Man Listening to Disc Summary
This is a poem about stroll through the streets of Manhattan on a beautiful, breezy March day. The poem starts with the speaker telling us that he's "ambling along 44th Street" in New York. (That's midtown, Manhattan, in case you haven't been lately.) And he's got his earphones on. He's listening to Sonny Rollins, a jazz saxophonist. What could be better than strolling around New York on a spring day with jazz tunes pumping in our ears?
According to this speaker, nothing is better. The rest of the poem is about just how awesome he feels walking around the city while listening to jazz—to the great tunes not only of Rollins, but of Tommy Potter, Arthur Taylor, and Thelonious Monk (if you don't know who these people are, you can just check out the "Shout Outs" section below to find out more about them). The speaker describes how close the music makes him feel to these guys. In fact, he feels so close to these musicians, it's as if they're walking right there next to him on the pavement, with their instruments and all.
Listening to these jazz musicians do their thing, the speaker feels like he's the "center of the universe" and the "hub of the cosmos" as he strolls around. The music kind of makes him feel like a superhero. And what does he hope to accomplish with his newly-acquired superhero identity? He's hoping to make it all the way downtown. So the poem ends on funny note: the speaker makes these grand claims about how the music makes him feel like the coolest, most awesome, most important person on the planet, and yet, his ambitions are pretty simple. All he's planning to do, as the coolest, most awesome, most important person on the planet is, well, to travel downtown—Superman, he is not.
This is not bad –
ambling along 44th Street
with Sonny Rollins for company,
- This poem starts off with a pretty laid back, chilled first line: "This is not bad." This first line hooks us in, because we immediately want to find out more. It raises questions such as: Who is speaking? Who thinks that "This is not bad?" What's "not bad?"
- The next couple of lines clue us into the fact that someone (quite possibly our speaker) is "ambling," or walking, along 44th Street.
- A-ha—we have our first clue about the poem's location. This speaker is walking right through the heart of the Big Apple, along 44th Street in New York, which is midtown Manhattan. (Check out "Setting" for more.)
- "Ambling" is an important word because it suggests that the speaker is walking in a relaxed way. He's not stressed. He's chilled.
- He also has "Sonny Rollins for company." Who's Sonny Rollins? If you were into jazz, you'd know that Rollins is a famous jazz saxophonist.
- This third line raises a question, then. Is the speaker actually walking along with Sonny Rollins? Even though the speaker makes it sound like he might be, we can guess from the title of the poem, "Man Listening to Disc," that he isn't. More likely, he's listening to Sonny Rollins on his headphones. Let's keep reading to see if that's the case.
- Before we do, though, notice that the length of these lines varies: the first line is short, the next line is longer, the one after is even longer. Plus, there's no rhyme. This means that the poem is written in a form called free verse. Check out "Form and Meter" for more details.
- Even though these lines are in free verse, we can pick up on some patterns. There's consonance in the second line, with the sounds "l" and "g" each repeated twice. See "Sound Check" for more details.
His music flowing through the soft calipers
of these earphones,
- Yup—these lines make it clear that this speaker is jammin' to some jazz (played by Rollins, of course) as he walks on down the street.
- What the heck are "calipers"? They're a tool that measures the distance between two sides of an object (check one out here). Each headphone is on either side of the speaker's head, so the headphones sort of act like their measuring the distance between his ears.
- We can find a lot of consonance of the F sound in these two lines, in the words "flowing," "soft" and "earphones" (see "Sound Check" for more). Considering that the speaker is talking about the music "flowing" through to him, the repetition of the F sound here really gives us a sense of that flow.
as if he were right beside me
on this clear day in March,
- The sentence at the end of the last stanza carries over into this new stanza. That poetic technique (ending a line of poetry mid-sentence and picking up on a new line) is called enjambment.
- Our speaker is still talking about Sonny Rollins here. Remember that he starts off the poem saying that he's "ambling along 44th Street/ with Sonny Rollins for company."
