If you have Instagram. If you enjoy poetry. If you have social media or enjoy reading of any sort, you’ve heard of Rupi Kaur by now. The first commercially successful ‘Instapoet’, Kaur has used the platform to distribute her work and her words since 2015, and to massive effect.
With the pictorial nature of Instagram, the visuals of her work have become just as recognisable as her verse, the clean lines of the illustrations reflecting the words she writes. The words themselves are characterised by Kaur’s first-person voice – it is intimate, simplistic and accessible. And that’s the key word here, I think. Accessible. Both in form and content, Kaur has struck a balance not many poets can claim: huge commercial reach with a fair amount of critical approval, plus outrageous success of a debut collection. Kaur’s Milk and Honey sold 2.4 million copies by the end of last year, and has prompted the speedy commission of her second collection, The Sun and All Her Flowers. So, all around pretty impressive, pioneering and pleasurable. I do, however, have one critique. I don’t like her work. Like, at all.
Then what’s this all about? Why am I taking the time to write about something I don’t like? Aside from the obvious issues with that statement, I’m writing this post as a sort of case-study for a wider debate in the literary community. I love poetry. Partly because I can never write it myself, so have a grudging respect for those who can, but partly because all my studies thus far have led me to truly appreciate the skill behind it. You know in A-Level when your teachers told you that in a timed exam ‘Every word’s a gem’? Same goes for poetry. The condensed nature of (most) poetry insists upon a careful curation of language and, being a language buff myself, I am endlessly impressed with those who can master it. It’s a source of constant argument amongst my peers, one that will never and should never be resolved, but I think poetry is the best form of writing, hands down. I also think it’s the hardest.
Now, I don’t think Kaur is a master of language by any means. Her poetry is the kind I come across often – it reminds me of the style I tend(ed) to write in, and the style I heard over and over in creative writing workshops. It isn’t bad, per se, it just isn’t a whole lot of special. It’s surface level. Even when dealing with intimate subjects or political concepts, the language and execution is still just floating on the water. For a splash of psycholinguistics, Kaur’s choice of words are nearly always base-level terms. Base-level terms are what they sound like, the general phrase for something that gives just enough detail, not too much or too little. An example would be if you saw a lovely lil fluff in the street, most people would say ‘Wow! What a cute dog!’, not ‘Wowza! Look at that wondrous short-haired Dachshund’ or ‘Cripes, that’s an adorable mammal!’. In real life, we use base terms most of the time because it would be ridiculous if we didn’t. Nothing would ever get done. But in poetry, however, there is a certain expectation to use not necessarily elevated language, but language which does something different than the everyday. Whether this is syntactically, semantically, or formally, poetry should demand some kind of deeper attention. It should be a little vain. Kaur’s work doesn’t do this for me. It is pleasant, yes, but I couldn’t tell you an example of when it grabbed me, moved me, or echoed in my head for days after.
However, I’m not the first person to say this. There are spoof tweets and even an entire book using Vines to parody Kaur’s style. From Buzzfeed to Hercampus to the controversial PN Review article by poet Rebecca Watts, a lot of people, more qualified than me, have weighed in on this.
But, and this is hard for me to say, it really doesn’t matter what I think at this point. I mean, yes, of course it does, but me poo-pooing the work of a successful poet, a woman and a woman of colour, for that matter, shouldn’t be the top priority. Or anyone’s. Rupi Kaur has taken her art, shared it, and connected to millions of people, most of which I’d hazard a guess as to say aren’t otherwise engaged with poetry. Or any form of literary art, even. And this is what I mean by ‘It Doesn’t Matter What You Think’. I don’t mean your opinions aren’t valid, or that no one will listen, or that you’ll be shot down, although of course this is possible, I just mean that Kaur’s work is doing more for poetry than any sleight you feel like it has on ‘Littererchewer’ as Tony Harrison puts it. Kaur is engaging new demographics, perhaps even generations at a time, with poetic discourse, exposing them to a new form they may not have otherwise explored. So what if she uses social media to do it? The baby boomers would have the world believe you can’t get through to millennials at all if it’s not through their phones. So you know what? Lean in. Spread poetry through Instagram. Write a book one Tweet at a time. Engage people. Once we’ve done that, they’ll find it themselves.
Rupi Kaur is, for all intents and purposes, a gateway drug. Her poetry is accessible, obtainable and easy to swallow. It’s not high art, no. But like chic lit, chart music, romcoms or Topshop fashion, just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s automatically bad. Just because it’s female-oriented, does not means it’s bad. Plus, the money publishers made off Kaur’s first book is probably enough to fund the publication of your more ‘literary’ poetry for years to come. So, there it is. Leave your prejudices a at the door and lean the fuck in.
Featured image credit: bramptonist.com