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Sad Poets' Society

27 July 2001 7:00 pm
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Singular. Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in 1963, used often the word 'I' in her poems.

It may be possible to detect suicidal tendencies in poets from the words in their poems, according to a paper published in the July/August issue of Psychosomatic Medicine. Poets who killed themselves were more self-preoccupied and isolated than a control group, the researchers found.

There are several theories about why people kill themselves: for instance, the "social integration/disengagement" model of sociologist Emile Durkheim, who theorized that a major cause of suicide was an individual's lack of bonding with others, and a more traditional model emphasizing the role of hopelessness and helplessness. Psychologists James Pennebaker from the University of Texas, Austin, and Shannon Wiltsey Stirman of the University of Pennsylvania used poetry to put these two to the test.

They selected nine American, Russian, and British poets, all but one from the 20th century, who had committed suicide, and matched each with a colleague of the same sex and nationality who lived at approximately the same time.* About 300 poems were analyzed by software called Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, which is programmed to recognize some 70 dimensions of language, such as whether a word is a pronoun, or whether it refers to a negative emotion. The researchers tested Durkheim's integration theory by looking at references to self and others, and to communication (words like "talk" or "alone"). Hopelessness, they decided, would be marked by mentions of death and negative emotions.

Many of the control poets shared depression and other mood disorders with the ones that committed suicide, says Pennebacker: "Nonsuicidal poets are not a particularly optimistic group." But a higher number of first person singular self-references in the works of the suicidal poets suggested they were more self-preoccupied and detached from others--thus backing up the Durkheim model. Reading over Sylvia Plath, for example, who killed herself in 1963, "there's 'I's' everywhere," Pennebacker says. And near the poets' death, the word "we" became less common, signaling increasing isolation. "A tremendous amount of action is in the pronouns," he says.

One finding the authors did not expect was that the suicide group used a significantly higher percentage of sexual words throughout their careers. Whether that supports either of the two theories will have to await further research, Pennebaker says.

Related sites

The Emile Durkheim Archive
The Sylvia Plath Forum

* Poets in the study
Suicide Control
Randall Jarrell Robert Lowell
John Berryman Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Sylvia Plath Denise Levertov
Anne Sexton Adrienne Rich
Adam L. Gordon Matthew Arnold
Sarah Teasdale Edna St. Vincent Millay
Hart Crane Joyce Kilmer
Sergei Esenin Boris Pasternak
Vladimir Maiakovski Osip Mandelstam
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