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Dead Poets Society Shows Style

Suicidal writers used "I" more than peers, study finds

WEDNESDAY, July 25, 2001 (HealthDayNews) --If you analyze the poetry of Sylvia Plath, Sarah Teasdale and Anne Sexton, you'll find they share one significant element of style.

The three dead poets -- and six others who committed suicide -- all used the pronoun "I" far more often than poets who didn't commit suicide, new research finds.

"We found those who are suicidal use language very differently than those who are not suicidal," says study co-author James M. Pennebaker, a psychology professor at University of Texas, Austin. "The suicidal poets do not make reference to 'he,' 'she,' 'them,' or 'we.' They overuse 'I,' almost as if they are unable to connect to others."

Pennebaker and his colleagues used a software program to analyze 300 poems by 18 famous poets, nine of whom committed suicide.

The suicidal poets were matched as closely as possible by age, gender, education, race and nationality to nine poets who may have been tormented but did not commit suicide.

For example, Plath, who killed herself at age 31, was compared to Denise Levertov, an American poet who lived to age 74. John Berryman, who committed suicide at age 58, was matched to Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The software analyzed the works word by word and calculated the percentage of words that matched more than 70 language classifications. For example, "cried" is part of four word categories: sadness, negative emotion, overall affect and past tense verb.

The research found that suicide rates were higher among poets than writers of other literary forms, as well as the general population. The findings appear in the August issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

"By studying the poetry of suicidal versus non-suicidal poets, we can begin to track the language of poets over the course of their careers and isolate which themes or linguistic features may predict suicide attempts," the study authors wrote.

The researchers hypothesized that suicidal poets would express more hopelessness and helplessness, feelings that might lead them to suicide. The researchers also expected the suicidal poets would use more negative terms, fewer positive words and more references to death.

In fact, the suicidal poets didn't express more negative emotions than the non-suicidal poets, though they did write about death more frequently.

"Poets, as a group, are not the most chipper people on earth," Pennebaker says.

However, not everyone believes written language, especially poetry, can predict suicide.

David Kaufer, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon University, says poets are artists, and they use "I" and other language components for stylistic reasons as much as to reveal inner torment.

"You could have tons and tons of poets who used 'I' frequently and never committed suicide," Kaufer says.

For example, Kaufer says, "How much can you really know about van Gogh just based on his brush strokes? Could you predict he would cut off his ear because of his painting style? I find that a hard link to make."

What to Do: The Internet has plenty of suicide prevention resources, including referrals to local support groups and crisis lines. Try the American Association of Suicidology, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention or the National Center for Injury Prevention & Control.

SOURCES: Interviews with James M. Pennebaker, Ph.D., psychology professor, University of Texas, Austin; David Kaufer, Ph.D., English professor, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh; August 2001 Psychosomatic Medicine
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