This is a very chatty poem. The language is simple, it's direct and conversational, and so it sounds like the speaker is just chatting directly to us readers. Let's take a couple of stanzas as an example:
and all I can say to my fellow pedestrians,
to the woman in the white sweater,
the man in the tan raincoat and the heavy glasses,
who mistake themselves for the center of the universe –
all I can say is watch your step
because the five of us, instruments and all,
are about to angle over
to the south side of the street
and then, in our own tightly knit way,
turn the corner at Sixth Avenue. (31-40)
When we read these lines out loud, we'll find that they sound pretty much like the regular conversation we have with one another. There are a couple of "colloquial," or everyday, phrases used here, like "all I can say" and "watch your step." The speaker doesn't use any big or complicated words.
But even though it's very conversational, the sentence runs on. In fact, it runs on from the first stanza into the second. That's called enjambment. It takes a bit of breath to say it all out loud. In this way, even though the language is very conversational, the length of the sentence creates momentum and pulls us along. (Check out "Form and Meter" for more on enjambment.)
As well, he poem does manage to create some pretty neat rhythms despite its free verse form. In the first stanza, for example, we'll find lots of consonance in lines like "ambling along 44th street" (which repeats the "L" sound) and "his music flowing through the soft calipers/ of these earphones" (which repeat the F sound). As well, the line "the pavement sparkling with sunlight" (8) repeats the S sound, and the lines, "my delight at being suffused/ with phrases from his saxophone –/ some like honey, some like vinegar" repeat the S and F sounds (12-14). This sound technique is one important way that the poem creates "musical" echoes, rhythms that are pleasing to the ear.
The alliteration we'll find in these lines also creates similar rhythms. Lines like "the woman in the white sweater," which repeats the W sound, and "the south side of the street," which repeats the S sound (32, 38), give a musical quality to the words. So the poem reminds us that it's focused on music (and the music of language), even as it manages to keep up a pretty chatty, conversational sound.
The title "Man Listening to Disc" tells us a few important things. Thing one: we are back in pre-iPod days. Who listens to "discs" or CDs anymore? Do we even remember what those look like? Okay, so this poem was published in 1999—maybe not the middle ages, but long ago enough that the technology was different from what it is nowadays.
Another thing that the title tells us is that this is a poem about music. We listen to music (or at least we used to listen to music) on discs. So this is a poem about the experience of listening to music.
And finally, thing three: there's a "man" referenced in the title. That's the speaker of the poem, the dude who is having such an awesome time jammin' along to his jazz tunes as he strolls through the city. So the title is telling us that this is a poem about a guy's experience of listening to music, in the pre-iPod days. "Listening" is the big word in the title. This is a poem all about the joys and possibilities of listening to music.
This poem is set in the Big Bad Apple, a.k.a. New York City. The speaker tells us exactly where he is in New York: the poem starts with him telling us that he's walking along 44th Street (which is in midtown Manhattan). He heads over to Sixth Avenue, a famous avenue in New York, before heading downtown.
The poem immerses us in this urban setting. There are "pedestrians" walking around (31), we see the "pavement sparkling with sunlight" (8), and we see the "pigeons fluttering off the curb" (9). The city's important as a location because jazz is very deeply associated with New York. Sure, jazz first got going in New Orleans, way down there in the south, but it eventually moved north. In fact, New York became a hotbed of jazz music during the Harlem Renaissance, which is considered to be the music's greatest period.
So the speaker's emphasis on the New York setting calls our attention to the long relationship that jazz has with the city. He's in a New York state of mind, or in other words: jazzed.
This is one happy speaker. How can he not be? The weather is great, he's strollin' around the coolest city in the world, the wind's whipping through his hair, and he's listening to some awesome jazz. This speaker loves jazz so much, he feels as though the musicians he's listening to are his buddies. They're like his best friends, walking along with him down the street. So even though the speaker is walking around alone, he doesn't feel alone. He feels like he's got a whole gang of jazz musicians walking along with him.
Not only is the speaker happy in this poem, he feels powerful. He describes himself as "the center of the universe," "the only true point of view," and "the hub of the cosmos" (41, 42, 44). Don't we wish we felt like that? Well, the speaker feels this way because the music is making him feel good about himself. It's like when we listen to Beyoncé, and even though we may be regular folks (maybe we wear braces, maybe we're a little bit shy), we'll still feel as hot and sexy and powerful as Beyoncé.
