Scanning Literary Verse for Literal Clues to Suicides

from: The Los Angeles Times - August 27, 2001

by Renee Tawa

A computer analysis says the words of 9 poets foretold their fate, but what about reading between the lines?

Put aside their tortured lives, even their brilliant poetry. Could written words alone--devoid of context, tallied by computer--reflect suicidal intentions? Say, the scrutinized poetry of Pulitzer Prize-winning poets John Berryman, who leaped off a bridge; Anne Sexton, who left her car running in a closed garage, or celebrated poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, who stuck her head in a gas oven?

A new study on poets and suicide concludes that the fate of the famous poets was foreshadowed in their work. Reaction has been intense and widespread, the study's researchers said, perhaps because the findings seem to reinforce the irresistible notion that creativity is linked to madness or some affliction leading to suicide. Says the headline for an Agence France-Presse story, painting a broad brush stroke: "Study of Poets Reveals Suicidal Tendencies."

Not exactly. In the study, researchers conclude that nine well-known poets who committed suicide--including Berryman, Sexton and Plath--show distinctive features of language in their work that reflect self-absorption and social isolation. The poets use the word "I," for instance, more often than other studied poets, and more words associated with death.

But a text analysis is not a sure-fire way of fingering suicidal poets, cautioned James W. Pennebaker, co-author with Shannon Wiltsey Stirman of the study in the current Psychosomatic Medicine journal. Instead, the study shows that the use of words in poetry can be a marker of risk for suicide, the way extreme hopelessness is, for example, said Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin.

The study also points researchers to broader questions: What do the words we use tell about ourselves? (Pennebaker co-developed the software used to analyze the poets' work. The software, which sells for $100 at, is intended for use by researchers, he said.) The text analysis via computer, which looks at words alone, is different from the more expansive linguistic studies of experts including Vassar College's Don Foster. Foster, a professor of English, was able to identify Joe Klein as the anonymous author of the bestselling novel "Primary Colors" and conclude that William Shakespeare was the author of a 1612 funeral elegy by poring over their work and investigating details of their lives such as their literary influences.

The authors of the suicide study emphasize that future studies are necessary, analyzing the words in the poetry and other writings of a larger sample of suicidal individuals. Still, Pennebaker's research has prompted a flood of e-mail queries from around the world: "Will you analyze my poetry?" "My brother committed suicide. Will you look at his poetry?"

"This is not like some kind of proven medical test," Pennebaker said. "This is not a technique where you can do some text analysis and say, 'This person is at high risk for suicide, this person is not.' Its value is [for researchers] trying to understand how people are approaching their world and what kind of approaches may lead to depression or suicide .... They are really important questions in understanding mental health."

Literary scholars take a different approach in the study of poets and suicide. Diane Wood Middlebrook, author of the acclaimed "Anne Sexton: A Biography" (Houghton Mifflin), spent 10 years researching the poet's life and work. Sexton's suicidal tendencies were not hidden in metaphor or wordplay, Middlebrook said. Sexton, who was hospitalized for psychiatric illnesses, made 10 suicide attempts and wrote poems such as "Wanting to Die": " .... Death's a sad Bone; bruised, you'd say,/and yet she waits for me, year after year,/ to so delicately undo an old wound,/ to empty my breath from its bad prison .... " She committed suicide at 45 in 1974.

Middlebrook, a professor of English at Stanford University, has not read Pennebaker's study. But in studying Sexton and the poet's suicidal tendencies, Middlebrook looked at her poetry, reviewed tapes of her sessions with a psychiatrist and talked to her family members and friends. "When I looked at Anne Sexton's life and work together, I was interested in the question of what the relationship was between her pathology--which was an acknowledged aspect of her life--and her art. That was a question that a biographer would want to explore."

Pennebaker's focus is on what words alone reveal. For 15 years, Pennebaker has studied the way language reflects mental and physical health. He looks at questions such as how writing about emotional topics might predict physiological changes and long-term health. Writers who use more "causal words" such as "because," "cause" and "reason," and "insight" words such as "realize," "know" and "understand," tend to show more health improvements, he has found.

As a practical matter, instead of studying conversation, he looked at word choice in printable formats such as song lyrics or online discussions. He turned to the study of poets, who commit suicide at a higher rate than other literary writers and the general population, according to other research.

Pennebaker and his colleagues built on the work of another researcher who examined the link between poets and manic depression. From that study, they picked nine poets who committed suicide and tracked their work throughout their careers, following writers including Randall Jarrell, Adam L. Gordon, Sarah Teasdale, Hart Crane, Sergei Esenin and Vladimir Maiakovski.

For instance, a computer analysis shows that the nine poets used the pronoun "I" more than other poets and make fewer references to other people; other studies show that people who are depressed or suicidal make more first-person references than others. In fact, the selected poets wrote fewer references to "we," "us" and "our" than other studied poets in a comparable career stage. (Sexton's style, Middlebrook pointed out, is intimate and confessional, calling for repeated self-references.)

In one case study, the researchers compared the work of Plath, who killed herself in 1963 at age 30, and Denise Levertov, who died of complications from lymphoma in 1997 at age 74.

"They're both wonderful poets, but they're also very different. They both have a real dark streak," Pennebaker said. "When Plath and Levertov are talking about the miseries of a human relationship, Plath will [essentially] write, 'I feel the pain of what you're saying. My heart is laden,' whereas Levertov says it in a more detached way. 'The relationship is like a cold stone. It is this way.' She's distancing herself from the topic. Plath is almost embracing this sorrow."

(Plath's wrenching work includes these famous lines from the poem "Lady Lazarus": " Dying/Is an art, like everything else,/I do it exceptionally well./I do it so it feels like hell./I do it so it feels real./ I guess you could say I've a call ").

Also, the researchers found, the poets they studied used fewer "communication words," in the late stage of their careers, such as "talk," "share" or "listen," suggesting a declining interest in social relationships.

The findings aggravate poets who complain to Pennebaker: "You don't even read the poetry! Your computer program just looks at words!"

"This is viewed as kind of dehumanizing," Pennebaker said. "That I'm not taking their work seriously in the sense of the intended nature of their work .... It also raises this specter that poets commit suicide more than other people. Having it publicized again and again, if you're a poet, that's not what you want to hear."

Copyright 2001 / Los Angeles Times

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