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The language of poets could serve as linguistic predictors of suicide, UT Austin professor finds

Being a published poet is a high-risk occupation — more dangerous than being a firefighter or deep-sea diver, says a University of Texas at Austin psychologist who recently concluded a new study on language use in poetry.

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AUSTIN, Texas—Being a published poet is a high-risk occupation — more dangerous than being a firefighter or deep-sea diver, says a University of Texas at Austin psychologist who recently concluded a new study on language use in poetry.

In his research of word choices of suicidal and non-suicidal poets, Dr. James W. Pennebaker concludes the writings of suicidal poets contained more words pertaining to the individual self, and fewer words pertaining to other people, than did those of non-suicidal poets.

"The study found support for a model that suggests that suicidal individuals are detached from others and pre-occupied with themselves," he said, adding that the findings further suggest linguistic predictors of suicide can be discerned through text-analysis. "By studying the poetry of suicidal vs. 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 future suicidal attempts."

Pennebaker conducted the research with Shannon Wiltsey Stirman of the University of Pennsylvania. The study is being published in the July/August issue of Psychosomatic Medicine. A grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health, supported the research.

The purpose of the study was to determine whether distinctive features of language could be discerned in the poems of poets who committed suicide, and to test two suicide models using a text-analysis program. About 300 poems from the early, middle and late periods of nine suicidal poets and nine non-suicidal poets — from the 1800s to the present — were compared using the computer text analysis program, Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC).

For comparison, the scholars chose six American pairs of poets, one British pair and two Russian pairs. The suicidal poets were Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adam Gordon, Sarah Teasdale, Hart Crane, Sergei Esenin and Vladimir Maiakovski. The corresponding non-suicidal poets were Robert Lowell, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Matthew Arnold, Edna St. V. Millay, Joyce Kilmer, Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam.

"Suicidal poets use a large number of I’s and a low number of references to other people or pronouns," said Pennebaker. "This holds up across their careers, not just as they are approaching suicide." In addition, the suicidal poets tended to decrease their use of communication words such as "talk," "share" and "listen" over time, while the non-suicidal poets tended to increase their use of such words.

Suicide rates are much higher among poets than among authors of other literary forms as well as the general population. Previous studies, however, have generally been limited to examinations of the works of single poets, said Pennebaker. In addition, he said, these poems generally have not been selected over the poet’s entire careers and were chosen based on their theme or examined according to their proximity to suicide attempts.

One surprise result of the research was the finding that suicidal and non-suicidal poets don’t differ in references to sad or happy emotions. In fact, both suicidal and non-suicidal poets use more positive emotional words than negative words, said Pennebaker. "It’s not the sadness, it’s the isolation and failure to connect with others that comes through in their poetry," he said.

Note to editors: Photo of Pennebaker available at: <www.utexas.edu/admin/opa/news/01newsreleases/nr_200107/pennebaker2.html> or by calling Marsha Miller, photographer, Office of Public Affairs, at (512) 471-6412.

Below are examples of poems by a suicidal poet (Sylvia Plath) and a non-suicidal poet (Denise Leveertov, who died of natural causes):


The Ache of Marriage (by Denise Levertov)

The ache of marriage:
thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each

It is leviathan and we
in its belly looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it

two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.


An Appearance (Sylvia Plath, 1962)

The smile of iceboxes annihilates me.
Such blue currents in the veins of my loved one!
I hear her great heart purr.

From her lips ampersands and percent signs
Exit like kisses.
It is Monday in her mind: morals

Launder and present themselves.
What am I to make of these contradictions?
I wear white cuffs, I bow.

Is this love then, this red material
Issuing from the steele needle that flies so blindingly?
It will make little dresses and coats,

It will cover a dynasty.
How her body opens and shuts-
A Swiss watch, jeweled in the hinges!

O heart, such disorganization!
The stars are flashing like terrible numerals.
ABC, her eyelids say.