- When we read those lines, we weren't immediately sure if the speaker is actually walking along with Sonny Rollins beside him. Line 6 makes it clear, though, that Rollins isn't walking next to the speaker, but that the speaker feels that Rollins is right beside him because he's listening to his music. (Who doesn't feel like Kurt Cobain is right there screaming in their ear when they listen to "Smells Like Teen Spirit"? We do, for sure.)
- We also get more of a sense of setting in these lines: it's March, it's the spring, and it's a beautiful clear day. Ahh—how can this speaker not be enjoying himself?
the pavement sparkling with sunlight,
pigeons fluttering off the curb,
nodding over a profusion of bread crumbs.
- These lines are all about setting. The pavement that the speaker is walking along is all shiny and pretty with sunlight and there are pigeons fluttering about and eating.
- The description of the setting here is evocative, because it gives us a sense of the speaker's mood. He's listening to some cool jazz, he's happy, and the sunlight and the fluttering pigeons reflect his happiness. There's lots of light and movement all around him. And this reflects his high spirits. (See "Setting" for more on this kind of stuff.)
- We can see, again, quite a bit of sound play going on in these lines. In line 8, the words, "sparkling with sunlight" offer alliteration with those S sounds consonance with the L sounds.
- In lines 9-10, we also find a lot of repetition of the F sound in words like "fluttering," "off," and "profusion." By using consonance in this way, the poem creates a rhythm even though it doesn't stick to a regular form or meter. (See "Sound Check" for more details.)
In fact, I would say
my delight at being suffused
with phrases from his saxophone –
some like honey, some like vinegar –
is surpassed only by my gratitude
- The speaker makes us understand here that his "delight," or happiness, is a direct consequence of the jazz tunes he's listening to.
- By saying that that Sonny Rollins' saxophone is "suffusing" him with "phrases" (having the sounds spread through him), the speaker suggests that Rollins is "speaking" to him through his music. Music is a kind of language, too. It's as powerful as the language made up from words that we use to communicate with one another.
- The word "suffused" is also interesting here, because by saying that he's "suffused" by phrases from Rollins' saxophone, the speaker is telling us that he's totally encompassed by the music. The music is spreading through his whole body; it's taking him over.
- We can also see some similes in action in these lines. The speaker compares Rollins' musical "phrases" to honey and vinegar. Some of the music is sweet and soft "like honey," some of it is harsh and bitter like "vinegar." This gives us a sense of how varied the music is.
- The final line of the stanza tells us that, as much the speaker loves Rollins' music, that love is only surpassed by his "gratitude" (thankfulness). Our speaker is truly enjoying this experience.
to Tommy Potter for taking the time
to join us on this breezy afternoon
with his most unwieldy bass
- Here the speaker refers to another jazz great, Tommy Potter, a bass player who used to play in the band of the famous jazz musician Charlie Parker. The speaker speaks about Tommy Potter figuratively, as if he's stepping alongside the speaker and Rollins on the pavement.
- In other words, the speaker doesn't say, "I'm listening to Tommy Potter play the bass now." He says that Potter is "taking the time/ to join us on this breezy afternoon," which makes it sound as if Potter is literally joining or walking along with the speaker and Rollins.
- The way that the speaker describes listening to the music here is important because it evokes a sense of community. The speaker isn't alone. He's keeping company with these jazz greats, and they're keeping him company. They're one big happy family.
and to the esteemed Arthur Taylor
who is somehow managing to navigate
- And here's another musician who is joining the speaker's jazz parade. Arthur Taylor is a famous drummer who helped define the sound of jazz in the 1950s and 1960s, and now the speaker is listening to him too.
- The stanza cuts off in the middle of a sentence here. The speaker is telling us that Arthur Taylor is "somehow managing to navigate" something, but we don't find out what that is until the next stanza. So let's hop on over there.
this crowd with his cumbersome drums.
- In this enjambed line, the speaker explains that Taylor is navigating the crowd with his "cumbersome drums."
