Recently, as I was perusing the poetry section of a Barnes and Noble, I was surprised to come across a section containing volumes by Rupi Kaur, Lang Leav, r. h. sin, and the like. My surprise was not at seeing these collections standing shoulder-to-shoulder with those by Keats and Lorca but at the fact that the sight so resembled the shelves of poetry I’d seen a few weeks earlier at an Anthropologie.
These “Instapoets,” as they’ve been called, seem to be everywhere, like a plague of clichés, unpunctuated verse, and ill-timed line breaks. These poets have huge social media followings — take Kaur, for example, who with 1.5 million Instagram followers seems to be the most popular. Kaur first garnered attention when she posted a picture on Instagram of herself in bed on her period, menstrual stains on her pants and bedsheets. The photo was removed twice, and after lambasting the decision as that of a “misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be okay with a small leak,” Kaur went viral.
As a result, she became a South Asian feminist icon for millions of fans. She also became a meme. These memes make fun of the simplistic nature of Kaur’s poetry and the idea that you can put arbitrary line breaks in anything and have it be called a poem. However, my own problem with “Instapoetry” isn’t that the poetry is bad (bad poetry has, and will always exist), it’s with the idea of poetry as a commodity, that feeling and artistic expression can and should be sold and shared in retweetable, accessible bite-size pieces.
The thing about accessibility, though, is that it tends to erase the nuances of individual experience and result in homogenization. On the one hand, Kaur’s poetry is touted as raw, honest and individual. On the other hand, however, it’s “relatable.” The relatability is what has allowed it to spread so widely and easily, while the “rawness” of it has guarded it against criticism. In making herself the unofficial spokeswoman for South Asian females, Kaur portrays herself as a lone defender of diversity facing off against a harsh, elitist literary bastion while simultaneously ignoring the plethora of diversity within that South Asian female experience itself. Kaur’s poetry itself lacks details specific to her Punjabi-Sikh background, allowing it to appeal to a wider Western audience. However, in talking or writing about her own poetry, Kaur often intentionally fails to mention her Canadian identity.
Defenders of “Instapoetry” justify it as a kind of gateway poetry — in being exposed to these poets, they say, readers will start to seek out more complex and nuanced poetry. Nevertheless, it’s poets like Kaur, whose debut collection milk and honey has sold over a million copies, rake in the cash, and not the many minority writers who have sacrificed money and publishability to more authentically share their experiences and hone their craft.
In our society, where everything moves so fast and we’re always worried about our own productivity, it’s hard to find the time, let alone a reason, to care about poetry at all. “Instapoetry” allows us to consume a poem quickly, maybe like or leave a comment, and then move on with our busy lives, secure in the knowledge that we’ve somehow expanded our knowledge and deepened our understanding of the world.
“Good” poetry, by contrast, demands to be read and re-read — often, you might not “get” a poem the first reading. Sometimes you may never “get” a poem at all. However, the mystery and wonder in delving into the poem is what makes poetry so enjoyable. The beauty of an unexpected metaphor or a jarring image can teach us to see the world in a different light, can transform us, even. “Art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted,” writes Rebecca West in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Let us, then, demand better not only of our poets but also of ourselves as readers. Let us, then, view poetry as a “necessity,” rather than a “decorative adjustment,” and begin to taste life.
Ramya Yandava is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ramy’s Rambles runs alternating Tuesdays this semester.