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Who Has The Right To Write?: The Debate Around Internet's Effect on Modern Poetry

In blog post I wrote in 2017, I said of Rupi Kaur's milk and honey:

'It has been compared to "tumblr poetry", not a compliment by those stating this I'm sure, but I believe that this collection is significantly more complex than simple teenage prose [...] Her simple imagery may be mistaken for lack of skill but instead I think it speaks more to the average reader, translating complex emotions in a relatable way.'

Like slam poetry before her, Kaur seemed to open a door to the world of poetic writing that had been previously closed to much of the public. Jordan Currie argues that slam poetry helped 'amplify the voices of women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized circles'; similarly, what is known as 'Instagram poetry' was a hit with many people specifically because of how accessible it was to read, not only in terms of where you could read it but how you understood it. As Kazim Ali states, Kaur's poetry doesn't ask you to look beneath the surface. Rather, it provides 'moments of recognition [that] allow the reader to notice something in their own perception through the voice of Kaur'. It is a text of consumption, not interrogation.

In my post, I was very much defending her way of writing and since then, it has become very uncool and even heinous to like her work, especially if you attempt to explain why it is poetry. I believe since I wrote the above words, and have since read other (better) poetry, that my opinions have changed significantly.  

Considering her work has become a meme and, according to Buzzfeed News, she has been accused of plagiarism, I'm sure that liking her would be unacceptable even if I did find it particularly eye-opening today. Chiara Giovanni writes that this mocking the internet participates in validates her detractor's opinion that Kaur's work is 'formulaic, shallow, and lack[ing in] true poetic talent', on top of the fact that she uses her marginalised identity and her depictions of trauma as exemptions from 'accusations of superficiality'.

The text read 'if you were born with the weakness to fall, you were born with the strength to rise - rupi kaur'. There is a drawing of a sunset at the bottom of the page.
Source: Rupi Kaur

The text says 'somebody once told me the world was gonna roll me i ain't the sharpest tool in the shed - rupi kaur'. There is a drawing of Shrek at the bottom of the page.
Source: Reddit

The problem with people holding negative opinions towards a single person is that this person becomes an idea rather than someone who walks around living their life. They become what their work is and by extension, come to represent whatever community they are a part of. A lot of the criticisms of Kaur's work I have read have come with the caveat that she is writing as a representative of Asian women and that her perspective should be of some value, even if the work itself isn't very good. Furthermore, Kaur has become an emblem for all 'Instagram poetry' - often a derogatory word for the kind poetry that prioritises short, sharable pieces of text, usually lacking capitalisation and punctuation, as well as being rife with line breaks. 

As Kevin Stein points out, the concern amongst academics is that 'poetry is cheapened by the quest for [a] public audience, especially if this quest is attended by dumb-downed versification'. The kind of free verse that emerged from Instagram caused a kind of panic amongst poets, as it seemed that these dreaded Instagram poets would come to represent poetry to the mainstream and that this would be devastating for the art form. There was a panic that poetry was dying.

I am sorry to report to any purists reading, but poetry is dead. It has been for a while. It has never been cool and the idea that people on Instagram could taint the art form is laughable because the art form is already tainted from the minute we begin to learn about it in school. I've spoken about this on my blog before but we do not teach children to be interested in literature in general. It is not taught as something that is fun or interesting to look at. Margot Atwell goes in to more detail on this: 

'Some people’s first (and only) encounter with the genre is through well-meaning teachers who push them to over-analyze a poem’s meaning, stripping away its joy and artistry in the process [...] If a person’s only experience of poetry is as an opaque puzzle they’re forced to solve, it’s no wonder so many people wind up shunning the form.'

People groan when you bring up Shakespeare or Wordsworth and the only time the average person interacts with poetry in their adult life is, maybe, when they want to buy one of the collections of love poetry to use for Valentine's Day. Your average reader will stick to novels. Poetry has been dead and buried for a while, so the idea that these poets, who were getting teenagers excited about poetry, who were getting them to go to bookshops and buy physical copies of these collections, is what was killing poetry is absolutely absurd. The school system shot that horse in the face a long time ago.

An article in The Atlantic states that, according to research, '12 of the top 20 best-selling poets [in 2017] were Insta-poets' and that in 2018, '28 million Americans [were] reading poetry—the highest percentage of poetry readership in almost two decades'. The way the internet seems to work a lot of the time is that if outlets write enough fear-mongering headlines then people will share the story, even if they haven't read it, even if they are uninterested in what the topic is about. And I think, if we are to really reflect on the panic that was going on around this time, the words 'Millenials killed poetry' was written simply because young people were (apparently) killing every industry at the time and outrage, unfortunately, sells. But it's stuff we've heard before. When you take a prescriptive outlook on our culture, then of course you are going to come to this conclusion, even when the evidence shows, in terms of profit, that the opposite is true.

