Last Updated September 5, 2023.
In “Man Listening to Disc,” Billy Collins correlates the setting, mood, and content with the form, structure, and literary devices he employs. Collins’s speaker evokes an urban environment—most likely New York City—through sensory impressions that connect the visual and aural dimensions of his experience. As the speaker walks, he listens to jazz, a genre with deep roots in New York City. Rather than explicitly state this connection, the speaker includes details about the music, such as musicians’ names and instruments, and typical urban sights, such as pigeons. The poet does not describe the music he is listening to in great detail, but instead evokes elements of that music through the poem’s metaphors and images. One might even argue that the speaker’s ambling progress through the city streets is, in its loose and improvisational manner, jazzy.
The poem is composed of ten quintains, or five-line stanzas. It is written in free verse, with no consistent meter or rhyme scheme. This flexibility, as compared with forms that have rhyme and regular rhythm, is one aspect that suggests an affinity with jazz. The structure of short stanzas, flowing into each other, likewise suggests jazz musical phrasing. The man's attitude and progress through the city likewise have a relaxed, imprecise quality. His destination is as imprecise as his pace is unhurried: he “will eventually make it all the way downtown."
The poem is written in first person, but at the end the perspective shifts so that the speaker offers the impression he thinks others have of him. The speaker switches between first-person singular and plural. The “we” seems to include the musicians whose tunes accompany the speaker, but sometimes other people on the street or the reader are in that collective group. The people, his “fellow pedestrians,” are described by dress, such as their “white sweater” or “tan raincoat.” The speaker also uses the second person. Direct address—“And if any of you are curious”—and the hypothetical questioning bring in readers and accentuate the conversational tone of the poem. The final shift to the third person encourages readers to look at the man and no longer see things from his eyes: “he, the center of the cosmos….” By referring to himself that way, the speaker uses self-deprecating humor to emphasize the poem’s light tone.
The diction and literary devices are well matched to the jazz theme and casual mood. The sounds of the words and relationships among them also evoke music. Hard and sharp consonant sounds such as k and t, especially in short words, may suggest drums. Soft sounds such as l and s, instead bring to mind the flowing sounds of horns or woodwinds. The poet uses repetition of the sounds to strengthen this impression. He uses alliteration and consonance, repeating consonant sounds for musical effect. In addition, he incorporates assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds. Note the consonance—particularly of s and f sounds—throughout this passage:
with phrases from his saxophone --
some like honey, some like vinegar --
is surpassed only by my gratitude….
This passage also includes parallel structure and similes, as well as synesthesia. The musical “phrases” are compared to flavorful liquids, “honey” and “vinegar,” using simile. Synesthesia means the mixing of senses, in this case hearing and taste. In parallelism, a structure is repeated with varied content, as Collins does here with the phrase “some like.”
In the poem’s content, Collins makes the setting concrete by providing actual locations, such as 44th Street. Similarly, he uses the actual musicians’ names, and the speaker refers to them as if they were present. These details provide a sense of intimacy and sociability, as the man does not seem to be alone but rather accompanied by his friends; the music thus has “confidentiality.” He alludes to several illustrious jazz musicians—Sonny Rollins, Tommy Potter, Arthur Taylor, and Thelonius Monk—thereby inviting readers to draw on their own knowledge to vivify their reading.