Death Stalks Poets

Verse Writers Die Younger Than Other Writers

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD on December 11, 2003

All eager-lipped I kissed the mouth of Death.

-- U.S. poet Gwendolyn B. Bennett

Dec. 11, 2003 -- Death is drawn more to poetry than to other forms of writing, an intriguing study finds.

Poets die sooner than playwrights. Playwrights die sooner than novelists. And novelists die sooner than nonfiction writers, according to a study by James C. Kaufman, PhD, of California State University. The study appears in the November issue of Death Studies.

Kaufman combed through biographical references to come up with birth and death dates for writers in four different cultures: North America, China, Turkey, and Eastern Europe. The data spans millennia -- one Turkish writer was born in the year 390. Kaufman made an effort to control for the fact that life spans have increased over time and across cultures.

"Both male and female poets had the shortest life spans of all four types of writers, and poets had the shortest life spans in three of the four cultures," Kaufman says in a news release. "Only in Eastern Europe did poets squeak past playwrights by a few months, and that difference was not statistically significant."

Why might poets die sooner?

"Some of the reasons why poets have [been] found to be more likely to suffer from mental illness ... may also be applicable to why poets are more likely to die young," Kaufman writes. "Poetry may appeal to people who are more likely to be self-destructive."

But there's also a more prosaic explanation, Kaufman acknowledges. Poets tend to achieve fame earlier than other kinds of writers. That puts them in the history books at a younger age -- and gives them a better chance of being young when they die.

Kaufman, however, prefers the explanation that fiction writers die younger because fiction is lonely work. Playwrights interact with directors and actors; journalists must interview and interact with newsmakers. Fiction writers have only the blank page.

"This study may reinforce the idea of poets being surrounded by an aura of doom, even compared with others who may pick up a pen and paper for other purposes," Kaufman concluded. "It is hoped that the data presented here will help poets and mental health professionals find ways to lessen what appears to be a negative impact of writing poetry on mortality and health."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Kaufman, J.C. Death Studies, November 2003; vol 27: pp 813-821. News release, Health Behavior News Service.
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