Written by Isabella Keith
Graphic by Ana Isaacs
This piece was originally published in ‘Pleasure and Danger’, Bossy’s 2020 print edition.
One of my favourite Facebook pages is Not Rupi Kaur. It’s a parody of poet Rupi Kaur, who is well-known for popularising the practice of publishing short, easily digestible poems in all-lowercase with many line breaks on social media. This minimalist style is distinctive and easy to mimic. It’s also easy to criticise.
This style of work falls under a contemporary genre of poetry that is often referred to as ‘instapoetry.’ It’s often specifically written for a smartphone screen, and able to be quickly read under a scrolling thumb. It’s easily read and understood – managing to bring poetry to an audience who may have otherwise felt it was ‘not for them.’ More than that, many instapoets are women and people of colour, who have tended to be left out of the traditional literary canon.
Kaur’s first collection of poetry, milk and honey, has sold more than 3.5 million copies; it has overtaken The Odyssey as the best-selling book of poetry of all time. However, her work has also attracted significant criticism. Among these is that she heavily plagiarised both form and content from Nayyirah Waheed, a black woman and poet who published a poetry book called Salt. a year before milk and honey was released. There are motifs that repeatedly appear in both poets’ works, such as using ‘honey’ as a metaphor for kindness, or drawing connections between womanhood and the sea. Kaur has also acknowledged Waheed as an inspiration of hers, but despite Waheed reaching out to Kaur about the similarity of their work, Kaur has denied this. In an interview with VICE, Kaur addressed the controversy by saying that “using a couple of words that the other person also uses, doesn’t equal plagiarism”. This raises serious concerns about the continued prevalence of anti-blackness, even in seemingly progressive literary circles, which claim to create more space for women and people of colour.
Despite the likely unoriginality of her work, Kaur remains the face of instapoetry, and the most common critique of her and other instapoets’ work is that it is simply ‘not poetry.’ This begs the question – what is poetry, then? If the implication is that poetry can only consist of high-brow, heavily polished, lengthy tomes published in expensive leather-bound books, it seems highly reductive and classist. A short poem published on Instagram is of no lesser inherent value purely because of its length and platform. The platform helps to provide creators who might not be able to secure a publishing contract through more traditional mediums with a space to share their work.
The term instapoetry is also a very broad one. Some argue that it’s characterised purely by the fact that it is published online, but many people regarded as instapoets have also been published in printed collections. And for those who solely publish online, this merely reflects the fact that all kinds of art forms adapt and reflect the changing world around them; in content, form, and medium. Poetic genres have constantly emerged in response to changing times, and these shifts are often criticised at first. Modernism was spawned from a post-Industrial Revolution world, denouncing the formal styles that came before it. Much of the dominant instapoetry styles retain strong similarities with the styles of well-known Modernists; e. e. cummings’ distinctive all-lowercase style with short lines and atypical punctuation is a particular predecessor that springs to mind.
Vinu Caspar argued that instapoetry has turned poetry into a capitalist pursuit, written purely to garner followers and posted with such frequency that they couldn’t possibly be laden with enough meaning to be considered ‘real’ poetry. Critics further argue that modern poetry has never really been a money-making exercise; lauding Modernist T. S. Eliot for having made so little money from his poems that he had to continue to work at Lloyds Bank for his entire life. Yet, patron relationships have long existed in art, particularly pre-Industrial Revolution; Shakespeare’s work was largely possible due to the patronage and support of Queen Elizabeth and King James I. There will, of course, always be debate about the influence of money over any art form, but criticising instapoets in particular for merely attempting to make a living out of their work is ill-founded.
Of course, within any genre of poetry, or indeed any form of art, there can, and will, be both good and bad pieces. There are very well-founded and valid critiques of poets like Rupi Kaur, including the previously noted plagiarism concerns, or the argument by Chiara Giovanni that she has “[blurred] individual and collective trauma in her quest to depict the quintessential South Asian female experience”. However, merely denouncing the entire genre – which in itself is a loose way of describing a wide spectrum of works that are connected only by being published online – as ‘bad’ is premature and dismissive. Within instapoetry, there are always going to be better poems and worse poems, and deciding where a poem might fall involves a significant subjective element. Instapoetry is also a reminder that poetry, like any art, doesn’t have to be serious all the time. One of the reasons I love Not Rupi Kaur is because their work is irreverent and accessible. It highlights the fun, self-reflective, interactive possibilities within poetry and adeptly manoeuvres between irony and seriousness.
Publishing poetry online, on platforms like YouTube, has also allowed for established spoken-word and slam poets like Safia Elhillo and Aja Monet to find a new virtual audience, and this has in turn has inspired young people in particular to find their voice and speak up about their experiences in a raw, passionate way.
The ability to self-publish like this and find an audience without traipsing through the traditional routine of finding a publisher and continually editing work means that much of instapoetry is new and raw and youthful. It hasn’t necessarily been polished until it glistens, or run over with a fine-toothed comb, or hacked away at with a red pen. These processes often whittle out voices that are too frequently already stifled, but instapoetry is a format where these voices can find a home.
At its core, instapoetry – which appears to simply be a catch-all term for any poetry that finds a home online – is nothing new. The broad criticism it has faced, like many literary genres before it, is not novel either. What instapoetry has changed is simply the availability and accessibility of poetry – to both writers and readers. Poems written by young people, previously stashed away in notebooks or shoved into drawers, are slipping into Instagram explore pages and Twitter feeds instead. They might be unpolished or early forms of pieces, but they’re also just another way for people to feel heard, and to develop their voice and self-confidence. Instapoetry is a reminder that poetry can be vibrant, exciting, and engaging; it has the ability to challenge the associations of poetry with stuffy English classrooms and trying to understand iambic pentameter. Instapoetry has stripped poetry back to its core, emphasising self-expression and reminding us of its oral tradition, all the while reaching a wider audience than ever. Instapoetry might be easy to criticise, but it’s perhaps even easier to celebrate.