You would be forgiven for thinking that the poet Rupi Kaur was something of an anomaly. Her breakout collection of poetry, Milk and Honey, published in 2014, was a colossal commercial success, selling over 2.5m copies worldwide to date. This is a landmark achievement for any writer, but perhaps even more astonishing when considering that this is poetry – arguably the most antiquated and often hilariously pretentious literary form. Yet Kaur has managed to go beyond the small, stubbornly loyal band of poetry readers to the mainstream. How?
Her success can partly be attributed to her innovative way of “publishing” before landing a book deal – social media. Yet Kaur is hardly alone; she is surrounded by a new breed of so called “Insta-poets” who post short pieces of poetry onto social media platforms, the most popular being Instagram, a community whose work can, within days, garner millions of likes.
Insta-poetry is now a legitimate part of our culture, particularly in youth literary circles. It’s easy to see why it has gained so much popularity – its accessibility lies not only within its mode of publishing, but also in its simplicity and straightforwardness, often relying on stripped back poetic techniques that deal with universal, deeply human themes. It rejects the baroque, often impenetrable literary fashions that define the established canon of poetry, such as classical allusions, academic schools of thought, historical contexts, and everything else that makes the reading of poetry often feel like a particularly sweaty exam; a puzzle box to be solved.
The poets that have defined this new movement are perhaps an ideal gateway into the world of poetry. These are easy (often addictive) poems that prove pretentious ideas of what makes something poetic utterly redundant. As well as Kaur, a sensitive, feminist poet who writes of pain and womanhood with striking intensity, there are many other poets worth discovering. For example, Tyler Knot Gregson, an aesthetic, penetrating poet with a faintly Shakespearean quality in his dealings with romance and tragedy. There’s also Amanda Torroni, whose dark, deliciously gothic works have made her the literary equivalent of Lana Del Rey. Other poets such as Lang Leav and Nayyirah Waheed are worth exploring, as all are equally accessible, understandable and instantly relatable.
Yet sadly (and perhaps inevitably) these poets have had little success with literary critics, who see them as shallow and artificial. Why do the poets of today suffer when other poets before them have had great critical success with similar ideas?
Take Kaur for example. Her feminist work is taut and sharp, with shades of Anne Sexton, and her bare grammatical style has echoes of E. E. Cummings. Even the content of her poems could be argued equally substantial as, say, the poetic works of William Carlos Williams. You may wonder what these writers would be posting had they had an Instagram account in their time. Perhaps their modes of expression could have been eerily similar!
Often it is this mode of publication, Instagram, that is under the most attack by critics, which is probably understandable. Instagram, notoriously moulding photos, lives and identities into disposable, consumable commodities, has also latched its claws into this literary works of those who choose to share them there, and often the lines can be blurred between what is poetry and what is just a philosophical late-night-post-break-up musing.
But what constitutes poetry anyway? At its most fundamental, it is the expression of feeling. Through time, these feelings, to be taken seriously, have had to be made to rhyme, to flow, to fit into crushingly metrical forms that would constrict any writer – and fantastic poetry has been written under these circumstances, granted. Yet poetry shouldn’t be given merit on its dry cerebral pretentions. What makes a good poem is how it makes a reader feel, how many people it reaches, how it gives a voice to silent thoughts and ideas. Still, we are educated on literature that often rejects this, and it’s no wonder that poetry often goes out of fashion when poems are taught to be memorised and unstitched, like maths problems.
While Insta-poetry may not be for everyone, it shows that there is still an appetite for poetry in general, especially among younger generations. Poetry should be accessible to everyone, regardless of education or experience. If you feel intimidated by poetry, give its new-age variant a go – you might find it’s not so dusty after all.