In Ariel Bissets's #poetry documentary, she points out that a lot of the tension in this debate around poetry is due to the credibility of Instragram as a platform. There has always been a distinct hierarchy between print and digital publishing, with the implication being that if you managed to get printed in a real book, only then can you be considered a true writer. This argument kind of falls apart though when you consider the fact that many of those who are put in the Instagram poets category, will also published a print copy of their work. It doesn't just stay on the platform.

The back of the head of a person with long hair in a pony tail. The text read '#poetry'.
Source: Ariel Bissett

I think the reality is that people on Instagram wanted to share their feelings in a way that was aesthetically pleasing and they decided to call it poetry. Whether or not it was poetry seems to be less of the point. Plenty of poets have argued that it's not, and I think that in itself could have brought up some interesting debates on how technology is going to affect the way we read literature as well as what we are even to define poetry as in the first place. As Fareah Fysudeen explains, Kaur specifically writes within the 'parameters of a smartphone screen, which is not that radical when you consider that many poetic forms are about artificial constraint'. 

Here is my question: what makes poetry so special and so pure that it can't succumb to commercialisation? 

Every other art form - filmmaking, video game design, painting, animation, even prose writing - has what is popular and what is artful. What I'm not arguing is that commercialisation is necessarily good. What I'm arguing instead is that poetry should have its distinction between the mainstream and the more prestigious, which it hasn't had for literal centuries before Rupi Kaur. I am not offended by what Kazim Ali calls 'pop poetry' in the same way I am not offended by commercial novels and films. As I said earlier, people were not buying and reading poetry collections. And then they were. There is a whole table for poetry in Waterstones! That has not happened before! It used to be a small shelf in the back. I know because I always struggled to find it. The panic around poetry being degraded seems to be rooted in a desire to keep it academic, as Bissett's documentary explores, and I have to argue that doing this stops people from interacting with it at all. If when people think of your art form, they think of a teacher yelling at them for not understanding the work, then that is bad.

I don't necessarily want Kaur to be the only poet people know. I know dozens and dozens of people whose work is miles above hers, but I also understand what she meant for culture, and what the internet did for writing general. I love the idea of art being democratised, of taking away the idea that you have to be a skilled writer in order to write a poem. Furthermore, the oversimplification of this debate has people arguing that Instagram poets have an easier time being published, forgetting that this is entirely dependent on how big your audience is. It is not an easy feat to be published: Blake Auden recounts that 'risk-averse publishers are unlikely to take on a new writer without existing sales and a relatively small audience', and often this is just if you want to publish a novel. The market for poetry is still very small.

As I've grown up and read more poetry, my opinion on Rupi Kaur has shifted. I don't like her work anymore and that is fine. I think after some time reflecting on this debate, it is more absurd to argue about an (essentially) dead medium of expression being tainted when it wasn't even on most people's radar to begin with. What is important about this debate is that it is not the academics leading it, because clearly they have been unsuccessful in keeping it relevant and for the most part, that seems to be by design. It's like wanting a band you like to stay indie, even though they are talented, because the thought of people discussing their work, and more importantly scrutinising it, would taint the underground appeal and destroy the idea that an artist must be penniless to be of any worth.

Commercialisation is all-consuming, unfortunately, and I'm not optimistic enough to believe that any art form can overcome this. If poetry-lovers want people to love poetry as much as them, releasing it from the choke-hold of the elites is the only real way that can happen. 


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Blake Auden, 'The realities of being an Instagram poet', The Bookseller <> [accessed 17/03/2021]

Chiara Giovanni, 'The Problem With Rupi Kaur's Poetry', Buzzfeed News <> [accessed 17/03/2021]

Faith Hill and Karen Yuan, 'How Instagram Saved Poetry', The Atlantic <> [accessed 17/03/2021]

Fareah Fysudeen, 'Here’s Why Rupi Kaur’s Poetry Sucks', arts at michigan <> [accessed ]

Jordan Currie, 'How The Internet Elevated Spoken Word Poetry But Also Made It Worse', The Eyeopener <> [accessed 17/03/2021]

Kazim Ali, 'On Instafame & Reading Rupi Kaur', Poetry Foundation <> [accessed 17/03/2021]

Kevin Stein, Poetry's Afterlife: Verse in the Digital Age (Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 2010).

Margot Atwell, 'Poetry, in the Wilds of the Internet', Medium <> [accessed 17/03/2021]