THE SYLVIA PLATH EFFECT ON POETRY

It is generally admitted that poetry is one of the great art forms in the world, as it is painting with words. And some of the best word painters have been men – but only because their careers are longer and thus their portfolios thicker.

Turns out, this is not a sexism thing nor is it something having to do with the “patriarchy.” There is apparently a mental pathology that seems to dictate that female poets – for all their equal brilliance with the written word – will generally have a shorter career in poetry, and life as a whole.

Sylvia Plath was one of the great young female poets of her time but had her life cut short by depression, as she committed suicide in 1963 at the age of 30 by putting her head inside an oven and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning while her children slept in nearby bedrooms.

A number of studies look at writers and poets of both genders, and even prominent women in various career fields, to determine if there was something to the curious case of a number of female poets who died or were committed to mental institutions for various disorders. The research in the several studies all came to pretty profound conclusions – female poets or creative writers actually had a higher likelihood of mental illness than male counterparts or even women in other career fields. And frankly, it wasn’t even close, which was all the more remarkable.

In 2001, a psychologist by the name of James Kaufman developed the phrase “Sylvia Plath effect” to describe this phenomenon of female creative writers falling victim to mental illness at a higher rate than other women and male creative writers.  There has been some pathological research that seems to locate some indicators of those who have higher risks of mental illness, but so far there is no real determination as to whether the mental illness creates the poets, or whether being a woman and what happens to bring about the mental illness. The “chicken or egg” dilemma is still being discovered and researched.

It is unfortunate that the Sylvia Plath effect is not based on a phenomenon of great female poets coming out of the classes from which Sylvia Plath is taught – but instead, it describes the odd phenomenon of the high mortality rates of female creative writers (which an exception being the long and storied career of modern poet Maya Angelou). If your daughter has aspirations of becoming a poet or creative writer, it might be a good idea to take her in for a psychological evaluation, just to make sure she’s not susceptible to the Sylvia Plath effect.