- What crowd is the speaker talking about? It's the street crowd, of course. The speaker's walking through midtown Manhattan—that's a crowded place, what with all those skyscrapers and guys in business suits and women in high heels.
- By saying that Taylor is navigating the crowd with his drums, the speaker conjures up for us an image of the drummer actually walking through the street beside him with his big drums. So the speaker continues to describe these musicians as people who are keeping him company on his walk down the street. It's as if they're all strolling along together—with their instruments and all. The music of these musicians is so powerful that it's as if they're right there physically with the speaker.
- We get alliteration again in these lines. "Crowd" and "cumbersome" both repeat the letter C sound. The repeated use of alliteration in the poem is the primary way that the speaker creates rhythms and "music" of his own in "Man Listening to Disc." (See "Sound Check" for more.)
And I bow deeply to Thelonious Monk
for figuring out a way
to motorize – or whatever – his huge piano
so he could be with us today.
- Thelonious Monk is coming along for the jazz parade, too. We can figure out from the speaker's words that he's a pianist, since there's a reference to his "piano" in line 24.
- The speaker bows "deeply" to Monk because Monk has figured out a way to "motorize – or whatever – his huge piano/ so he could be with us today." Of course, Monk isn't actually wheeling his piano along the street next to the speaker.
- But, by giving us an image of Monk "motorizing" his piano, the speaker again gives us a strong sense of the connection that he feels to these musicians, and how their music makes him feel as if they're present with him.
- Notice how colloquial (slang-like) the language gets in these lines. When the speaker says "or whatever," we're getting diction that is very much a part of everyday speech. We all say "whatever" when we speak to our friends and family, don't we? "Call me later, or whatever." So the language of this poem is very much the language of everyday speech. It's simple and informal.
This music is loud yet confidential.
I cannot help feeling even more
like the center of the universe
than usual as I walk along to a rapid
little version of "The Way You Look Tonight,"
- The speaker gives us an overall sense of what this music sounds like here: it's "loud yet confidential." It's noisy and brash, but it's also intimate and secretive. It's a music that is full of contradiction—in a good way.
- In this stanza the speaker also tells us what the music does to him: it makes him feel "even more/ like the center of the universe/ than usual." Of course, we all think we're the center of the universe. We see the world from our perspective and we want things to go our way.
- But the music makes the speaker feel "even more" like the center of the universe. It makes him feel as if he's God, because if there is a center of the universe, "God" is as good a name for it as any.
- The speaker's listening to a song, "The Way You Look Tonight," which was originally performed by Fred Astaire. It's a popular jazz standard.
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
- The speaker's looking about him at passersby as he's walking and listening to his music. He's noticing a woman in a white sweater and a dude in a raincoat wearing glasses.
- What does the speaker want to say to these "fellow pedestrians"? We don't know… yet.
- We do know, though, that we get some alliteration in line 28, with a repetition of the W sound in the phrase "the woman in the white sweater." Clearly this is one of the speaker's favorite poetic devices. As in other moments in the poem, he's using it here to create rhythm through repetition. Go see "Sound Check" for more on this technique in the poem.
who mistake themselves for the center of the universe –
all I can say is watch your step,
- The speaker's feeling cocky. He's saying that his "fellow pedestrians" (31), like the woman in the white sweater and the dude in the rain coat, aren't really the "center of the universe." He is. The music's got him feeling so high, he's sure that he's the center of the universe.
- The speaker tells them (in his head, of course): "watch your step." Why do they have to watch their step, though? Maybe we'll find out in the next stanza…
because the five of us, instruments and all,
are about to angle over
to the south side of the street
- The speaker's telling his fellow pedestrians to "watch [their] step" (36) because he is walking along the pavement with five jazz musicians (and their instruments). That's a big crowd.
- Of course, the speaker isn't speaking literally here. The poem makes it sound as if the jazz musicians are actually walking beside the speaker, but what's going on, as we know, is that he is listening to them.
