Books & Arts
Want to send this page or a link to a friend? Click on mail at the top of this window.
Posted  24, 2004
nytlogo.gif (3067 bytes) ny_times_logo_arts.gif (567 bytes)

Going Early Into That Good Night

Study Shows That Poets Tend to Die Younger Than Other Writers

poets 1.jpg (20316 bytes)
Poets from left, photographs by Gerhard Sisters; by Thomas Victor; from "Voyager" (Farrah, strauss Deutsch/Corbis. From left, Sarah Teasdale died at 48; Anne Sexton died at 45. Hart Crane died at 32; Dylan Thomas died at 39.

By Felicia R. Lee

What is it about poets? Even in the pantheon of troubled artists, poets tend to be perceived as singularly despairing and subject to bad ends. Sylvia Plath turned on the gas and stuck her head in an oven when she was 30. Hart Crane leaped from the deck of a ship at 32. Paul Laurence Dunbar succumbed to tuberculosis at 33. As if that weren't bad enough, now one of the largest studies of its kind shows that poets tend to die younger than other types of writers.

The study of 1,987 dead writers was conducted by James C. Kaufman, director of the Learning Research Institute at California State University, San Bernardino. Mr. Kaufman, a psychologist, tallied the average ages at death for prominent male and female novelists, poets, playwrights and nonfiction writers who were American (with some Canadians and Mexicans), Chinese, Turkish and Eastern European.

Overall, poets lived an average of 62.2 years, compared with nonfiction writers, who lived the longest at 67.9 years. Playwrights lived an average of 63.4 years; novelists, 66 years. The differences between poetry and prose were pronounced among Americans, where poets lived an average of 66.2 years, and nonfiction writers lived an average of 72.7 years.

"The image of the writer as a doomed and sometimes tragic figure, bound to die young, can be backed up by research," Mr. Kaufman wrote in his study, "The Cost of the Muse: Poets Die Young," published in the journal Death Studies in November 2003.

Mr. Kaufman culled his information on the writers from biographies and literary encyclopedias, going as far back as the year 390 for Eastern European writers. Most of the Americans were from the 19th and 20th centuries. Mr. Kaufman, who writes on the side, said he wanted to learn what makes poets different from other writers. More financial pressure? Less societal acclaim? More stress? He also wondered if those differences were independent of culture.

"It's a whole confluence of reasons," he said in an interview. "If you ruminate more, you're more likely to be depressed, and poets ruminate. Poets peak young. They write alone."

Based on his analysis of studies of creativity and death rates, Mr. Kaufman argues that the earlier death rate among poets is probably due to the very nature of the poetic endeavor. Researchers have found that being in a subjective, emotive field is associated with mental instability, he writes. Compared with fiction and nonfiction, poetry is often more introspective and expressive. This has led him to conclude that poets' higher death rates are probably related to their higher rates of mental illness.

As the title of the journal Death Studies indicates, a large body of research is devoted to death rates among different professions as well as to links between creativity and mental instability. A towering figure in this field is Arnold M. Ludwig, a retired professor of psychiatry at the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington. In his 1995 book "The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy" (Guilford Press), Dr. Ludwig looked at more than 1,000 prominent people in eight creative-arts professions and 10 other professions. He concluded that psychiatric disturbances were much more common among the artists. Dr. Ludwig found that roughly 20 percent of eminent poets had committed suicide, compared with a suicide rate of 4 percent for all the professions he examined. The suicide rate in the general United States population is around 1 percent, he said.

"It is a complex topic that has been pondered since the fifth century B.C.," Dr. Ludwig said in an interview.

"Kaufman's findings pretty much support some of the findings I came up with," he said. In his study, for instance, poets had an average life span of 59.6 years, compared with 73.5 years for social scientists. Nonfiction writers clocked in at 70.6 years, with musical entertainers trailing at 57.2 years.

Other studies have compared writers in general with other professions, including those that are arts-related, and none of that research has held good news for scribes, Mr. Kaufman said.

"Kaufman's study updates the research, and it's one of the largest samples I've ever seen," said Dean Keith Simonton, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis. He said that Mr. Kaufman's look at gender differences in writers' life spans was intriguing because, among poets, it suggested a smaller gap in average age of death between men and women than is found in the general population. The point being that female poets are especially more likely to have shorter lives.

In 1975 Mr. Simonton published a study of 420 major writers showing that poets died on average six years earlier than other creative writers, and that the difference held across history (ancient versus modern times) and civilizations (East versus West).

"It's hard to find something that poets are not higher on pathology — alcoholism, suicide, drug abuse, depression," Mr. Simonton said. "It could be that people are using poetry as a form of self-therapy for their problems and the pathologies bring the age of mortality down." He also theorized that it was just more of a struggle overall to be a poet than to be something else, which could lead to problems like depression and drinking.

Not everyone is impressed with Mr. Kaufman's findings. Maxine Kumin, 79 and the former poet laureate of New Hampshire, said, "The suicide rate among poets is not nearly as high as it is among dentists." As for her own ripe old age, she said, "Well, I'm not depressed. I am relatively solitary. I was in my 30's when I started to write, so I don't think I peaked early."

"There is a lugubrious fascination, an erotic fascination, with the early death of poets," Ms. Kumin continued. "I guess I don't fit the mold."

Franz Wright, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry this month, has fought manic depression, alcoholism and drug addiction. He prepared a statement in reaction to Mr. Kaufman's study. "I've given this matter a good deal of thought," he said.

"Since in the U.S., the worse you write the better your chances of survival, it stands to reason that poets would be the youngest to die," he said, reading his statement. "Perhaps they're more delicious and succulent than other writers."

He paused, then, not reading, went on:

"I know lots of poets who've had normal, productive lives. It's a little insulting. Poets do suffer. Writers do suffer. Our culture does not value poetry, and it drives poets crazy. But you take your chances."

That analysis jibes with that of Michael Marmot, a professor of epidemiology and public health at University College, London, who argues that higher social status is linked to better health and a longer life.

Christian Wiman, a poet, believes that to survive, poets must situate themselves outside the culture, a process that takes a toll. (Mr. Wiman is also the editor of Poetry, one of the most important poetry journals in the United States. It is published by the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation, which has been much talked about recently because of a $100 million gift it received from Ruth Lilly, the pharmaceutical heiress.)

"I think there is a greater psychological urgency to poetry than those other forms," said Mr. Wiman, who is 37. "If you're a prose writer, there's always something to work on. If you're a poet, the will is much less involved. You're faced with an awful lot of dead time you can't fill with other things."

Poets are probably lonelier, Mr. Kaufman said. Playwrights and nonfiction writers have more social work lives.

Perhaps, too, poets are especially infected by the suspicion that people in the arts tend to be a bit mad, Mr. Kaufman said. W. B. Yeats, whom Mr. Kaufman quotes in his study, said the Gaelic muse gives inspiration to those she persecutes and "the Gaelic poets die young." Aristotle asked in the fourth century B.C., "Why is it that all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry or the arts are melancholic?"

Despite his research, Mr. Kaufman wrote that he does not think aspiring poets should worry. "The fact that a Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton may die young does not necessarily mean an Introduction to Poetry class should carry a warning that poems may be hazardous to one's health."

If not a warning, then perhaps a sense of the reality of the poetic life, some would argue. "Being a published poet is more dangerous than being a deep-sea diver," said James W. Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert on the topic. "But it's possible that if they weren't doing poetry they may have killed themselves off earlier."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Arts & Ideas, of Saturday, April 24, 2004.  , the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
More from
Main / Columns / Books And Arts / Miscellaneous