Post by Tatianna Giron
Rupi Kaur is a name that most people are familiar with, even if they don’t read poetry. The 25-year old Canadian-Indian woman has amassed a 2.2 million following on Instagram. Her work, milk and honey, has sold over a million copies online and been translated into several languages. Her newest work, the sun and her flowers, ranked #2 on Amazon’s bestselling list. You may not have seen her work personally, but parodies of it which are all over the internet and do an admittedly accurate job at emulating her style (see image below).
But Rupi Kaur has done something that most poets haven’t been able to. She’s made poetry—or at least her brand of it—an art form that few people read, popular. But does popularity translate to authenticity? Can Kaur’s work—and the works of other social media poets—be considered actual poetry?
Social-Media Style Poetry—“Instapoetry”
Kaur’s style can be described as bite-sized aphorisms and reflections intended to resonate with the reader on the topics of trauma, abuse, and love. The language is simple and minimalistic, with random line breaks, a lack of punctuation, and liberal use of blank space. Among the numerous criticisms she faces for her work are:
- over-simplified language and content, you don’t have to exert a lot of mental energy to understand her poems (e.g. “if you are not enough for yourself/ you will never be enough/ for someone else”)
- anti-intellectualism, or, “the open denigration of intellectual engagement and [the] rejection of craft” (The Cult of the Noble Amateur)
- confusing personal trauma for collective trauma in trying to generalize the South Asian female experience, therefore possibly commodifying abuse (The Problem with Rupi Kaur’s poetry)
The issue that most critics seem to have, however, is that she’s profiting off these 3-7 line ramblings and receives multiple media coverage, when there are much more talented poets out there that dedicate much more mental energy to their craft, and they’ve been largely ignored by the mainstream.
Kaur isn’t the only poet who’s gained popularity through social media, but she is the one who receives the most backlash for her popularity (which is again, probably because of her Internet exposure). Social-media poets like Nayyirah Waheed, Lang Leav, R.M. Drake, R.M. Broderick, Christopher Poindexter, Nikita Gill, and Amanda Lovelace, are among others whose followers form their readership, and who all have the same aphoristic, cliched, and straightforward writing. But is it a bad thing to write poetry that is accessible to the masses?
What is poetry?
A quick Google search will tell you that poetry is defined as “literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.” So poetry can be defined by two things: 1) the expression of feelings/ideas and 2) using style and rhythm to express them.
As someone that both writes and reads poetry, I would argue for two different definitions. Writing a poem is like trying to take a mental dump while you’re constipated. It’s quite painful, to be honest. You have to be precise with your imagery, word choice, and meter. But when you finish, you realize it’s just a draft, and you have to go back and reconsider all those things. And repeat over and over again. The whole editing process is mentally strenuous. But when you finally get it all out on paper, there’s an overwhelming sense of relief.
From a reader’s perspective, a poem should be like a puzzle. Some poems are 10-piece puzzles, and those are the ones that are easier to construct, but they give you less satisfaction because there’s no struggle. There’s little mental exertion. But other poems are 100-, 500-, and 1000-piece puzzles, and it may require a lot of mental energy to comprehend them—heck, some poems aren’t ever meant to be understood, and those are the 1000-piece puzzles. But when you can glean meaning from a poem, the mental satisfaction is worth it. Poetry is basically a masochistic art.
Rupi Kaur’s poems, and the other Instapoems, are like those 10-piece puzzles. It’s great to understand their words at face value, but there’s no intrigue. Because there’s little substance behind them, there’s no appreciating their beauty, or experiencing the satisfaction of finally uncovering their meaning.
Taste is subjective, but attention to craft and intention aren’t
Kaur doesn’t respond to criticisms of her work, but she has stated that she views poetry as the art of free expression. In her interview with The Cut, she reveals she used to teach creative writing to high-school and college students. As she states:
“For me it was like less about teaching writing and more about providing an environment where people were comfortable enough to express themselves freely, which is what I feel like is needed to write poetry…. the best part was they’d walk away, like, oh, I can do this, I’m a poet. I’m like, yeah, you are” (Fischer interviews Rupi Kaur).
She also states that she intends her language to be simple so that it’s accessible to even those whose first language isn’t English, such as the case with her and her family when they first moved to Canada when she was 4 (NPR Radio Interview). I can definitely appreciate her intentions to write in such a way that promotes free expression and accessibility to all.
Ultimately, I think whether or not you like Kaur and other social media poets is a matter of taste. They definitely have polarizing effects. One of my friends loved milk and honey, and said it was the most relatable thing she had ever read, while another said that Kaur’s poems read like something the 12-year-old her would have written in her private diary. Personally, I think it’s beautiful that Kaur was able to encapsulate feelings that millions of people related to. While I don’t find her poetry to be artistic necessarily, I do think of it as riding on that Instagram/Tumblr “spilled ink” trend. And if her Instapoetry helps make poetry as an art form accessible to more people, I hope it also serves as a gateway to better-crafted poetry. Sort of like how children who hate reading literature read Percy Jackson and the Olympians, then decide to read, say, The Illiad. As long as it promotes greater readership, I don’t think it’s a bad thing.