Poets Die Young

by Maggie Fox, Health and Science correspondent

Washington (Reuters)

Poets die young–younger than novelists, playwrights, and other writers, a U.S. researcher said on Wednesday.  “It could be because poets are tortured and prone to self-destruction, or it could be that poets become famous young, so their early deaths are noticed,” said James Kaufman of the learning research institute at California State University at San Bernadino.

For the report, published in the journal of death studies, Kaufman studied 1,987 dead writers from various centuries from the United States, China, Turkey, and eastern Europe. He classified the writers as fiction writers, poets, playwrights, and nonfiction writers. He did not study the causes of death.

“Among american, Chinese and Turkish writers, poets died significantly younger than nonfiction writers,” Kaufman wrote in the report. “Among the entire sample, poets died younger than both fiction writers and nonfiction writers.”

Because Kaufman studied some writers who lived hundreds of years ago, it is impossible to compare their average age of death to that of the general population.

“On average, poets lived 62 years, playwrights 63 years, novelists 66 years and nonfiction writers lived 68 years,” Kaufman said in an interview conducted by email.

Kaufman has also studied poets and mental illness. “What I found was pretty consistent with the death finding. Actually female poets were more likely to suffer from mental illness (e.g. be hospitalized, commit suicide, attempt suicide) than any other kind of writer and more likely than other eminent women,” he said.

“I’ve dubbed this the ‘Sylvia Plath effect.’”

Sylvia Plath was a poet and novelist who killed herself in 1963 at the age of 30.  “There could also be a more benign explanation for poets’ early demise,” Kaufman said. “Poets produce twice as much of their lifetime output in their twenties as novelists do,” he said.

So when a budding novelist dies young, few people may notice. “A great novelist or nonfiction writer who dies at 28 may not have yet produced her or his magnum opus.”

Kaufman said poets should not worry, but should perhaps look after their health. “The fact that a Sylvia Plath…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,” he said.