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January 13, 2010


These posts on suicide have been quite powerful and moving. Thank you for this one.

Wow. Stunning.

Your post reminded me something else: not all, but many poets - many - who have killed themselves have created a "scene" of their deaths: an arrangement, a tableau, an image meant to be indelible on those left behind. Think of it: Plath with her head in the oven; Sexton naked in her mother's fur coat; Berryman waving from the bridge.

The act of taking one's life is many things, but one of those things is an act of enormous hostility. (The poet Vachel Lindsay's last words, after drinking a bottle of Lysol, were "They tried to get me - I got them first!") That otherwise kind, compassionate people don't recognize this speaks to the power of the illness of clinical depression. It is a terrible disorder.

I think you are right, Lyra, when you speak of the fantasy element - of imagining that "somehow I can come back and all will be well." I truly believe that most suicides don't want to actually die - they want the pain to stop. The pain of depression is so terrible that the thought of stopping it overrides every other consideration. And none of us can really imagine the world without us in it. Not really - even if we just see ourselves hovering, invisible in the air, eavesdropping on the ones we leave behind.

There is a famous study of people who survived suicide attempts by jumping from high places. Everyone - everyone - said that, as soon as they jumped, they regretted it.

I am not objective about this. Someone I loved killed himself, and the damage he left behind by his suicide was almost unendurable. It never goes away. And it precludes argument, because how can you argue with a dead man? It is the last, unanswerable word, the cosmic flip-off, as you so aptly call it, to the rest of the universe.

Depression is not a romantic disease, an artistic disorder. Suicide is not the last romantic act of a sensitive, artistic soul - it is as destructive as hacking through a garden with a scythe or stomping small animals to a pulp. Perhaps if people could recognize this - even people who are suffering - suicide would not be seen as a viable option. Does anyone really want to be remembered foremost by the pain she caused?

I'd like to see some statistics, numbers, on poetry suicides. My guess is that poets do not kill themselves at rates greater than that of the population at large. The professional group most prone to suicide, I have read, is dentists. These observations are in support especially of the last paragraph of this post: it is Romantic to imagine that poets are more frequent suicides than other people are; it's an invidious mythology that ought to be examined sociologically.

Terry, According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there is now research that shows that suicide is more prevalent among those in the arts. Here's a link:

Thank you for your words, thoughts, art, Lera...putting your thoughts through words into art. Many of us lack the capacity to understand the flowing river of such creativity. But, I have the capacity to appreciate. Again, thank you.

With respect, that site is unconvincing. Studies are alluded to but not properly cited. What studies, conducted how? These studies seem to conclude that people dead long before the studies' being conducted suffered from this or that particular mental disorder. Nobody knows what Poe or Tolstoy or Dickinson suffered from; any "conclusion" reached on that score is speculative.

American "mental health" specialists may well be guilty, often, of projecting contemporary definitions of mental illness in inappropriate ways. See this piece in last week's New York Times Sunday Magazine:

Until I know what kind of studies have been conducted, how they were conducted, and on whom, I will remain unconvinced.

Terry - while you are right to want to read the actual studies and see the evidence for yourself, there is enough anecdotal evidence to suggest a connection that ought to be followed up. Just count the bodies in this past year alone. In any event, what Lera and Jennifer say applies to everyone, not just poets.

Terry you are right to question the studies and I agree it's dangerous to suggest that suicide is the occupational hazard of being a poet especially because we know that most poets do not commit suicide. I'm not invested in proving one way or another that poets are at greater risk. But poets and writers are what we know. And look over the list of writers who have killed themselves. The first of my contemporaries who I actually knew was Lucy Grealy in 2002. Others have been named elsewhere on this blog. Most were teachers of young people who loved and admired and trusted them. What's the message? They kill themselves, there's a memorial service, maybe there's an up tick in book sales. Seems like a good career move. I know this sounds callous but I do wonder what the proper response is.

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