- But the imagery that the speaker is using here evokes the jazz musicians and himself as one big group, and all "five" of them are going to "angle over" to the south side of the street. Pedestrians need to watch their step because a big jazz band (plus the speaker) is walking over to the "south side."
and then, in its own tightly knit way,
turn the corner at Sixth Avenue.
- The group of five is turning the corner at "Sixth Avenue," which is a famous avenue in New York. (See "Setting" for more.)
- By referring to himself and his group of jazz musicians as "tightly knit," the speaker gives us a sense of just how connected he feels to the musicians he's listening to on his earphones.
- We can also see some more rhythms being created through alliteration going on in these lines, with repetition of the T sound in "tightly knit" and "turn."
And if any of you are curious
about where this aggregation,
this whole battery-powered crew
- When the speaker refers to "you" in these lines, it's not absolutely clear to whom he is speaking. It could be the pedestrians walking past him down the street. It could be us readers. Most likely, it's both the pedestrians and us readers.
- The speaker refers to himself and the jazz musicians he's listening to as "this aggregation,/ this whole battery-powered crew." An "aggregation" is a something that's made up of different parts. Indeed, each person in this group of five—four musicians plus the speaker—serves a different function. The musicians are each playing a different instrument, and the speaker is listening to them.
- By referring to himself and the musicians as a "battery-powered crew," the speaker references the fact that he's listening to some sort of CD player or Walkman. (Do we even know what the heck those are anymore? CD players and Walkmans are battery-powered. You couldn't just charge them up like you can do with iPods.)
is headed, let us just say
that the real center of the universe,
- Here the speaker clarifies what we (and the pedestrians on the street) are curious about. We're curious about where the speaker and his crew of jazz musicians are "headed."
- The speaker again refers to himself (and his jazz musicians) as the "center of the universe." They're the real center of the universe.
- The speaker is being hyperbolic here. Of course, he and his crew aren't the real center of the universe. After all, all of those other pedestrians he's walking past also feel like they're the center of the universe.
- The speaker knows this, but he exaggerates in order to give us a sense of just how powerful and important he feels listening to this music.
the only true point of view,
is full of hope that he,
the hub of the cosmos
with his hair blown sideways,
- We get more hyperbole and exaggeration in these lines. Here the speaker refers to himself as "the only true point of view" and the "hub of the cosmos."
- The speaker knows that his isn't the only "true" point of view, and that he isn't the hub of the cosmos. We mean, everyone walking past him thinks the same thing about themselves. But the music is making the speaker feel as if he is the only "true" point of view and the "hub of the cosmos."
- It's also interesting that the speaker is referring to himself in the third person here: "he," not "I." It's as if he's looking at himself from the outside. This is also a way of putting himself at the "center of the universe"—it's as if someone else is looking at him and talking about him.
- We also get a detail about the speaker's looks. His hair is "blown sideways." This gives us a sense of a nice spring breeze. Who wouldn't be happy listening to jazz while a spring breeze blows their hair sideways?
- There's a lot of familiar alliteration in the lines, "is full of hope that he, the hub of the cosmos/ with his hair blown sideways" with repetition of those H words.
will eventually make it all the way downtown.
- The last line of the poem is kind of like a joke. The speaker's set up all of this expectation in the previous lines, telling us that he's the "hub of the universe" and the "only true point of view." We expect big things from this guy. How could we not if he's the hub of the universe?
- And yet, all the speaker hopes, as the "hub of the universe," is that he will eventually "make it all the way downtown." The speaker pokes fun at himself here. He puffs himself up only to tell us that his only ambition is to walk downtown.
- Even though getting downtown may not seem like a big deal, the speaker is making an important point here. This guy doesn't have any grand plans or ambitions. What this suggests is that the speaker is living in the present. He isn't worrying about anything except getting downtown. And it's the music that's allowing him to do that. So the jazz that the speaker listens to transforms him in two ways. On the one hand, it makes him feel super-powerful and important. On the other hand, it allows him to focus on the present, to forget about big worries or plans, and to just enjoy the moment of… walking downtown.