the speaker has their own instrument that they play alongside the “man with the saxophone.” Together, they create “notes” that make the speaker feel like the “unencumbered bird of my imagination.” The speaker is granted the peace and beauty of metaphorical flight in the final lines. They rise away from the city but will eventually fall back “toward the concrete.”
The poem ends with a lyrical description of the notes as a “black flower” that opens its petals into the “unforgiving new day.” Here, the poet juxtaposes images of beauty and hope, like a flower and a new day, with images of darkness and for boating, for example, the color black, the image of concrete, and the word “unforgiving.”
The new day, despite the positives it might bring, is described as “unforgiving.” This suggests that the speaker does not expect anything but the cruelty of a cold, harsh reality they cannot escape from.
The main themes of this poem are solitude and the power of music. The latter is the only thing that allows the speaker to feel as though they are breaking their earthly bounds and flying like the bird of their imagination above New York City. Throughout the rest of the days, they are plagued by their constant companion— solitude.
Ai wrote this poem in order to share a message about the importance of companionship, mutual understanding, and connection. At the same time, the speakers meeting with the man with the saxophone on the streets of New York should inspire readers to consider the importance of music and art more broadly as a way of connecting.
The meaning is that no matter one’s feelings of sadness, solitude, and loneliness, music is capable of elevating one spirit, at least temporarily.
The speaker is unknown. But, because the poet used the first person narrative perspective, readers do learn a bit about how this person feels and where they are. It’s likely they live in New York, experience feelings of loneliness in solitude on a regular basis, and have a passion for music. But, their exact identity is unknown.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Ai poems. For example:
- ‘The Kid’ – presents a haunting tale of a fourteen-year-old boy who kills his mother, sister, and grandfather, and then runs away.
- ‘Cuba, 1962’ – was written in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Other related poems include:
- ‘My Mother’s Music’ by Emilie Buchwald – describes the speaker’s relationship to her mother and the music they shared.