But this is also a funny speaker. Because, even though he speaks about himself in this hyperbolic way, he ends the poem by telling us that his only goal is to get "downtown." Well, if we were the "hub of the universe," our goal would be to take over the Milky Way (and maybe some other galaxies in the universe), not just get downtown. So he blows himself up, only to make fun of himself at the end of the poem. What does the "hub of the universe" want to do? Make it a few blocks further south. That sounds like a blast…
Given that this poem is written in pretty simple, direct language, it's not hard to follow. The only thing that might take some figuring is that there are all of these references to musicians like Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, and Tommy Potter, whom we may not be familiar with—especially if we're not jazz connoisseurs. That said, a bit of Googling (or Shmooping) clarifies pretty quickly whom the speaker is talking about.
The themes of Collins' poetry vary, but we can recognize his style because of how accessible it is. This isn't a poet who's going to make us tear our hair out trying to understand what he means. His language is easy, simple, and direct, as we can see in poems such as "A Sense of Place" and "A History of Weather."
This poem can be characterized as an ode. Why? Well, it's a poem of praise. It's a poem in which the speaker pays homage to the jazz musicians he loves, and to the power of their music. (Can we write an ode to Beyoncé? We love her.)
This is not bad –
ambling along 44th Street
with Sonny Rollins for company,
his music flowing through the soft calipers
of these earphones (1-5)
See how these lines vary in length? The first couple of lines are short, the fourth line is pretty long, with seven words, and the last line is only three words long. There isn't a set number of syllables in each line. What's more, there's no rhyme there. That's another sign that the poem is written in free verse style.
Given that this is a poem about jazz, it's pretty appropriate that it's written in free verse. Jazz, after all, is an improvisational music. Jazz musicians break "conventional" musical rules. Free verse is a type of verse that also breaks "conventional" poetic rules, by doing away with a structured meter. So the poem's form mirrors the music that it's talking about.
We can also see here that the stanzas in this poem aren't self-contained: the thoughts and sentences spill from one stanza to the next, as in:
and to the esteemed Arthur Taylor
who is somehow managing to navigate
this crowd with his cumbersome drums. (19-21)
This technique is called enjambment. So why might Collins have written the poem in this way? One explanation might be that the stanzas are mimicking the way that music is played. Musical instruments interact with one another, after all. The saxophonist doesn't stop playing when the pianist is playing, or when the bass player is playing. In jazz (and in all music), sounds overlap. In Collins' poem, the way that the stanzas overlap and spill into one another can be read as reflection of this.
So, the form of the poem neatly reflects the music that it praises. Still, it's not all open and flowing. The poem reflects order in other ways. It's made up of ten stanzas, and each stanza is five lines long. So even though the writer takes liberties with his free verse style, by varying the length of lines and doing away with rhyme, he still gives "order" to the poem by dividing it into ten parts of equal length. Sure, this is an appreciation of the openness of jazz, but it's also a controlled poem. The form within which this openness is appreciated is also important here.
Walking is central to the imagery of "Man Listening to Disc." The poem is structured around the speaker's stroll through the streets of Manhattan. What's important about the speaker's walk in the poem is that he isn't heading to some major destination. He's just strolling around and taking in the sights. This is a poem about enjoying the present moment and living in the present, and the speaker's walk is a representation of this.
The Big Apple. The Capital of the World. The City that Never Sleeps. There's a reason that New York has so many nicknames: it's so awesome that one nickname just isn't enough. "Man Listening to Disc" is a poem that describes the narrator walking through the famous streets of the city. We get a lot of the sights and sounds of New York: the pigeons, the pedestrians, 44th Street, Sixth Avenue. This is significant, because the music that the speaker is listening to—jazz—is very closely associated with New York. Jazz exploded, after all, during the Harlem Renaissance in New York in the 1920s. So the poem sets up a link between the music and the city itself. New York is not only the Capital of the World, it's the Jazz Capital of the World.
Music is way important to this poem, so it makes sense that musical instruments get a lot of mention here as well. Each of the musicians that figuratively accompanies our speaker on his walk are associated with a particular instrument (as they were in their life and art). As they play it in his ear, they bring that instrument figuratively along with them on the walk.
There isn't anything raunchy in this poem that would necessitate us giving it any rating above a G—just some sweet, sweet tunes.