It is a poem about a man listening to jazz music while he takes a stroll downtown. The speaker of the poem ambles along 44th Street in New York and plugs his earphones in. In his music player, he listens to a rapid little version of “The Way You Look Tonight”. The poet mentions the name of five famous jazz musicians who composed the song. The art of presenting the speaker’s feelings in ‘Man Listening to Disc’ about jazz music seems to be ironic. However, the music playing on that person’s device helps him to avoid the din and bustle of the road while he heads for his destination.
The speaker of the poem is ambling along 44th Street and listens to the composition of jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins on his music player. It is a clear day of March and the sunlight is sparkling on the pavement where a few pigeons are fluttering over bread crumbs. On his device, he listens to the music of some other jazz musicians such as the jazz double bass player Tommy Potter, Arthur Taylor, a drummer, and the pianist Thelonious Monk. Listening to the song, “The Way You Look Tonight”, he heads for downtown and feels to be the center of the universe.
This poem consists of a total of 10 stanzas. Each stanza has 5 lines. There is not any specific rhyme scheme in this poem. For this reason, it is a free verse poem. However, the internal rhythm maintains the flow of this poem. Apart from that, the poet writes the poem from the first-person point-of-view. Hence it is an example of a modern lyric poem. Moreover, the poem does not contain a set syllable-count or specific line lengths. So, while metrically analyzing this poem, one cannot find a set metrical pattern. However, the overall poem is composed of the iambic meter with a few trochees and spondee variations.
‘Man Listening to Disc’ begins with a litote as the speaker of the poem says, “This is not bad.” It is also an ironic reference. Thereafter, the poem contains an allusion to a jazz song. The poet also alludes to several jazz musicians. Apart from that, Collins uses enjambment to internally connect the lines and the stanzas of the poem. Moreover, the phrase, “the soft calipers of these earphones” contains a metaphor. The line, “some like honey, some like vinegar”, contains simile. The next line, “is surpassed only by my gratitude” contains irony. Moreover, the poet uses a paradox in the line, “This music is so loud yet so confidential.” There is another metaphor in “battery-powered crew.” The poet also uses alliteration in this poem.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
This is not bad —
of these earphones,
The poem begins ironically with a negation that brings out an apparent positive reaction to modern jazz music. It seems the speaker of the poem feels as if the music is not bad. However, it is also true that his opinion depends on the situation. And here the situation suggests to readers that the speaker of the poem may not feel in the same manner as he feels while listening to the piece of Sonny Rollins by plugging in his earphones. At the beginning of the poem, Collins says that the poetic persona of his poem is ambling along 44th Street. So, the speaker might have plugged his earphones for detaching himself from the cacophony of the street.
Here the poet uses a metaphor in the line, “his music flowing through the soft calipers.” In this line, “soft calipers” is the metaphor for the wires of his earphones. These are soft as it is not like the stiff calipers of a compass.
as if he were right beside me
nodding over a profusion of bread crumbs.
In the second stanza of ‘Man Listening to Disc’, the poet provides an image of the street on which the speaker is walking on. The music played on his music player makes it feel as if the saxophonist, Sonny Rollins were beside the speaker. However, it is a clear day of March and the pavement by the street is sparkling with sunlight. Some pigeons are fluttering off the curb of the pavement and nodding over a profusion of bread crumbs. Here, the poet gives an ironic description at the end of the second stanza. The pigeons are not feeding on the crumbs. They are just looking at those bread crumbs and nodding their heads. Such an abundance of food might be annoying for them.
Moreover, a reader can link this image with the nature of modern music. Like the “profusion of bread crumbs”, modern rock music has an abundance of sounds. And at some point, such kind of music makes one annoyed like the pigeons which are only nodding their heads over the foods spread on the pavement.
In fact, I would say
is surpassed only by my gratitude
However, the speaker of the poem says that he is delighted at being suffused with the phrases of Rollins’s saxophone. Then again the poet uses irony in the fourth line of this stanza. He says some phrases from the musical composition seem like honey. Whereas some phrases are as sour as vinegar. Here, the poet fuses the gustatory sensation with auditory reception. One can get another sarcastic point from this line. According to the poet, modern music is more like an item to be tasted, rather than be heard.
In the last line of this stanza, the poet makes his point-of-view clear to the readers. The music playing on his device is delightful only because he has allowed it to be like that. Otherwise, there is nothing for which he can appreciate that music. The poet cannot say it directly but he somehow delivers his message clearly to the readers.
to Tommy Potter for taking the time
who is somehow managing to navigate
Thereafter in the fourth stanza of the poem, the poet alludes to the jazz double bass player, Tommy Potter. He expresses his gratitude to him for taking the time to join him on that breezy afternoon. Here, the poet talks about the music of Potter. One can understand that his part has come in the song playing on his music player. However, the poet thanks Potter for taking part in his imaginary musical concert with his “most unwieldy bass.” In this phrase, the poet uses hyperbole to bring out an ironic effect.
Lastly, the poet mentions the name of the famous drummer, Arthur Taylor who is somehow managing to navigate the crowd with his cumbersome drums. The last line of this stanza is connected with the following stanza by the use of enjambment.
this crowd with his cumbersome drums.
so he could be with us today.
