Instagram Poetry and Our Poetry Worlds

– Poetry Foundation | By Timothy Vu –

These days, when I’m browsing in the poetry section of my local bookstore, it’s usually not too long before a staff member appears, trailed by an eager patron who’s always in search of a single book: Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey.

It’s pretty difficult to have a neutral conversation about Rupi Kaur with other poets. If you don’t know, Kaur has 3.5 million followers on Instagram, and, it seems, about the same number of articles written about her. She is the leading figure of a group of poets whose fame derives primarily from Instagram, a group that includes R.M. Drake (1.9 million followers), Atticus (1 million), Nayyirah Waheed (715,000), Lang Leav (500,000), and Yrsa Daley-Ward (154,000).

There have been plenty of debates about whether the phenomenon of Instagram poetry is “good” or “bad” for poetry in general. But aesthetic judgments about Instagram poetry, whether positive or negative, may be less interesting than the contexts for poetry—ones we often don’t talk about—that are revealed in our reactions to it. The rise of Instagram poets makes more visible the different poetry worlds that contemporary poets occupy, whose boundaries are not just aesthetic, but economic and institutional as well.

To date, there have been a few major themes in the discourse about Instagram poetry. In the mainstream press, the primary theme has been “how Instagram saved poetry,” with a focus on how the medium is drawing new audiences to an ostensibly moribund genre; indeed, Instagram poets have been claimed as the driving force behind a resurgence in U.S. poetry readership. Other accounts have taken a dimmer view of this success; Claire Fallon, for instance, calls the world of Instagram poets a “huckster’s paradise” of self-promotion and media manipulation; Atticus, one of the most popular poets on Instagram, is “a brand, not an artist.”

That last comment brings us to the third strand of discussion of Instagram poets: that they are simply bad poets, or that what they write is not “really” poetry. Writing in the venerable British journal PN Review, Rebecca Watts decries the “open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft” evident in the “artless poetry” of Kaur and her peers. As the most famous poet of Instagram, Kaur has been the most popular target of such criticism, from articles characterizing her as an anti-intellectual who hates to read to ones that charge her with simplifying colonial trauma into “broad-reaching sentiments and uncomplicated feminist slogans.”

One of the most thoughtful engagements with Kaur’s poetry is Kazim Ali’s piece for Harriet, which to me best captures the ambivalent response of many poets I know to the rise of Instagram poetry. Ali writes that his first response to Kaur’s fame is a rather irritated one:

[O]n the surface of it I’m mildly annoyed that I gave so many years to learning craft, reading deeply, doing everything I could to become a better poet, because it seems that all it takes is some superficial musings, some pretty okay (honestly) drawings, and one (admitted awesome) photo to go viral and make you the most famous poet in the world, and maybe of all time.

If Ali finds satisfaction in “a young woman of color putting the canon of Western civilization off its pedestal for once,” he has to admit: “Is it interesting as poetry? Not to me.”

Where Ali goes farther than most commentators is in pondering Kaur’s relationship to the broad and complex landscape of what we currently call “poetry.” Only with reluctance does he grant Kaur’s writing the label of “poetry” at all—“Kaur’s verses—okay, okay, her poems”—and he does so by pointing to the many places in which poetry appears in our popular culture, from Hallmark cards to song lyrics. And yet, he acknowledges, there’s a difference between Kaur’s writing and that of “‘actual’ poets” who are still pretty popular and accessible, like Mary Oliver or Sharon Olds.

What makes someone an “actual poet”? It is not simply the question of whether their poetry is good or bad; actual poets write bad poems all the time. I think there are at least two obvious answers: one that a scholar of literature might give, and another that a practicing contemporary poet might give (although of course these roles, and these answers, are bound to overlap).

The scholar is likely to say that “poetry” is something that fits into a tradition of other things that we also call “poetry.” If you want, you can call this a “canon,” but you don’t have to; it’s just a question of what other kinds of things you talk about when you talk about that piece of writing.

The practicing poet is likely, as Ali does, to appeal to the idea of “craft.” A real poet is someone who has studied the art of poetry, who has read other poets, and who produces work that reflects and builds on the techniques and achievements of other poets. To highlight craft is to assert that poetry is not any old kind of speech or self-expression, but is the product of self-conscious work on the part of the poet, and of a kind of training that can last a lifetime—in Chaucer’s rendering, “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.”

