Melancholia: The Sylvia Plath Effect

By Adelina Sarkisyan

“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / are of imagination all compact.”
-William Shakespeare

The Sylvia Plath Effect: (n) The theory proposed in 2001 by psychologist James Kaufman, PhD, that there is a clear link between creativity and mental illness, which is seen most prominently in female poets.

The concept of a link between mental illness and creativity goes at least as far back as Aristotle when he wrote that philosophers, poets and artists all have a tendency toward “black bile,” or “melancholia,” as we think of it today. But what came first, the poetry or the illness?

It can be said that those with mental illness find respite and clarity through poetry, but it can also be said that the difficult life and work of a writer, especially a poet, can lead to some form of mental illness. After all, it was Plato who said, “A poet is an airy thing, winged and holy, and he is not able to make poetry until he becomes inspired and goes out of his mind and his intellect is no longer in him.” Does this lead to the conclusion that a poet cannot be great without going mad? Do mentally stable poets exist at all?

“I have gotten so used to melancholia / that / I greet it like an old / friend.” -Charles Bukowski

I am a writer.
I am a poet.
I am a woman.
Does that give me access to this notorious club that has no perks or happy endings?
Does melancholia have to take hold of me for me to achieve greatness, as my predecessors did?
Will melancholia eventually feel like home?

It would appear so, as many of the writers and poets we fondly remember and hold in high esteem were touched by melancholia in its many forms. Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Sara Teasdale, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe, John Keats, Ernest Hemingway; the list goes on. And while the idea that creativity and mental illness are linked has existed for quite some time, it wasn’t until James C. Kaufman, PhD, coined the term “The Sylvia Plath Effect” in his paper entitled “The Sylvia Plath Effect: Mental Illness in Eminent Creative Writers” in the Journal of Creative Behavior (Vol. 35, No. 1) that the link became much harder to ignore. Sylvia Plath, for whom this term is named for, was one of the most dynamic and admired poets of the twentieth century. She suffered, however, from bouts of severe depression for most her life and committed suicide at the age of 30.

“God, but life is loneliness….Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship—but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.” -Sylvia Plath

Kaufman conducted two studies which found poets were more prone to mental illness than other creative writer; female poets were even more likely to suffer mental illness than any other type of writer, including female fiction writers and male writers of any kind; and that female poets were more likely exhibit mental illness than any other class of eminent women, such as politicians, actresses and artists. In another study, Kaufman found that, generally, famous poets died younger than other writers. Kaufman’s findings are consistent with the findings of other such studies, such as one performed by the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Kentucky Medical Center in 1994 which found that female writers were found to be more likely to suffer not only from mood disorders, but also from panic attacks, general anxiety, drug abuse and eating disorders. The rates of multiple mental disorders were also higher among these writers.

“I found more joy in sorrow than you could find in joy.” -Sara Teasdale

But why poets? And why, specifically, female poets? Some theories have been proposed which state that the art of poetry is far different than other types of writing. Generally, writing is good, especially expressive writing. Story writing that comprises fiction, memoirs and plays is thought to give writers mental health boosts. Poetry, however, is usually not narrative and does not appear to produce any mental benefit. Kaufman noted that poetry might also be more apt to rumination than other types of writing, especially in females who may ruminate more than men. Rumination, the tendency to repetitively think about the causes, situational factors and consequences of one’s negative emotional experience, as defined by Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a former professor of psychology a Yale University, has been linked to depression—one study specifically found that creativity was only linked to depression via rumination.

“The trouble was not / in the kitchen or the tulips / but only in my head, my head.” -Anne Sexton

There are some who have been upset over such studies, stating that the morbid interest in the deaths and mental illnesses of female poets has overshadowed their creativity and belittled their artistic abilities by contributing them to mental illness. This is similar to art historians raging over claims that Vermeer used technology such as the camera obscura to paint his most beloved masterpieces, stating that it illegitimatizes his talent and diminishes respect for his work. While I do believe that notoriety itself can be destructive, I don’t think that researching the link between creativity and mental illness makes a writer any less of a writer, or a poet, just a means to an end.

In the times of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates, poetry was seen as a gift from the gods, angels and muses: a possession. A poet was only as good as her madness. It was Socrates who wrote, “Beautiful poems are not human, not even from human beings, but are divine and are from gods; that poets are nothing but representatives of the gods, possessed by whoever possesses them.” Socrates also wrote that sane poets could never achieve the amount of greatness as a mad one. It’s very clear that this idea of poetry and mental illness, or divine possession, is an old one. It is only now that we are able to ask more questions. Unless more studies are conducted, including ones that encompass all poets, including modern ones, The Sylvia Plath Effect cannot be thoroughly conclusive. But enough writing and research has been done to say that there is some kind of link between creativity and mental illness in female poets, whether one finds it morbid or not.

“Poetry led me by the hand out of madness.” -Anne Sexton

Being a writer and poet myself, I know melancholia all too well. It is the cool breeze on a summer day; the spider that crawls inside my head and leaves cobwebs where there once had been clarity; the overwhelming yellow wallpaper, as written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, peeling away behind my eyes. I don’t know if I am a better writer when I’m lost in melancholia or if writing is, in some ways, in most ways, the lighthouse that saves me every time. Whether you believe that poetry is the muse or the siren, we still must listen to its song. And I’m not sorry for I feel poetry where others find apathy. I feel a sense of awe that, in some ways, I might be looking up and seeing the sun and moon the way that Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton did. I feel a sense of feminine power knowing that I cannot let them down.

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One thought on “Melancholia: The Sylvia Plath Effect

  1. Pingback: Suicide; an Essay | Lazarus and Lithium

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