The Man with the Saxophone Poem Summary and Line by Line Explanation by Ai Ogawa


To discuss subjects like solitude and the power of music, “The Man with the Saxophone” employs numerous strong and compelling imagery. The latter is explained by the enhanced feelings of joy and calm the speaker encounters when listening to a saxophonist playing on a deserted New York Street. 

About the poet

Ai is a poet known for her unwavering lyrical vision and powerful monologues that give voice to underprivileged, oppressed, and neglected voices. Florence Anthony was given the legal right to legally alter her name to Ai, which in Japanese means “love.” She stated that she does not want to be associated “for all eternity” with a guy she has never seen because her given name is a reflection of a “scandalous affair my mother had with a Japanese man she met at a streetcar stop.”


This poem’s primary themes are solitude and the influence of music. The latter is the sole thing that gives the speaker the impression that they are escaping their physical limitations and flying above New York City like the bird of their dreams. The rest of the days are spent struggling with their recurring companion, isolation.

Stanza 1

New York. Five A.M. 
The sidewalks empty. 
Only the steam Line pouring from the manhole covers seems alive, 
s as I amble from shop window to shop window, 
sometimes stopping to stare, 
sometimes not. 
Last week's snow is brittle now and unrecognizable as the soft, 
white hair that bearded the face of the city

In the opening lines of “The Man with the Saxophone,” the speaker gives readers some background information on the scene. Early in the morning, there are no people on the sidewalks. The speaker implies that nowhere else in the city does it feel vibrant by saying in the fourth line that only the “manhole cover feels alive.”

They are giving readers a view of New York that they have probably never had before—one in which the city is deserted, silent, and sleepy. Readers are presented with vacant streets, snow from last week, and the speaker ambling down the road instead of the fast-paced, chaotic, and intense scene one might anticipate.

In the eighth and ninth lines, the poet employs a simile to compare last week’s snow to “the soft, white hair / that bearded the face of the city,” which is brittle and unrecognizably different. Here, readers are given an illustration of more lyrical language in contrast to the straightforward opening lines of the poem. Although the city scene is quite straightforward, it is obvious that the speaker is attaching significance to it. They are observing their surroundings.

Stanza 2

I head farther down Fifth Avenue toward the thirties, 
my mind empty like the Buddhists tell you is possible if only you don't try. 
If only I could turn myself into a bird like the shaman' I was meant to be, 
but I can't I'm earthbound and solitude is my companion,

Readers are given precise location information by the speaker. As they approach the 1930s, they are strolling down Fifth Avenue (or towards a specific collection of addresses). Once more, readers are shown a reflective and peaceful vision of New York that is supposed to catch their attention. Readers may picture how quiet the setting might be with the sidewalks vacant and everyone else still in bed thanks to the poet’s use of images. The speaker is on their own, thinking only of themselves while they stroll.

The speaker makes an interesting allusion by saying that by clearing their mind, they have achieved what Buddhists “inform you is achievable,” but only if you “don’t try.” In this passage, the poet alludes to Buddhist meditation techniques and the idea that one should be able to empty their mind of all thoughts and simply exist in the present moment without even trying. The speaker feels as though they are doing this.

However, the sentences that follow imply that despite their seeming mental emptiness, they are truly thinking deeply about the meaning of their lives.

Beginning at line fifteen, the speaker states that their ideal ability would be the ability to transform into a bird, much like a shaman. In this instance, the poet is implying that they would like to possess abilities like that of a “shaman” or someone with access to both good and bad spirits, as well as those of someone who can go into trance (as the speaker implied they were doing), perform magic, and engage in healing. This is how things “had to be” in life. The speaker conveys the impression that they were in some manner intended for something greater. They ought to be allowed to go outside the ordinary confines of their lives, as depicted in the earlier pictures of the deserted New York street. However, regrettably, they are “earthbound”

The poet employs a very straightforward case of personification in line twenty. The speaker in this passage claims, “Solitude is my companion.” This emotion is common in both classical and modern poetry. Speakers and poets often reflect on their loneliness, alienation, and isolation. The speaker in this passage seems to be saying that the only thing they have to walk the earth with is their isolation.