How do contemporary American poets obtain such training in craft? For many, the answer has become: through university creative writing programs. The rise of the discipline of creative writing is a topic far too large to be discussed here, but suffice it to say that today in the U.S., an “actual poet” who aspires to a mastery of craft is increasingly likely to have engaged in the formal study of poetry writing in a college or university.

One corollary of the rise of academic creative writing is that it provides a structure of support for the practice of an art form that has become almost completely detached from the market. In the creative writing era, someone who is a “professional poet” is most likely to be a teacher of writing—or to have another job. The opposition of art and commerce, of course, is nothing new, and has become central to our modern conception of the artist who pursues a vision regardless of the approval of others. The appearance on the scene of writers who call what they are doing “poetry” and are successful in marketing what they do to the public disrupts this romantic idea. It’s very easy to respond, as many have, by dismissing them as “not real poets” who pander to untutored readers. But isn’t there also a tinge of jealousy in our response? A sense that our work and the work of our peers should be recognized, and rewarded, by a larger audience? And an uncomfortable awareness of how small and closed our “actual” poetry world can sometimes seem?

Since we can’t make money from poetry or rely on the metric of popular success, we’ve developed a non-profit poetry economy that relies on small-press publishing, contests, reading fees, grants, and university support, with rare occasional recognition from mainstream book reviews and prestigious prizes. Our readers are likely to be other poets who work within the same system. And over time, the question of defining “real” poetry is likely to become increasingly tied to that system, rather than being simply a question of aesthetic judgment. Or perhaps there’s really no difference here: it would be no surprise if aesthetic value in poetry is increasingly aligned with participation in the economic and institutional system within which contemporary American poetry is produced.

In this system, book publication remains the gold standard of poetic achievement, as well as the criterion of academic advancement. Yet relatively few people buy these books. Instagram poets such as Kaur also publish books, of course, but these books simply exist in a different publishing universe. Publishers Weekly reports that in 2017, the bestselling poetry title from a traditional poetry publisher was Mary Oliver’s Devotions, which sold just over 36,000 copies. But Kaur’s Milk and Honey, which is published by Andrews McNeel (“best known for its comics and humor, puzzles and games, and gift books”), sold over 1 million copies that same year. From this perspective, Oliver and Kaur basically have nothing to do with each other beyond the fact that each calls what she is doing “poetry.”

But print culture is no longer the only poetry world. Perhaps the most obvious parallel development to the rise of academic creative writing over the past several decades has been the rise of spoken word poetry, which has developed its own aesthetics, institutions, and publics while remaining, for the most part, outside creative writing’s print-dominated culture. Once tied closely to local scenes, spoken word gradually gained national platforms like HBO’s Def Poetry Jam—which we might see as the 21st century’s first demonstration that at least one form of contemporary poetry could reach mass media audiences.

The internet has provided an even more wide-reaching platform for spoken word. Performances by poets such as Saul Williams, Sarah Kay, and Lily Myers have racked up millions of views on YouTube, and social media can help even performances by unknowns go viral. (One of the top hits for poetry on YouTube is a video of a seventh-grade poet that has been viewed nearly nine million times.)

So what’s the relationship between the economies of what sometimes gets called “stage poetry” and “page poetry”? One obvious difference, as these nicknames suggest, is the role of the published book as the marker of poetic achievement—of who is an “actual” poet. While many spoken word poets have, of course, published books, others have risen to prominence without them. And while for some poets, readings are largely adjuncts to the promotion of a book, for spoken word artists performance is the main means of propagating their work. Indeed, for the most successful poets, performance can be a source of income that is independent of the system of academic support and employment on which many other poets now rely.

A May 2018 Washington Post article on “viral” poetry offers a more nuanced glimpse of the economy of contemporary poetry. Although she’s highlighted in the article, Kaur for once is not the center of the discussion; the focus instead is on spoken word performances that have been widely shared on social media, including poems by Mahogany L. Browne, Lily Myers, and Danez Smith. But while the article seeks to link Kaur and these other poets as challengers to an out-of-touch poetry establishment, poets like Browne and Smith themselves seem to display much of the same ambivalence toward Instagram poetry as a writer like Kazim Ali. Browne wonders if it’s a good thing if “everyone has a five-line poem book on the New York Times bestseller table at Barnes & ­Noble.” And Smith states that “I’m not interested in writing short bite-sized pieces that can fit into a square on Instagram,” and draws a contrast between the “quick and digestible” work of a writer like Kaur and “poems that people get to marinate on for a while.”

