Before 2019 came to a close, Rupi Kaur, author of The New York Times’ bestselling poetry collections “Milk and Honey” and “The Sun and Her Flowers,” was declared “writer of the decade” in an article by The New Republic. The general public was quick to launch a series of complaints against this decision, even topping Twitter’s trending page worldwide as many had criticisms against the poet’s new title.
Among the many complaints on Twitter, one particular viral comment stood out amongst others. The user remarked: “Rupi Kaur won poet of the decade. Y’all need to read REAL poetry … here’s some Lord Tennyson, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Rachel Griffiths.” One commenter even went so far as to say “If Rupi Kaur is poet of the decade than my notes app from when I was 13 is also poet of the decade.” For those unfamiliar with Kaur’s work, this isn’t the first time her poetry has been embroiled in controversy. Ever since the poet’s work gained traction in 2017, her popularity has been continuously disputed due to the general dislike of an emerging style of poetry that Kaur popularized since the release of “Milk and Honey” in 2014: a form known commonly as “Instapoetry.”
“Instapoetry” describes a type of poem that is curated and written with the intent of being shared on a visual social platform. Minimalist in conception, these poems are typically two to eight lines long and accompanied by an abstract, hand-drawn doodle that represents whatever image the poem tries to evoke. For a generation that is moving with the ever-changing tide of technology, Kaur’s contemporary poetry presents itself as a natural combination between a previously inaccessible art form and a widely accessible social platform.
I’ve had similar contentions with the way Kaur engages the medium. Now that The New Republic’s article has re-sparked the debate surrounding Kaur’s works, I’ve come to understand that the controversy stems from a discord between poetry made for consumption and poetry made for personal, emotional catharsis — more specifically, accessible poetry as opposed to inaccessible poetry. Among Kaur’s critics, the consensus seems to be that the best poets express themselves in the most obscure ways possible. By referencing poets like Lord Tennyson or T.S. Elliot, most critics suggest that poetry must be challenging, and Kaur’s work defeats that purpose by not engaging audiences in an intellectually, stimulating way.
Cynical critics seem to suggest that a poem should be emotionally distant from the experience it is trying to depict. Tucked behind complex themes and abstract metaphors, a poem by these standards should evade the reader, allowing them to gain an insight into the impression of the experience rather than engage with the actual experience itself. Kaur, however, is direct and transgressive in the way she details her personal experience. Though it is simple, she has gained attention, mainly because people can identify with and understand what she is communicating. Unlike the classics who seek to evade readers and require time in order to understand, Kaur’s work doesn’t read like a jigsaw puzzle, and it still gives the emotional payoff that a more traditional poem would.
When we take all of this into consideration, a good poet should be able to communicate her message in a way that is both representative of the ideas she wants to express while also catering her poetry towards an audience that can enjoy it as well. In Kaur’s case, I believe she is pandering to her audience more than most poets. However, with every Instagram poem of hers that I’ve read and mulled over, I’ve discovered a disingenuous and hollow feel to her pieces. While I’m hesitant to side with those who gate-keep poetry, it’s difficult to avoid Kaur and the way she packages her poetry. In order to make a product accessible, the quality of the work itself shouldn’t fall as a result of that accessibility. There should be a way to make poetry accessible without losing depth and soul, and yet Kaur’s self-indulgence seems to be a constant offender of this kind of accessible poetry. With Instagram serving as the tool that powers the existence of her work, the quality of her poetry often gets pushed aside in favor of what the average Instagram user would find profound. This kind of marketing is not new, but my own grievance with this is that Kaur’s work is touted as being an honest reflection of what she hopes to impart to her audience from her own personal experiences. However, her content seems geared more towards branding rather than authenticity: aesthetic, inspirational quotes that say seemingly deep, but fairly obvious things in a clever way.
The same way a beauty influencer may endorse skin care she doesn’t use or a model promotes clothing he doesn’t actually wear outside of social media, Kaur also seems to follow this model of creating and promoting “poetry” that is purely for consumption and branding. Her Instagram poems are just thinly veiled marketing ploys. While there is no such thing as definitively real poetry, I believe that the majority of Kaur’s poems are simply generic affirmations formatted to appear like poetry. Though there are a couple standalone poems of Kaur that I would regard as legitimate, most of her poetry can barely even be qualified as poems. It’s hard to justify whether or not Kaur is a poet when half of her collections read like cliché quotes you could find on the side of a coffee mug or the inside of a Hallmark card.
If anything, I wish Kaur would differentiate between her actual, purposefully made poems and her diary entries or shower thoughts. Kaur’s Instagram poetry conflates the two, and I think it’s valid that people are criticising the production of these poems when she interchangeably posts random thoughts and serious poems, while marketing both as forms of poetry. Kaur’s work consequently collapses the idea that poetry is a skilled art form, and pushes the idea that any one’s random, effortless thoughts can count as being a well-regarded poem. It enforces the belief that poetry can be done by anyone who has a pencil or a pen, which we can accept to some extent, but in reality, poetry is a technical art that doesn’t just consist of lazy, random thoughts that give the impression of having depth.
That said, there is merit in Kaur’s “Instapoetry” just as much as there’s merit in the classics. While I do find her misleading, her style is unconventional, and purposeful experimentation makes great art. An artist should be able to have artistic license over the production of her work, but when the self-indulgence that comes with that artistic creativity interferes with the quality of the work, that is when I think it is time to reevaluate.
At the end of the day, Kaur is the “Twilight” of contemporary poetry — poetry that is fun and easily consumable by the masses, but, by academic standards, is somewhat devoid of advanced skill and technique, meant to be consumed the same way we devoured Stephenie Meyer’s teen vampire novels. While I could go on and critique what Kaur lacks, I will applaud her for bringing a practically inaccessible art form off its dusty bookshelf. For decades, poetry has always been an art form that only the elite could engage with, and to the credit of Kaur, she has placed poetry in the direct sighline of those who may have previously written it off as too complex. While she is no “writer of the decade” in my book, she most certainly has contributed to the genre an innovated with the technology of the 2010s in a way that is fitting of the title.