For those familiar with the “genre”, the name Rupi Kaur is sure to ring bells. Kaur’s 2014 debut collection of poetry, Milk and Honey, is a New York Times Best Seller, and she has nearly 4 million followers on Instagram. Kaur is 29-years old and was born in India, but grew up in Brampton, Ontario. She popularized Instapoetry and is seen as a queen of the genre—a title that is a slight and a compliment all at once. Late last year, Kaur was named Writer of the Decade by The New Republic.
As a fellow twenty-something poet from the GTA who posts their work on Instagram, (@MarsThePoet) it’s hard to criticize Kaur without sounding bitter. But I do own copies of both her books so there is that. I don’t think that Rupi Kaur is the best poet let alone the best writer of the last decade, but I don’t think she won because of her writing ability.
Some have argued that Kaur was bestowed the honour because of her cultural relevance, meteoric rise and use of technology. And I agree.
One of the biggest criticisms of “traditional” poetry is that it’s inaccessible. Traditional poetry can be intentionally vague and littered with uncommon words and literary devices. Instapoetry, by definition, is the opposite—short, confessional and direct. Part of Kaur’s success is down to the fact that her poems feel relatable and easy to understand. She wouldn’t have sold over three million copies of her books or had them translated into over 35 languages if they weren’t. Like Instagram, Kaur’s key demographic are women and young adults. And it’s clear from her use of social media that she knows her audience and markets to them.
People who are generous in their critiques of Kaur and Instapoetry writ large argue that Instapoetry is a gateway to the real stuff, the serious poets. In an article by Rumaan Alam of The New Republic, he claims that for many young people, Kaur is their first experience of poetry. Many of them will regard Kaur as the first poet they loved even when they outgrow her. While most poetry aficionados find Kaur’s work immature, newcomers to poetry find it profound. The idea is that if people become fans of poetry via Rupi Kaur, they’ll eventually seek out more poetry and come across some true gems.
In a world rife with distractions and short attention spans, Instapoets are promoting literature, which can only be a good thing. Also, Kaur’s popularity and success has created opportunities for other Instapoets to thrive. In 2018, three of the top 10 books on the New York Times Best Sellers list were written by Instapoets. Kaur is undoubtedly a very successful and influential poet.
But those things don’t make her the best writer of the last decade.
There are Rupi Kaur poems I’ve read that have punched me in the gut emotionally and have left me feeling reflective. There are also Rupi Kaur poems I’ve read that have made me say “WTF?! Why did I read that?!”
Thinking about Kaur and her success reminds me of another young, talented, Canadian artist: Drake. Both Kaur and Drizzy are among the most successful artists in their respective fields, now and of all time. Whether you like them or the genres they operate in or not, chances are you’ve heard of them. And if you look into their numbers, you’d see that their success is not a matter of opinion, it’s a fact. So, objectively speaking, they must be the best, right?
That’s where the situation gets complicated. If you asked a hip-hop head who the best rapper of all time is they might say Nas, The Notorious B.I.G., Rakim. If you were to suggest that Drake is the greatest of all time, they’d likely scoff and dismiss your perspective as a whole. Similarly, in the poetry community, to say that Rupi Kaur is better than William Blake or Maya Angelou or Emily Dickinson is blasphemy. But I’m willing to bet that Kaur and Drake are the two most popular names on those lists. Especially if you ask young people.
Another similarity between Kaur and Drake are the criticisms levelled at them. Both artists are accused of having less-than-genuine personas, misrepresenting and cheapening their genres as well as inspiring less-talented versions of themselves. On the other hand, both are undoubtedly talented, hard-working, and responsible for the increase in popularity and marketability of hip-hop and poetry. Drake and Kaur have reached audiences that otherwise might never have given their genre a chance had it not been for them. You can’t overlook that.
It’s hard to judge objectively when it comes to the arts. Art is a subjective experience and what’s valuable to one person might not be to another. Ranking and categorizing artists is also difficult because there are many factors to consider. There are Rupi Kaur poems I’ve read that have punched me in the gut emotionally and have left me feeling reflective. There are also Rupi Kaur poems I’ve read that have made me say “WTF?! Why did I read that?!” Does that mean that Kaur is a talentless hack? No, definitely not. Do poems she’s written that have struck an emotional chord for me or thousands of others mean that she’s the best poet on the planet? Again, definitely not.
For me personally, one of my biggest gripes with Instapoetry pieces is that they often feel more like statements than pieces of art. One thing I was taught about poetry is that you should make the strange feel familiar and make the familiar seem strange. For example, one of my favourite Emily Dickinson pieces is titled “I heard a fly buzz when I died.” The meaning of the title and the piece as a whole don’t come immediately, you have to really think about it. In a similar vein, American poet Rudy Francisco has a poem in which he compares healing to a bad employee. It seems like a strange comparison to make but once you think about it, its brilliance hits you. I think a lot of Instapoetry fails to do that. I find that Instapoetry doesn’t present a new idea or a new way of seeing something, it just presents the author’s thoughts but in a very mundane way. The literary devices are often missing so the piece feels flat and without flavour.
Going back to the Weis quote, it feels like a lot of Instapoets aren’t passionate about the reader’s experience. Instead, they’re more concerned with their aesthetic, appearing deep and the shareability of their posts. And while that formula may have worked for some and garnered them huge followings, typically, I don’t think it makes for good poetry.