The Art of Drowning by Billy Collins

The Art of Drowning’ by Billy Collins is a five stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first and second stanzas contain five lines and the third, fourth, and fifth: six lines. Collins chose to write this poem in free verse, this means that it does not have a pattern of rhyme or rhythm. But, that doesn’t mean the poem is without structure. There are still moments of full and half-rhyme as well as a number of poetic techniques the poet makes use of. 

The Art of Drowning by Billy Collins


Poetic Techniques

Half rhyme, also known as slant rhyme, can be seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. One great example is in the final stanza with the words “bottom” and “forgotten”. 

One of the most important, and easy to spot, techniques used in ‘The Art of Drowning’ is alliteration. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “compression, crushing” in the first stanza and “believe” and “brilliance” in the fourth.

Another important technique that is commonly used in poetry is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point.  It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. The first line provides a great example as a reader has to skim down to the second, and then third, to find what the speaker is interested in discussing. 


Summary of The Art of Drowning 

The Art of Drowning’ by Billy Collins speaks humorously on near-death experiences and the idea that one’s life could be contained in a “flash”.

The poem begins with the speaker asking why and how the idea of life flashing before one’s eyes came into being. He is mystified by it and encourages the reader to consider the same question. As the poem progresses he discusses how inadequate and distressing this experience would be. He also proposes a number of alternatives, such as a photo album being turned slowly or an essay. 

‘The Art of Drowning’ ends with the speaker discusses one death by drowning and how one’s memories would quickly be forgotten. They’d remain at the surface as one’s body drifted to the bottom of a lake. 

You can read the full poem The Art of Drowning here.


Analysis of The Art of Drowning 

Stanza One 

In the first lines of ‘The Art of Drowning’ the speaker poses the question that forms the basis of all the stanzas to come. He expresses his curiosity about where the idea that your life flashes before your eyes before you die comes from. Immediately it is clear that he doesn’t believe this is possible, partially, or and it’s entirety.

Lines three through five of the first stanza outline the common belief that the horrors of death are tempered by moments from one’s past. He speaks about how when drowning and panicking one’s body and mind compress all of one’s experiences. It acts as a vice in the final seconds.  It is a curious question that the speaker poses. A reader is meant to wonder the same, how did this idea get started? Does it really happen? And if it does, is it a good or a bad thing?


Stanza Two 

The second stanza is also five lines and includes some of the speaker’s ideas of more pleasing alternatives to the sudden flash of a memory. He poses two different possible deaths, both of which have to do with drowning. It is likely he chose to drown as the main cause of death in this poem because it is not instantaneous, (therefore leaving time for this flash of memory). It is also an almost universal fear.

The speaker asks, or wonders to himself, if it wouldn’t be more pleasurable  “for a more leisurely review, an invisible hand / turning the pages of an album of photographs”. The biggest difference between this way of reviewing one’s life and the idea of the simple flash is the time it takes.

Collins’ speaker’s proposal for a human’s final moments means that one can engage in a slow perusal of one’s life, in the form of photos. These photos might include “you up on a pony or blowing out candles in a conic hat“. Again, the images he chose in this last line would be widely relatable. He is not trying to speak about his own personal life, but instead makes the poem appealing in its reference to life, death, and memory.


Stanza Three 

As is the case with a number of Billy Collins’ poems, there is an element of humor in ‘The Art of Drowning’. In the third stanza, he asks three more questions. Each one poses an alternative to the flash of a memory. The first he suggests is a “short animated film”. He follows this up immediately with another suggestion, that may be a “slide presentation” would be more appealing and appropriate at the end of life.

Just as with the photo album, both of these experiences are longer, more drawn out, and ideally, more pleasurable. In the second line, he suggests that maybe a “model photograph“ or “an essay“ would be better. The third line encompasses any other possibility, he says that anything, “any form,“ would be better than “the sudden flash“. Not only would this be better though, but it would also be more accurate.

The next session of the stanza describes the flash of memory to an explosion that would burn off once eyebrows. It would be as if your “whole existence“ was “going off in your face“. One would be brutally confronted with everything they’ve done “everyone they’ve known, and everything needs to be seen. This act of a sudden power and violence would see them into their death. Plus, it would be rather disappointing if one’s life was nothing but a sudden flash.


Stanza Four 

In the fourth stanza of ‘The Art of Drowning’ the speaker expresses his doubts that there even is a flash at the end of one’s life. He brings together his uncertainty about what happens after death, with his disapproval of the idea of the sudden flash. He begins by noting that “survivors“ of near-death experiences try to convince those who have never been close to death that these flashes are brilliant and spiritually enlightening. Some suggest that they represent a higher truth or power, like lightning “forking across the water“.

In the third line, a reader will notice that Collins capitalized the word “Light”.  This was done in order to reference a divine being. This is likely the Christian God, who is in this instance contained within the light. Going on, the speaker tries to bring up the various arguments from the other side. From his tone, it is easy to tell that the speaker doesn’t buy them.  He believes that if there is anything flashing before one’s eyes it is likely just a fish.


Stanza Five 

The “silver“ of the darting fish might be a kind of flash, as has been suggested, but it has nothing to do with one’s life. It is a simple coincidence that the creature was there. The fish represents the way the world continues to move on even though one is in their final, likely desperate moments. The next lines expand on this idea, speaking to the disinterest with which the world treats ones dying body. Collin’s speaker explains how if one drowns the “tide will take you, or the lake will accept it all“. The water absorbs everything one is and ever has been. There is nothing left at the end, all memories are “already forgotten“.

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