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compiled by Tenzing Terwilliger, Improbable Research staff
Poets, since ancient days, have suffered (and in some cases, also celebrated) a reputation for being sufferers. Several researchers have tried to assess how, what and whether poets suffer. These four studies present compelling evidence for or against the prevailing beliefs.
Possible Pathology for Poets
“Poetry or Pathology? Jesuit Hypochondria in Early Modern Naples,” Yasmin Haskell, Early Science and Medicine, vol. 12, no. 2, 2007, pp. 187–213 (http://dx.doi. org/10.1163/157338207X194686). The author, at the University of Western Australia, Crawley, explains:
In their didactic poems on fishing and chocolate, both published in 1689, two Neapolitan Jesuits digressed to record and lament a devastating ‘plague’ of ‘hypochondria’. The poetic plagues of Niccolò Giannettasio and Tommaso Strozzi have literary precedents in Lucretius, Vergil, and Fracastoro, but it will be argued that they also have a real, contemporary significance. Hypochondria was considered to be a serious (and epidemic) illness in the seventeenth century, with symptoms ranging from depression to delusions. Not only did our Jesuit poets claim to have suffered from it, but so did prominent members of the ‘Accademia degl’Investiganti’, a scientific society in Naples that was at odds with both the religious and medical establishments.
Possible Immunity for Poets
“Poetry Writing and Secretory Immunoglobulin A,” G. Lowe, J. Beckett, and G. Lowe, Psychological Reports, vol. 92, no. 3, part 1, June 2003, pp. 847–8 (http://dx.doi. org/10.2466/PR0.92.3.847-848). The authors, who are at the University of Hull, U.K., explain that:
17 healthy students provided saliva samples for Immunoglobulin A (s-IgA) assay before and after sessions of either writing poetry or reading magazines (control). Levels of s-IgA increased after the poetry-writing sessions but not after reading.
Possible Death for Poets
“The Cost of the Muse: Poets Die Young,” J.C. Kaufman, Death Studies, vol. 27, no. 9, November 2003, pp. 813–21 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/713842357). The author, at California State University at San Bernardino, explains:
This study examines 1,987 deceased writers from four different cultures: American, Chinese, Turkish, and Eastern European. Both male and female poets had the shortest life spans of all four types of writers (fiction writers, poets, playwrights, and non-fiction writers), and poets had the shortest life spans in three of the four cultures (and the second shortest life span among Eastern European writers). Possible reasons for the poet’s shorter life span are then discussed.
The article above is from the March/April 2008 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!
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