Study Guide

Man Listening to Disc Sound Check

By Billy Collins

Sound Check

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.

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