Clues to Future Suicide Contained in Poets' Words

ByABC News

July 24, 2001 -- The writings of poets of various nationalities who committed suicide contain words and language patterns that give clues about their eventual fate, researchers said today.

Using a computer program that examines word usage inwritten texts, the researchers analyzed 156 poems written bynine poets who committed suicide and 135 poems written by ninepoets who did not. They found that the suicidal poetsgravitated toward words indicating their detachment from otherpeople and preoccupation with themselves.

"The key finding is that we were able to distinguishfeatures of people's mental health by the language they use,"said James Pennebaker, a University of Texas psychologyprofessor who conducted the research along with University ofPennsylvania graduate student Shannon Wiltsey Stirman.

"The words we use, especially what often appear to be theunimportant words, say a lot about who we are, what we'rethinking and how we're approaching the world," he added.

The study appears in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.

The researchers looked at the works of John Berryman(1914-1972), Hart Crane (1899-1932), Sergei Esenin (1895-1925),Adam L. Gordon (1833-1870), Randall Jarrell (1914-1965),Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), Sylvia Plath (1932-1963),Sarah Teasdale (1884-1933) and Anne Sexton (1928-1974), all ofwhom took their own lives.

It compared their works to poets matched as closely aspossible by nationality, era, education and gender. All thepoets were American, British or Russian.

The comparison group included Matthew Arnold (1822-1888),Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-present), Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918),Denise Levertov (1923-1997), Robert Lowell (1917-1977), OsipMandelstam (1891-1938), Boris Pasternak (1890-1960), AdrienneRich (1929-present) and Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950).

The poets who committed suicide used many more first-person singular self-references such as "I," "me" and "my" and fewerfirst-person plural words than did the non-suicidal poets.

A Short Word With a Big Message

"Issues of identity, isolation and connection to others isrevealed in pronoun usage," Pennebaker said in an interview."One of the most telling words of all is the word 'I.' Peoplewho are suicidal or depressed use 'I' at much, much higherrates, and there's also a corresponding drop in references toother people."

The suicidal poets also generally reduced their use ofcommunication words such as "talk," "share" and "listen" overtime heading toward their self-inflicted deaths, while thenon-suicidal poets tended to increase their use of such words.

The suicidal ones also used more words associated withdeath, but surprisingly the amount of words with negativeemotion (for example, "hate") or positive emotion ("love") didnot vary significantly between the groups.

Pennebaker said previous research has found that suiciderates are much higher among poets than among other literarywriters and the general public, and that poets are more proneto depression and bipolar disorder, also calledmanic-depressive illness.

"As a group, no one would call poets a particularly bubbly,chipper group," Pennebaker added.

He said the patterns of language used by the poets whoeventually took their lives could serve as "linguisticpredictors of suicide" in current poets. "This is not some kindof causal relationship. We're not saying that if you use 'I' alot, then you'll commit suicide. It's just simply a marker of ofgreater risk," Pennebaker said.

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