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Analysis of Poem 'Man Listening to Disc' by Billy Collins

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Billy Collins

Billy Collins

Billy Collins and 'Man Listening to Disc'

'Man Listening to Disc' is a medium-length poem that focuses on one person listening to a CD whilst walking down a city street. It's early spring, the sun is out, and all is well with the world as the speaker heads downtown, intimately connected to his jazz music. And thinking himself the center of the universe.

Billy Collins is well known for his light, carefully crafted poems about everyday themes; this is an exceptional example. Full of strong imagery, interesting language and poetic devices, 'Man Listening to Disc' is engaging and insightful.

The speaker, in the first person, is thinking to himself—This is not bad—as he heads through the crowded streets with his musician friends. At the start, the reader isn't certain about the destination, but that is incidental; what matters is the music and the feel-good factor that induces.

'Man Listening to Disc' by Billy Collins

This is not bad --
ambling along 44th Street
with Sonny Rollins for company,
his music flowing through the soft calipers
of these earphones,

as if he were right beside me
on this clear day in March,
the pavement sparkling with sunlight,
pigeons fluttering off the curb,
nodding over a profusion of bread crumbs.

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

to Tommy Potter for taking the time
to join us on this breezy afternoon
with his most unwieldy bass
and to the esteemed Arthur Taylor
who is somehow managing to navigate

this crowd with his cumbersome drums.
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.

This music is loud yet so 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,"

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.

And if any of you are curious
about where this aggregation,
this whole battery-powered crew,
is headed, let us just say
that the real center of the universe,

the only true point of view,
is full of hope that he,
the hub of the cosmos
with his hair blown sideways,
will eventually make it all the way downtown.

Analysis of the Poem

'Man Listening to Disc' is a free verse poem of 10 stanzas, each five lines long. There is no set regular rhyme scheme and no dominant metre. Iambic tetrameter pops up now and again:

With phra / ses from / his sax / ophone

to bring a smidgen of steady rhythm but the overall feel is one of mixed up beats—perhaps reflective of the busy city street and jazz music.

  • Whilst there is no regular end rhyme there are occasional lines that rhyme or are near rhymes. For example: company/me/he, crumbs/drums, crew/view/Avenue, say/way/today/say/sideways, phones/saxaphone/afternoon/downtown, curious/cosmos.
  • These full and near rhymes help bring a hint of familiarity to the scene and bind the stanzas together, but they are loose, intermittent, and as the reader moves through the poem there is no real sense of any rhyme scheme at all.

Enjambment occurs quite frequently, where an end line continues on into the next line or stanza without punctuation and continuing the sense. This allows the poem to flow and gives the reader a slight challenge—where to pause, where to carry on without a break and so on.

Note the repetition of the word with in the first five stanzas which brings the reader and speaker together as the poem progresses. And likewise, the phrase all I can say is repeated in the seventh stanza to reinforce the feeling of inevitability of a situation.

The syntax, that is, the clauses and sentences that make up the poem, is quite straightforward. The whole poem is just five full sentences, punctuated here and there with dashes and commas, which cause the reader to pause—bringing a sense of being on the street with the speaker as he moves along with his music, dodging here, side-stepping there.

Diction—the language the poet uses—is a mix of the simple monosyllabic and the complex. So, the opening line:

This is not bad -

is as common as street language gets. And there are many other lines of equal simplicity which allow the reader to ease through parts of the poem, just as the speaker with his earphones on flows along with the others on the pavement.

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However, note the occasional challenging word—calipers, profusion, suffused, cumbersome, aggregation—which need defining.

calipers: a pair of adjustable metal arms that help keep the earphones in place.

profusion: large quantity.

suffused: spread through

cumbersome: large and heavy, awkward.

aggregation: things coming together in a mass, the sum total.

There are two examples of simile—where the saxophone music is likened to honey and vinegar, that is, sweet and sour.

Further Analysis

'Man Listening to Disc' is a poem that is totally wrapped up with speaker and music, specifically jazz music. The whole tone of this creation is positive and egotistical!

Picture this dude walking down the street, earphones attached, blissfully unaware of the troubles of the world, intimately engrossed in his music as he weaves in and out of the pavement crowds.

He is a self-confident, almost cocky individual who, because of the music streaming into his brain, feels like he's on a high. In fact, so overcome with pleasure is he that he thinks himself the center of the universe. That is some place to be.

Above everyone else? Most certainly. His ego is jazzed up to the point of confrontation as he addresses his fellow pedestrians: watch your step he says. This warning comes about because he and his musician friends are going to turn the corner that leads downtown, his final destination, and they need all the space they can get.

As the poem progresses, the reader becomes aware that this individual with the earphones is indeed a proud fellow. He knows the names of all the musicians personally; he knows their instruments and he is expert enough to judge some of those sounds . . . like honey . . . like vinegar.

So involved is the speaker he quite gets carried away, detailing each musician's name and their instrument, paying out compliments right, left and all ways as he struts past the pigeons in the spring sunshine.

  • The first six stanzas are given over completely to music. One song, in particular, seems to spark the flames of self-importance and inflate the ego to ridiculous proportions: 'The Way You Look Tonight'.

Is the speaker thinking about themselves or have they got a date downtown with someone they really admire?

  • Either way, the speaker starts to think of the musicians as real, they become large in life. The narrative changes to suit this alternative frame of mind. So, the first person 'I' becomes the collective 'us' and 'our' as the whole ensemble moves across the street en route downtown.

And just to add a bit of spice, the speaker suggests that the others on that crowded street forego their space. They are no longer the centers of their own individual universes, they must watch out for him and his jazzy gang.

The poem perfectly sums up that feeling of being the master of your own private space whilst out in public, earphones attached, music loud and clear, in your own bubble, a 'hub of the cosmos', listening to a simple disc.


  • Poetry Foundation
  • Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
  • 100 Essential Modern Poems, J.Parisi, Ivan Dee, 2005
  • Staying Alive, Bloodaxe, Neil Astley, 2002

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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