In the Blog
Rupi Rising: In Defense of (Shamelessly) Loving Instagram Poetry
Courtesy of rupikaur.com
The poem above is from Rupi Kaur’s milk and honey, her debut book, self-published in 2014. The Canadian writer, a graduate of the University of Waterloo, who shares much of her work on social media, is regularly re-Tweeted, re-Pinned, Instagrammed, and shared on Facebook. Her Instagram has over one million followers and her book has been translated into over thirty languages. Her second book, the sun and her flowers, was released on October 3rd and her book tour is already sold out.
After a number of conversations with colleagues, friends, and family, and reviewing online comments, I find that people either adore Kaur’s minimalist style of art or they shake with disapproval. The latter seem to express a similar attitude: this type of writing isn’t “real” poetry, or “I could write that,” or it’s already been done/said. In school, you may have learned about haiku and rhyme pattern, imagery and alliteration. These can be important for understanding poetry’s structure, or for an introduction to what poetry has been in the past. But I’d like to consider: how do we define poetry? Mark Zarich of The Atlantic asks:
But seriously, isn’t a poem a home for deep feelings, stunning images, beautiful lyricism, tender reflections, and/or biting wit?
I believe Zarich answers his own question here: a poem is a home for any of those above characteristics. Kaur’s poem above is a tender reflection. Many Instagram poems are minimalist, tiny enough to screenshot and share on a variety of platforms. They reflect the times, like most writing does. We now have the world at our fingertips 24/7. We like information fast and brief. In a 140-character society, many different magazines and journals tout this type of poetry.
Teen Vogue promotes Instagram poets, and you can find Kaur in the poetry section of your local bookstore. r. h. Sin, who has been labeled as an Instagram poet by Sheila Marikar of The New Yorker, occupies this bookshelf also. In the same section you can find Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Pablo Neruda’s Love Poems. Each writer offers a different kind of poetry; each is important in its own way.
But I wasn’t always this open-minded.
During my first undergraduate English class, my professor passed around William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is just To Say.”
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
As an 18-year-old I read it, laughed, and found my classmates just as baffled. I thought poetry needed form, rhyme, and even if free verse, poetry needed to fit my traditional mental construction brought to me by the likes of Shakespeare and Keats. It took me years to accept Williams’ “This is Just to Say” as a poem; it was only when I understood the piece as part of a greater movement, Imagist poetry, that I could accept its form. Imagist poetry is almost like the grandfather to Instagram poets, who are now creating concise and prose-like poems similar to their predecessors, but not tied to its specific rules.
Kaur’s poems are mostly one page. They don’t take too much time to read or comprehend. They live on the threshold of the poetic and the prosaic. They are sometimes flowery, more often didactic, which has led to critiques like this one that argue that Kaur’s attempts to speak for all of Eastern trauma has led for her to produce disingenuous work. There have also been accusations that she has plagiarized from other poets, like Nayyirah Waheed. With the release of the sun and her flowers, readers will have the opportunity to see if her poetry has grown.
In her new foreword to milk and honey, Rupi writes that she was “naïve” when she wrote her first book, and that this work was her way of grieving. Perhaps her use of the “you” in many of her pieces was her speaking to herself; perhaps she was attempting to include women to create a collective experience (of course, this has its limitations because universality is arguable). What I gleaned from her work is that whoever you are, you shouldn’t be ashamed of heartbreak or pain or needing to express yourself. With her first book, poetry was the vehicle of her heartbreak that eventually brought her to a place of healing.
What milk and honey does is give a great entry point into poetry and conversations about the art form. How fascinating to read a few lines and to think, “Yes, this speaks to me” or “I didn’t know someone else feels this way” or “This doesn’t work for me.” Kaur has a number of talented contemporaries—Yrsa Daly-Ward, r.h. Sin, r.m drake and so on—who also offer moments of pause, reflection, and consideration in just a few lines. Maybe you like it, maybe you don’t. But perhaps reading Kaur and following other Instagram poets will act as a gateway to other forms of poetry and enable an appreciation for a range of writing.
If Kaur’s poetry is what you need, to weep through heartbreak or to find solace in the words of a survivor of sexual assault, then do not be ashamed to read her. When I first read her work, I found comfort in the presentation of her words during a time when I needed to be rooted back to modest adages. Some poems I could not wholly relate to because I am not a woman of colour; however, I still found these to be illuminating and thought provoking.
Find writing that brings you joy or peace. Embrace what challenges you. Be shameless in reading whatever you crave.
Poetry is whatever you need it to be.