Rupi Kaur is the writer of the decade – at least she is according to a journalist of The New Republic, who attributed this to her ability to make poetry accessible to the greater public, AKA smartphone users. He was soon met with scorn on Twitter, a medium that, ironically, restricts you from writing anything longer than a Rupi Kaur poem. To summarise the debate that followed, twitter users’ main criticism of the article was: Rupi cannot be the writer of the decade because her poetry is bad. The main counterargument: if you criticise Rupi Kaur’s poetry you’re classist. Time for a breakdown.
First, a couple of problematic assumptions need to be unpicked. The first being that “traditional” poetry is incompatible with the tastes of the masses. The second is that what Rupi Kaur calls poetry is poetry at all.
It takes only a glance at its origins to conclude that poetry is, by design, a democratic literary form. The oldest poetry narrates epics of blockbuster-format. The whole reason it has rhythm, rhyme, phonaesthetics and metric rules, is because it is essentially a compression algorithm to fit as much information as possible into one coherent text that can be easily remembered and passed on. It basically developed as a streaming service and social medium all in one, and remained that for millennia, especially to illiterate audiences. Poetry was, and has been, the definition of enjoyment for the many, not the few.
With technological advancement, poetry’s function has changed and has been reinvented many times over. And, many times over, movements from Romanticism to Dadaism have attempted to democratise the form. The thesis that thus regards Kaur is that she exists in this procession of innovators, advancing and democratising the form once again, this time in the context of the smartphone.
But this is a medium superior to its message. There is a danger in praising innovation by itself, regardless of its quality. Especially considering this notion tends to disregard the entire canon of poetry as “old-fashioned” and ignores the fact that art is timeless, and, moreover, inherently democratic. Rupi Kaur has not managed to make the crowd more interested in poetry, as the The New Republic author claims – she has simply managed to sell her books to them.
That brings us to her poems. They’re not bad – from a marketing point of view. But from a literary standpoint, they absolutely are. But in the case of Rupi Kaur, we aren’t really talking about art. We’re talking about commodification. A crucial piece of information here is that Kaur studied a degree in writing, not literature. She has not perfected the craft of operating within a literary tradition, but of taking the sheer typographical surface of the art form and advertising it on a level inseparable from her own looks, gender, and identity.
And it works: she was the best-selling poet of the decade. But that does not mean she is most influential. The most legendary poets are not, or no longer, occupied with selling their work. The “bestselling” nature – again from a literary point of view – is irrelevant: she is not competing with Rilke, Whitman, Stein, Plath, or Lerner. She is competing with the home accessory department of Urban Outfitters. If you look inside gift shops and bookstores, you will always see her books laid flat on a table with the cover facing up; far removed from the “classics” section, and instead close to the racks of greeting cards and keychains, among the most recent New York Times bestselling non-fiction and celebrity keto hacks. It is why I speculate that most owners of Rupi Kaur bundles are in fact recipients of an unwanted Christmas present by a vague aunt who wrongfully assumed that crying over E.E. Cummings in the back of the car meant you admire Poetry in its widest, most corporate definition.