‘Writing in the Afterlife’ by Billy Collins is a nine stanza poem that is separated out into sets of four lines, known as quatrains, and one final stanza that is two lines long. Collins did not choose to make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This doesn’t mean there aren’t instances of rhyme within ‘Writing in the Afterlife’ though. For example, the first line of the first stanza and the first line of the second stanza rhyme, with “clear” and “here”.
There are also instances of half or slant rhyme in the text. These are 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. For example, the words “bent” and “benches” in the second stanza.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that whatever he imagined the next life to be, things did not turn out that way. The reader is thrown straight into the man’s newly dead existence. He’s describing, quite clearly, what it’s like to be dead. The speaker makes sure to take note of how strange things seem, especially compared to what he expected.
There are a few things he recognizes and can appreciate as traditional elements of what one thinks of as the world of the dead. There are a river and a man who ferries the dead across. But, the speaker didn’t think they’d all the naked and crammed together on a boat that’s too small to contain them.
He goes on, adding that the group has been asked to write down, in very clear and in-depth detail, what the afterlife is like. They should take note of all the pains and displeasures. It is likely this written work, ‘Writing in the Afterlife’, that is meant to be the product of this non-assignment.
Collins makes use of a number of poetic techniques with ‘Writing in the Afterlife’ these include alliteration, enjambment, and repetition. Each of these techniques is referenced within the body of the analysis but it is important to make sure the definitions are very clearly outlined.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “simply”. “shackles” and “shredding shackles” in the sixth stanza.
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. There are a few examples of this technique in the poem, for instance, the last lines of the fourth and sixth stanzas.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Writing in the Afterlife
In the first stanza of ‘Writing in the Afterlife,’ the speaker begins by taking the reader into his concept of the afterlife. He describes how he “imagined” the “atmosphere would be clear”. Due to the fact that the speaker announced immediately that he “imagined” the afterlife to be a certain way, a reader should be aware that things turned out differently.
It does not seem outlandish that he imagined the next life to be “shot with pristine light”. He thought that all elements of the landscape would shine clear, pure, and even warm. But, as the next two lines state this was not the case. He discovered it was in fact filled with a “sulphurous haze“.
When he moved through space he felt that the air was “ionized as before thunderstorm“. It felt as though something was always about to happen, and not something good. One can imagine static electricity in the air, terrible smells, and the inability to see very far into the distance. There is nothing light and pristine about this place.
In the second stanza of ‘Writing in the Afterlife,’ the speaker acknowledges the fact that there are many people who have had different ideas about what the afterlife looks like. Many, referencing the Greek mythological precedent of the ferryman Charon, have “pictured a river here“. But, in the next three lines, the speaker elaborates on this river, describing it as something very different from that what he expected.
No one he adds, “mentioned all the boats / their benches crowded with naked passengers“. This is a poignant phrase. It speaks to the vast numbers entering the afterlife at one time. These people are described as cattle, being herded from one place to another. Human decency feels absent from this river scene. Interestingly, the speaker adds that each person in the scene was “bent over a writing tablet“. This phrase remains a mystery until stanza five.
In the third stanza, the speaker moves back in time, to the moments when he was still alive and considering his own death. He always knew that he “would not always be a child”. He understood very well that he couldn’t always have everything he wanted, and take his pleasures from things as simple as a “model train and a model tunnel”. A reader should take note of the use of repetition in the second line of a third stanza through the use and reuse of the word “model” and the alliterative connection between the words “train” and “tunnel”. The use of these two techniques speaks to you the simple nature of childhood itself and the ease with which a child’s needs and wants may be fulfilled.
In the next two lines, he adds that he could not “jump… all day through the hoop of” himself. This is an interesting turn of phrase, and likely references the self-indulgent behavior that all those living, if one has the ability and time to do so, participate in. It speaks to twisting thoughts, a winding life, and the ever-present need to move forward and satisfy one’s own personal needs.
In the fourth stanza of ‘Writing in the Afterlife’ Collins’ speaker describes what he knew about the next life before he entered it. He thought that there would probably be the “click of the final coin“. This is another reference to Charon, the ferryman from Greek mythology, who is tasked with taking the dead from one side of the river Styx to the other.
This allusion is expanded in the third line as a speaker describes these coins going into the “leather purse of the man holding the oar“. So, to recap, the speaker knew that the afterlife would be different, that there would be a river, and likely a ferryman to take him to the other side.
The other side of the river was distinctly different from what he imagined. As “soon as“ he “arrived“ he and the other passengers, naked on the ferry were given the writing tablets referenced in the second stanza. They were asked to “describe this place“, meaning the afterlife, in as much detail as possible.
The sixth stanza of ‘Writing in the Afterlife’ provides the deceased with their goals as proceed with their texts. “He”, perhaps a reference to the ferryman, asks that the newly dead describe the afterlife to the best of their abilities. They should not just speak of the water, but of the water as “oily, fathomless, and rat-happy”. The shackles should be described as they truly are, “Rusty” as well as “ankle shredding”. Collins makes use of enjambment in this final line of the sixth stanza, as he did at the end of the fourth. A reader has to move down quickly to the seventh, to finish the phrase and fully understand what the dead are being asked to do.
In the next quatrain of ‘Writing in the Afterlife’, the writing expands beyond their basic understanding of their current environment. They are asked to write down “off the tops of their heads“ how they feel at that moment about “being dead“. There is obvious humor to these lines and the fact that it presents such an absurd scene. As the narrator himself has acknowledged, these are not the typical images of the afterlife.
No one expects to be presented with a writing assignment immediately after dying. Collins is aware of this fact and is utilizing it to his advantage. As is common within Billy Collins’ writing, he uses humor to speak on serious topics. He provides a lighthearted take on what other poets take quite seriously. Another piece of interest by Billy Collins, that is also about what happens after one dies is ‘The Afterlife’.
The assignment given to the recently dead is clearly an “assignment”. But, the man with the oar tells them it isn’t. They should not consider it that way.
Stanzas Eight and Nine
The eighth stanza is the last quatrain of the poem. It is followed by one shorter stanza of two lines, known as a couplet. The ferryman tells the dead men and women to consider the writing assignment as more of an “exercise”. It is something of a “process” rather than an assignment. It is clear from these lines, although they were very few details, that the ferryman is tired of this “process”.
The assignment is “never-ending, infernal”. Because of the huge numbers of men and women being taken into the afterlife, the boats have become “jammed together”. There are too many people in one space. Those writing are not moving fast enough to allow the new arrivals to take their place.
In the last two lines of ‘Writing in the Afterlife’, Collins again makes use of repetition. He mirrors the phrase “bow against stern” with “stern locked to bow”. The boats are touching one another and becoming connected. In what is a metaphor for death itself, Collins describes their situation as immovable, yet moving. The men and women stand, with nowhere to go, and nowhere to be aside from where they currently are. The boats are still, as there is no more space for them to move into, or take up. Finally, the only things that are making any progress at all are the “diligent pens”.