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Why are dead poets dead?

21 June 2004

A survey published a month or two ago, but little publicised, turns an interesting spotlight on the mortality levels attached to different kinds of writing. James Kaufman, a professor at California State University, has shown that poets are likely to die younger than any other kind of writer.

Writing in the cheerily named Death Studies, Kaufman reports on his survey of nearly two thousand dead writers, showing that poets on average live just 62.2 years, whereas playwrights manage just 18 months longer and novelists make it to an average age of 66. Interestingly, non-fiction writers do much better than this, with an average age at death of 72.7 years, suggesting that these statistics may not relate to the act of writing per se, but may have more to do with the creative nature of the writing itself.

Many poets have produced their best work quite young - Wordsworth and T S Eliot come to mind. But the older ages of some of the recent Next Generation Poets list (see News Review 7 June 2004) suggest that many of them do not start writing until well on in their lives).

There's no escaping the conclusion that writing is not the best thing to take up if you want to live a long life. Only stuntmen and gliding instructors have a shorter lifespan than poets - even deep sea divers do better (although one might presume that they do not carry on with their profession into old age and poets do not usually 'retire'). Kaufman thinks that it is the loneliness of being a poet, although it does seem that modern poets at least must have some other occupation to prevent them starving. Many write fiction, or even non-fiction, as well, and a number of contemporary poets seem to have benefited from the boom in creative writing courses and now teach writing as a living.

But perhaps the early mortality of poets shows another link to the creative gene, which is that poets suffer from higher rates of mental illness than the population at large. As Macaulay somewhat witheringly (and sweepingly) said: 'No person can be a poet of even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind.' So avoiding mental illness and steering clear of poetry might be the best ways to avoid the statistical risk of early death. But did any poet ever take any notice of statistics, after all?