Rebecca Smeyne/The New York Times

March 29, 2021

KUDVA DRISKELL | Instagram Poetry and Sweet Simplicity

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I would like to start this article by saying that I am by no means an expert in poetry. Sure, I dutifully sat down and wrote up analyses for my Freshman Writing Seminar classes like everybody else, but I would venture to say that my personal, perhaps overly-relaxed approach to reading poetry would make most English majors want to punch me in the face. 

So, while my brain may be digesting the pages in front of me, loosely picking up on rhyme schemes, I wouldn’t say that I’m a particularly critical reader of poetry. Nor am I particularly snobbish when it comes to poetry I enjoy — which is why it took me by surprise when I realized that Instagram poetry really isn’t my thing. 

Although anybody who knows me will tell you that I’m a misanthrope — a human who hates humans — I like to enjoy things that other people enjoy. Yet, my experience with Instapoets is the same as my experience with pumpkin spice lattes — I wanted to like them. I really wanted to like them. It was so whimsical and romantic to imagine an online community of bohemian co-conspirators, forging emotional connections across seas with the sheer power or words and minimalist line drawings. But unfortunately, while I can acknowledge the beauty in some Instagram poetry, my overall opinion is meh

I’m obviously not the only one. If you look at the Amazon reviews of Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey, one of the first reviews reads: “kudos to the marketing team behind this book that have/managed to hype up a/steamy turd of literature…PS: I have now written poetry according to the example set by milk and honey.” 

In a similar vein, the popular parody of Milk and Honey, Milk and Vine, which applied Kaur’s style to vine captions, became a viral sensation after it was first published in 2017, going on to spur a new parody meme format which has ranged from a similar, Vine-based approaches (two bros/chilling in the hot tub/five feet apart ‘cause they’re/not gay”) to the more recent discourse around Rupi Kaur reading her poetry on TikTok

The memes have arguably gotten a bit out of control, with Vice contributor Andrew Llyod amassing 646 followers to an Instagram account where, despite writing with absolutely “zero standards” (his words, not mine), he managed to acquire an audience of people declaring that their souls were intertwined — and this was in response to a poem which reads “They may be sly as a fox, but you can take it — You’re as strong as an ox.” 

Along with the derisive memes, the poetry community has also had a mixed response to Instagram poetry. In an article for the PN Review, poet Rebecca Watts describes her deep disdain for the “cult of the noble amateur,” claiming that the rise of Instagram poetry is a sign of social media’s “dumbing effect,” proclaiming “in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords.”

Responses to this critique were, of course, mixed. When interviewed for an article in The Guardian, PN Review editor Michael Schmidt was quoted as saying: “Many of our readers seem relieved that literary criticism is at last being applied to writing that has, hitherto, been welcomed with open arms by journalists because it is easy to read, contains few challenges … to insist that it can stand on a sure footing beside poetry in what I have now too often seen described as ‘dusty old books’.”

On the other side of the debate in the same article, critically acclaimed poet and winner of the PEN Printer Prize, Lemn Sissay, argued: “There is a new horizon in poetry … Some people are cowering in the dark from this horizon. They seem to panic over the size and brightness of it. There’s room for all forms of poetry. And whichever side you’re on, it’s foolish to say there isn’t.”

As I read through this criticism, I found myself being increasingly shaken by the critique of Instagram poetry, which is, with all honesty, classist. This idea was cemented upon reading Hollie McNish’s response to the critique of her work: “To call someone an ‘instagram poet’ makes me feel similar to the way I have been called a ‘slam poet’ for years simply because I have entered five poetry slams in my life … For me, social media platforms are about allowing people who cannot get to gigs or would not feel comfortable at them, being allowed to have a look at my poetry if they want.”

McKnish went on to point out that people read her poems not because of how she says things, but because of what she says. Similarly, in an interview with the Huffington Post, Rupi Kaur spoke about how her poetry is rooted in mundane experiences, and how her sense of purpose as a poet revolves around boiling down complexity into a few simple words. 

A similar logic appears when people speak about why they love Instagram poetry — not because of its complexity or density, but because it feels raw. When I think back to how people speak about Instagram poetry on the platform itself, their connection to the verses is similarly tender — a poem alongside their morning coffee, a few lines hastily underlined on their Insta story, or even an excited caption on their finsta, followed by joyous communal recognition. Of course, I don’t think that honesty is an excuse for superficial writing which feels like the scribbles of Jughead Jones on Riverdale, but despite that qualm, I hesitate to disparage the legitimate joy and connections arising from this art form. 

Poetry is, of course, about more than just an uncontrolled expression of feeling — there’s incredible complexity to the craft of poetry which I can’t even begin to convey. But, simply because something might not fit into our polished vision of poetry doesn’t mean it’s without value, and despite my personal dissatisfaction with the genre, I can still appreciate the connections it creates. Like pumpkin spice lattes, Instagram poems aren’t for me — but I’m sure that somebody out there is reveling in their sweet simplicity.

Mira Kudva Driskell is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Portrait of a Gen Z on Fire runs alternate Mondays this semester. She can be reached at mdriskell@cornellsun.com.