Stanza 3

the only one you can count on. 
Don't, don't try to tell me otherwise. 
I've had it all and lost it and I never want it back,
only give me this morning to keep,
the city asleep and there on the corner of Thirty-fourth and Fifth, 
the man with the saxophone, 
his fingerless gloves caked with grime,
his face also,

The next line makes it clear that isolation is not only the speaker’s lone companion but also the only person they can depend on. Nothing else in their life—not other people, nor other situations—can be as reliable as their solitude. Although it seems like something dependable and positive, this is a lot deeper and more depressing allusion. The only true companion of the speaker is solitude, regardless of what they do, where they travel, or who they encounter. They are powerless to avoid it.

The speaker repeats the word “Don’t” in line 23 to emphasize its significance in the line and to convey to readers their determination about reality. The repetition creates a conversational-sounding line. They are aware of their lives and how they interact with their loneliness. Nobody should make an effort to reassure them that they “aren’t alone” or that “others care about them.” These well-known expressions are unlikely to cause the speaker to change their opinion of their reality.

In the words that follow, they give some justification for this gloomy and determined view. They imply that the speaker has gone through a lot because they “had it all and lost it.” They’ve experienced the peaks of joy, passion, and maybe camaraderie, but they’ve since lost it. The speaker is motivated to refrain from looking for the same unidentified happiness again by the agony she felt after losing it in the past.

The sole item they want is “this morning to keep,” the speaker states in the phrases that follow. The twenty-eighth line refers to the “guy with the saxophone,” and they are enjoying and finding some measure of calm in the quiet New York morning.

This is the first indication that someone other than the speaker is awake in the entire city. A man with a saxophone stands on the corner of two streets, his fingerless gloves caked with dirt. The man is homeless or living in terrible poverty based solely on the first line of the description. Most likely, he is playing the saxophone on the corner to support himself.

Stanza 4

the layers of clothes welded to his skin. 
I set down my case, 
he steps backward to let me know I'm welcome, 
and we stand a few minutes in the silence so 
complete I think I must be somewhere else, 
not here, not in this city, 
this heartland of pure noise. 
Then he puts the sax to his lips again 40 and I raise mine. 
I suck the air up from my diaphragm

The individual was “bonded to his skin” by multiple layers of clothing, according to the speaker. The next few sentences concentrate on the speaker’s enjoyment of hearing the man play and the obvious joy that his playing offers him, despite the man’s messy look. Although they remain silent, the speaker understands that they are “allowed” to stand and listen for a while as the man leans back. The speaker mentions the “quiet so complete” that permeated the nearby streets before the musician begins to play. It appears for a brief period that these two are the only inhabitants of the entire metropolis.

The speaker even claims that they have the impression of being “somewhere else, not here.” The speaker’s and probably the reader’s perception of New York City is completely at odds with the silence and peace of this one moment. The quiet is all the more poignant because of this. In line 39, the speaker is lifted out of their ordinary life by a succession of notes that the man plays on the saxophone.

Stanza 5

and bend over into the cold, 
golden reed, waiting for the notes to come, 
and when they do
for that one moment, I'm the unencumbered bird of my imagination, 
rising only to fall back toward concrete, 
each note a black flower, 50 opening, 
mercifully opening into the unforgiving new day.

It seems that the speaker in “The Man with the Saxophonelast “‘s lyrics speaks of “bend[ing] over into the cold, golden reed.” The poem appears to change direction at this point, implying that the speaker is also playing an instrument in addition to the “guy with the saxophone.” The speaker is given the impression of being the “unencumbered bird of my imagination” because of their combined “notes.” The speaker is offered the tranquility and beauty of symbolic flight in the closing lines. Although they ascend away from the metropolis, they will eventually revert “toward the concrete.”

The notes are lyrically described as a “black flower” that opens its petals into the “unforgiving fresh day” at the poem’s conclusion. The poet contrasts ideas of optimism and beauty in this passage, such as a flower and a fresh day, with imagery of darkness and the word “unforgiving,” the color black, and concrete, among other things.

Despite any potential benefits, the new day is described as “unforgiving.” This implies that the speaker does not anticipate anything other than the cruelty of a hard, cold reality they are unable to escape.