I know it’s politically incorrect and Unwoke to stereotype people, but I will do so, anyway (with the should-go-without-saying caveat that there are always exceptions): Poets are strange birds. As a species, they seem to have a preternatural penchant for gloom, substance abuse, mental aberrations—and thus, in many cases, an early demise, either from immediate or slow-motion suicide.
For just a couple of examples, Vachel Lindsay drank poison, and Dylan Thomas regularly overserved himself alcoholic beverages to the point of an early demise. The quintessential tortured soul/manic genius Edgar Allan Poe’s death is more complicated (outlined below).
It’s not just me; it’s not just an intuition of mine that poets are prone to self-destructive behavior. I googled it, and look what I came up with:
So yes: words and phrases used to describe poets above are “tortured,” “prone to self-destruction,” and “higher rates of emotional disorders.”
As the google page above shows, Wilfred Owen (author of the superb Anthem for Doomed Youth) died young, but in his case he was a casualty of World War 1, as was Alfred Joyce Kilmer (Trees).
Here is just a sampling of poets who died young:
Robert Burns (37) — possible heart condition
Lord Byron (George Gordon) (36) — bad medical care during wartime
Countee Cullen (42) — high blood pressure and uremic poisoning
Paul Laurence Dunbar (33) — tuberculosis
John Keats (25) — tuberculosis
Vachel Lindsay (52) — suicide (drank a bottle of lye)
Sylvia Plath (30) — carbon monoxide poisoning (had earlier attempted to overdose on pills and, on another occasion, deliberately driven her car into a river)
Edgar Allan Poe (40) — Fittingly, perhaps, the cause of Poe’s death is a mystery. Speculation has included delirium tremens, heart disease, epilepsy, syphilis, meningeal inflammation, cholera, carbon monoxide poisoning, rabies, and even “cooping” (a type of voter fraud in which citizens were forced to cast their ballot for a particular candidate, which sometimes led to violence and even murder). Possibly lending credence to the last posited cause is the fact that Poe was found wearing clothing that did not belong to him.
Percy Bysshe Shelley (29) — drowned in a boating accident
Sara Teasdale (48) — suicide (overdosed on pills)
Dylan Thomas (39) — swelling of the brain caused by pneumonia and poor oxygen supply; possibly medical malpractice contributed
Henry David Thoreau (44) — tuberculosis
These statistics—although just a snapshot—seem to corroborate the general view of poets as anemic, mystical, impractical, self-destructive individuals with a tendency towards manias of various sorts.
As already mentioned, there are, of course, exceptions to the stereotype. Take Wallace Stevens, for instance (writer of The Emperor of Ice Cream, The Reader, and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird). Not only did Stevens live to the geezerish age of 75, he was not of the ilk of bards who frittered and drank his time away, patiently waiting for the poetic muse to visit him.
At Stevens’ day job, he was an Insurance Executive. What!?! That seems to be the most unpoetic job there could be. Did Stevens suffer from multiple-personality disorder? Stuffed shirt by day, modernist poet by night? Who woulda thunk it? Did he also write Thirteen Ways of Looking at Policyholders and recite it at executive meetings/slams in the ivory towers of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company? Did Wallace contribute to the corporation’s bottom line by advising the actuaries to make life insurance considerably more expensive for poets than for others?
After all, what is the most dangerous occupation of all: Fireman? Commercial Fisherman? International Spy? Or is it being a poet?