Column: Rupi Kaur and bite size insta-poetry: Gateway drug or misrepresentation?

You’ve seen them: short poems, lowercase letters, spare black and white drawings. They pop up on your Instagram or Twitter feed in between prom pictures and vine compilations, you spy them on your roommate’s accursed Pinterest-style vision board and the Tumblr-trendy black and white paperback itself stares out at you from the shelves of Target.

These pervasive little poems are the dastardly work of Rupi Kaur, author of the wildly popular debut poetry collection “Milk and Honey,” and the other slightly-but-not-much-less-wildly popular “The Sun and Her Flowers.” Kaur’s poetry, which deals as reductively and undemandingly with sex, love, womanhood, race and other hot button issues as possible, has somehow brought her all the fame, glory and fandom that a poet living in the internet era could possibly accrue. 

Both of Kaur’s books sit comfortably in the top five best sellers in American poetry, right next to Dr. Seuss, Shakespeare and other names so securely fixed in the zeitgeist of our culture that even the most illiterate subterranean brute knows them. Lots of similar poets, in form and subject, have followed Kaur’s example, with newly popular authors such as Lang Leav or R.H. Sin. “Milk and Honey” has sold over 400,000 copies, finding its chief readership among female audiences and, notably, among young people who might not ordinarily find themselves reading poetry. 

This could be because Kaur’s poems are accessible, or easy to understand, or short, making for quick and painless digestion. It could be because Kaur has effectively, probably more so than any other poet, mechanized the tools offered by social media in her favor. It could be that reading poetry, any poetry, makes people feel smart or deep or like their personal pain has been acknowledged. 

In some ways, the huge reaction Kaur’s poetry has produced is really exciting. Her work shows people that poetry can be something more than a sonnet from ninth grade English class. It can be something living — an art that understands them instead of the exclusive property of hippies, intellectuals and hippie intellectuals.

It shows women and people of color and victims of trauma and domestic violence that the issues that concern them firsthand can be reflected in literature. And on the flipside, her success shows writers and publishers of contemporary poetry (an increasingly niche genre even in the savviest of bookstores or universities) that there is a wide and available audience, if only they would come down from their ivory towers, or, more aptly, out of their stuffy tenure offices and independent coffee shops. 

There are many tired, grumpy criticisms of Kaur that use words like “viral” and “Insta-poetry” to degrade her work and her path to fame, but, more than anything, this only demonstrates an unimaginative facet of the literary community unwilling to adapt to undeniably effective new ways of reaching one’s audience. Kaur’s internet-era career path is an easy, click-baity attack point conceived, presumably, by the same genre of aged minds that produce headlines criticizing millennials for killing napkins or say things like “I don’t mind e-books, but nothing can replace the smell of a freshly printed paperback.”

These criticisms are ignorant. They’re elitist. Traditionalist. Unimaginative. Instead, I would caution readers to replace them with a separate set of better, less dumb criticisms. 

While Kaur has succeeded by giving voice to meaningful, salient issues and engineering an era-appropriate, internet savvy rise to fame, her work fails in other hugely significant ways. 

The author claims that she was unable to publish for a long time because “there was no market for poetry about trauma, abuse, loss, love and healing through the lens of a Punjabi-Sikh immigrant woman."

This is patently untrue. A quick glance at a recent issue of Best American Poetry or almost any literary journal shows that contemporary poetry is overflowing with minority narratives that confront and conquer difficult issues in exciting and nuanced ways. 

Some of the biggest names in poetry now Ocean Vuong, Terrance Hayes, Natalie Diaz, Eduardo C. Corral and others present fresh, diverse perspectives on all of the topics Kaur claims doomed her work to literary rejection. There are more widely respected female poets and poets of color now than ever before in Western discourse. 

This isn’t to say that discrimination within the literary community has been wholly abolished, but controversial issues of race and gender certainly aren’t widely suppressed in modern poetry. In fact, they’re moving to the center of the poetic arena.

So, then, this returns us to the real reason Kaur was forced to self-publish "Milk and Honey" before it gained popularity (and was subsequently taken on by a press): The poems just aren’t that good. In concept, sure, but as writing, they leave a lot to be desired. While her work does bring new readers to poetry by using accessible language to talk about difficult and complex issues, it doesn’t do those topics justice. 

In fact, Kaur’s poetry amounts largely to a collection of generalizations and unearned, unexamined melodrama after melodrama. It’s work that looks and sounds pretty, decorated with haphazard line breaks, delicate drawings and declarative language. But being pretty isn’t enough; poetry also must do the difficult work of innovation. It must bring something new to the table. 

Like a horoscope, Kaur’s poetry seems so touchingly personal to each reader because it is, in reality, almost completely devoid of content beyond platitudes and vague nods to offstage events. Good poetry makes the personal universal bad poetry is afraid to touch the personal and so dances around it in vague but musical terms to please the widest audience possible. In a word, it panders. Her poems lack the nuance that difficult topics like trauma or race deserve, exchanging complexity for consumability. 

It’s fantastic that you read and enjoyed "Milk and Honey." It’s awesome that you felt empowered and acknowledged as a woman. But if you liked that, you’ll love the many other female poets of color who write just as courageously about the same topics ten times more poignantly and considerately. Women deserve more than an unimaginative, uncomplex, pared-down version of their suffering. And fortunately, contemporary poets are stepping forward to deliver just that. 

Read Marie Howe’s work on abuse. Read Fatimah Asghar on race. Read Solmaz Sharif on displacement and war. Read Warsan Shire on culture, gender and healing. Yes, read Insta-poetry if that’s what you’ve been exposed to, but after Google images runs out of Rupi Kaur poems to show you, please keep reading. 


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