The fifth stanza of ‘Man Listening to Disc’ talks about Taylor who is struggling while the speaker walks through the crowded road. Collins imagines as if the whole band of musicians is walking with the man who listens to the disc. Whatsoever, the poet also uses sarcasm in this line.
Thereafter, the poet shouts out to Thelonious Monk (a famous jazz pianist) for figuring out a way to motorize his huge piano so he could be with him on that day. Here, the poet uses a parenthetical clause in this line, “to motorize–or whatever–his huge piano.” The phrase, “or whatever” contains irony. Somehow, the diction of Collins seems as if the voice inside the poem is egotistical and conceited. The persona feels himself to be the center of attraction inside the band of musicians. As he has control of his music player, he has the ultimate ruling over their musical composition.
This music is loud yet so confidential.
little version of “The Way You Look Tonight,”
According to the speaker of this poem, that music is loud yet it is so confidential. Only he can listen to this piece, no other person can. Hence it is loud yet none can hear the music. The wearer of the earphones is the sole listener of their concert. For this reason, the speaker cannot help feeling even more like “the center of the universe.” It seems the musicians toil to create the best they can for pleasing the persona. Thereafter the poet mentions the name of the song which is playing on his device. It is a rapid little version of “The Way You Look Tonight.”
and all I can say to my fellow pedestrians,
all I can say is watch your step,
Moreover, while listening to music, the poetic persona becomes an important person amid the crowd. The woman in the white sweater, and the man in the tan raincoat and the heavy glasses, who mistake themselves for the center of the universe, all the speaker can say is “watch your step.” As he is coming with his band of musicians. In this context, he is the “center of the universe” and none can share his stature. He makes it sure by reiterating the fact. Apart from that, this section is humorous enough. Here, the poet satirizes the essence of individualism.
because the five of us, instruments and all,
turn the corner at Sixth Avenue.
In the eighth stanza of ‘Man Listening to Disc’, the speaker talks about the reason why the pedestrians should watch their steps. The reason for that is the five of them, the four musicians, and the speaker, along with their instruments, are about to angle over to the south side of the street. Then they will turn the corner at Sixth Avenue in their “tightly knit way.” Otherwise, they might stumble on the pedestrians. One can understand that the speaker is too much into that song that he tells others to watch their steps. In reality, he must watch his steps. If the poet said so, the irony of the poem will seem blunt to modern readers.
And if any of you are curious
that the real center of the universe,
In this section, the poet asks the readers if they are curious about where the aggregation is headed. Here, the poet uses a metaphor in “this whole battery-powered crew.” The speaker is listening to a music player. Hence, in his imagination, the musical crew seems to be “battery-powered”. In the last line of this stanza, the poet compares the speaker along with the musicians to the “real center of the universe.” Here, the poet introduces the theme of individualism. Moreover, Collins throws light on the thinking pattern of modern people. How modern instruments encapsulate a person in the cozy shell of comfort, is the crux of this section.
the only true point of view,
will eventually make it all the way downtown.
In the last stanza of the poem, the poet uses repetition in the very first line. Here, he repeats the sense of the previous stanza and says that the speaker and his music player are the “true point of view.” He again uses the phrase, “the hub of cosmos” to emphasize that sense. Apart from that, in this section, the poet describes the speaker of the poem from an omniscient point-of-view. The speaker is full of hope, with his hair blown sideways, that he “will eventually make it all the way downtown.” Here, the poet reminds the readers that the speaker is not alone in his journey. The musicians are also walking with him and accompanying him with their musical composition. For this reason, the poet says that the speaker is hopeful that he will somehow reach his destination without any problem.
Historical Context of Man Listening to Disc
‘Man Listening to Disc’, written by one of the best 20th century American poets, Billy Collins, is a postmodern poem that talks about a person who is listening to jazz music while going to his destination. The poem was published in The Atlantic Monthly, in September 1999. In this poem, the portrayal of that person along with the description of the musicians is ironic in sense. Here, the poet criticizes the mindset of an egocentric person. Being a poem of contemporary times, in the text, a modern reader can find the reaction of the poet to the peculiarities of modern people. Moreover, the mindset behind “I’m the center of the universe,” gets criticized in this poem.
Here is a list of a few poems that are similar to the themes present in Collins’s ‘Man Listening to Disc’. One can refer to the following works for further reference.
- The Myth of Music by Rachel M. Harper – In this one of the best poems about music, the poet describes the mythical power of music that conveys the generational, personal, and familial relationships of a person.
- Blues for Almost Forgotten Music by Roxanne Beth Johnson – In this poem, Johnson talks about music as a metaphor for looking back over parts of a relationship. Here, the poet touches on the harmony and greatness of music.
- Musician by Gillian Clarke – Here, in this poem, Gillian Clarke uses the imagery of the home and outside of the home to describe the creativity in music.
- All Day I Hear The Noise Of Waters by James Joyce – This poem focuses on aquatic images to portray sadness and grief. The shorter lines of the poem build an echo that creates a song-like rhythm.
You can read about 10 of the Most Important Poets of the 21st Century and the best Billy Collins Poems here.