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Suicidal poets 'leave behind clues in their writing'

by David V. Appleyard

Final resting place of Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)American researchers have discovered that the words of poets who later commit suicide show a clear tendency toward disengagement from others. This is exemplified by a marked preference in their writing for self-references such as first person singular forms (I, me, and my). In contrast, it seems non-suicidal poets tend to make greater use of the first person plural (we, us and our), as well as communication words, such as talk, share and listen. As one might expect, they also include fewer death-related words than their suicidal counterparts.

The study, which was conducted by Shannon Wiltsey Stirman of the University of Pennsylvania and James W. Pennebaker of the University of Texas in Austin, was first presented back in 2001 in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine under the title Word Use in the Poetry of Suicidal and Non-suicidal Poets.

The researchers point out that although, of course, most poets do not take their own lives, they appear to do so much more often than other categories of writer or, for that matter, the public as a whole. Less surprisingly, there is frequently a history of mental depression, signs of which can now be identified in the individual poet's writing.

British, American and Russian poets were selected for the survey, with suicidal and non-suicidal poets being paired off as closely as possible by nationality, educational background and gender.

John Berryman, Hart Crane, Sergei Esenin, Adam L. Gordon, Randall Jarrell, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Sarah Teasdale were chosen as examples of suicidal poets. These were matched with the non-suicidal poets Matthew Arnold, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Alfred Joyce Kilmer, Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, Adrienne Rich and Edna St Vincent Millay.