February 1, 2015

Poets and Madness


If you were an English major, you probably read more than most people about writers who had problems with alcohol, drugs or mental illness. In college, I started to think that those were things you had to do to be a writer. You had to suffer. It was Romantic with a capital R.

I still see articles about writers with titles like “Nine Famous Authors Who Did Stints in Mental Institutions”  and  5 Writers Who Suffered from Mental Illnesses & the Impact It Had on Their Art and Great American Writers and Their Cocktails.

This is not just anecdotal. Some early research in 1987 connected creativity with mental illness when researchers noticed a higher occurrence of bipolar disorder in study participants from the Iowa Writers Workshop than in a control group.

The question that formed was "Did they get crazy by trying to be writers, or did they become writers because they were crazy?"

A later study found that those is the arts are more likely to have mental illnesses than those in non-creative professions.

Ernest Hemingway is one of my favorites and he is a classic example of this type of writer. He had it all: depression, alcoholism, narcissistic personality, bipolar disorder, psychosis and finally suicide. Before the doctors and clinics, he “self-medicated” with booze. He liked risk-taking activities. He wrote as therapy, and when he couldn’t write anymore (largely because of the alcohol), he got electroshock treatments. For someone whose life was writing, not being able to write meant he had no reason to live.

Hemingway also had it in his genes and there is some science to it. In 2009, an article published by the Association for Psychological Science showed a definitive link between creativity and the neuregulin 1 gene, a gene that is also associated with psychosis.

Hemingway said “Write drunk. Edit sober” but also claimed he didn’t drink until after his morning writing sessions.

Of course, alcohol is a depressant.

A number of recent studies have looked at the neurological similarities of mental illness and the creative mind. Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia appear to be focused within the frontal lobe of the brain and they typically manifest with rather peculiar connections that are similar to some types of connections that would be admired in poetry and other creative writing.

A 2002 study of 1,629 writers found that poets – and specifically female poets – were more likely than even non-fiction writers, playwrights and fiction writers to have some type of mental illness. This became known as “The Sylvia Plath Effect.”

Poet Sylvia Plath’s mental illness has been written about quite a bit. She wrote about it herself in her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. She was clinically depressed for much of her life. She had electroshock therapy, attempted suicide, was admitted to a mental institution for six months, got more electric and insulin shock treatments and still the depression ended her life in suicide.

In the film Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character, Alvy,  warns Annie that Sylvia Plath was an “interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.”

Is there a relationship between poetry and psychosis?

Another tragic female poet, Anne Sexton was in and out of mental institutions  for much of her life. Bipolar and suicidal. She started with poetry as therapy at the suggestion of her therapist. Her poetry is full of madness and pain and, like Plath, Sexton took her own life.


It seems like researchers have gotten caught up in those same stories that caught me in college and they are looking to connect genius and madness.

Any one of us might have been part of a study that included 294 poets (almost all “published” poets) in an anonymous online survey. These poets online scored above average on the “Unusual Experiences”, “Cognitive Disorganization” and “Impulsive Nonconformity” traits. The poets self-identified their work as “avant-garde” scored even higher on “Unusual Experiences.” 

Two of the poets reported schizophrenia, 15 reported bipolar disorder, 152 reported depression and 80 reported anxiety disorder. 

Does that sound about right for poets? Well, actually those percentages are not much higher than the general population.

Since these poets were all self-reporting, it’s possible that they had bought into the madness and writers archetype. Or did their “abnormal” psychology lead them to become writers?

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