In fact, looking at Smith’s career may be one of the best ways of analyzing the seemingly vast gulf between work like Kaur’s and so-called “traditional” poetry. A champion slam poet, Smith is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s innovative First Wave program, the first college program in the country focused on spoken word. Though First Wave is not part of the university’s creative writing program, it arguably represents an emerging connection between the university and a spoken-word culture that has previously remained outside of academic institutions.

Smith’s performances are no stranger to internet fame; their poem “Dear White America” has over 350,000 YouTube views. But Smith has also found success in poetry’s traditional print culture, with Don't Call Us Dead (2017) a finalist for the National Book Award and [insert] Boy (2014) winning the Lambda Literary Award and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award.

Smith’s responses to Kaur might be seen as an index of these complex positions within the poetry landscape. A few years back, Smith caused a bit of a stir on Twitter with a tweet stating “friends don't let friends read Rupi Kaur unironically,” but more recently has espoused a live-and-let-live attitude.

In a wide-ranging interview with Tone Madison, Smith expands on these thoughts; Smith still finds Kaur’s writing “lazy” and “simplistic,” but adds: “she's a young woman of color, and she's making money, and people find value in her work. Who am I to hate?” The fact that Kaur is a poet who earns money from her poetry doesn’t cause Smith the same discomfort as it does for other Kaur critics, most likely because Smith is also a poet who is able to make money from poetry.

I was worried a long time ago about what success would mean, and selling out. It feels weird to be a poet who makes money. I got to a point where I was just an unorganized bitch, so I was like, I need an agent. I do have capital, and there is a career in poetry, and I'm glad I've made a life for myself outside the realm of academia. That's not to say I wouldn't take a tenure-track job, just in case someone at UW-Madison is reading this.

Smith’s stature as a performer enables them to do what otherwise seems unthinkable in the realm of contemporary poetry: to earn a living, like Kaur, as a poet. But Smith’s joke about a tenure-track job also acknowledges the adjacency of the poetry world in which Smith participates to that of the academy, even if the relationship between those two worlds continues to be uneasy.

Ultimately, Smith sounds many of the same notes that Kazim Ali does in response to Kaur’s work. For Smith, Kaur doesn’t have any place within a literary tradition, and compares poorly to the writers canonical to Smith’s own work: “I’m not going to sit here and pretend that Rupi Kaur is doing the same thing as Patricia Smith.” And Smith evokes the same word that Ali does—craft—in summarizing Kaur’s shortcomings: “I’m not going to act like a lot of the people who are interested in this Instagram-type work—that feels very rapidly produced and not thought through—are doing the same thing as me. That feels like a respect for craft and influence.”

The debate over Kaur, then, reveals at least three different poetry worlds, which overlap to varying degrees. One realm, largely aligned with academic creative writing, continues to hold the published book as the acme of achievement, and increasingly identifies “craft” with formal training. The work produced in this first realm has little relationship to market forces, and is the least amenable to propagation online. A second realm is that of spoken word, which has developed its own institutions, but which also sees some practitioners participating prominently in the academic and print worlds as well; it’s more possible for practitioners in this second economy to earn money directly from their performance, and spoken word has proven itself friendly to viral spread online.

The final realm is that of “Instagram poets” like Kaur. Although writers like Kaur often have published books, it can be reasonably argued that their work, and their fame, is “born digital.” Writers like Kaur and Atticus have mastered the format of Instagram, creating brief and tastefully presented texts, often accompanied by simple visual elements, from Kaur’s line drawings to Atticus’s self-consciously artsy black-and-white photos. Kaur’s poetry can’t be separated from her self-portraiture, which makes her Instagram a neat grid of alternating photos and texts. These are posts that can be taken in at a glance while scrolling by on your phone, easily read, responded to, and shared with others, with a distinct visual identity. Perhaps the most obvious difference in this third realm of poetry is its frank attitude toward marketing and self-promotion, which the first two realms regard with varying degrees of unease or distaste. While Instagram fame alone doesn’t generate income for these poets, using Instagram as a platform to sell books, merchandise, and tickets has been remarkably successful for some of them.

For all the hopes that Instagram poetry would prove a gateway drug to more traditional poetry, it’s not really in conversation with any kind of poetic tradition, written or spoken, or with any of the existing institutions that support contemporary poetry. The strange new world of Instagram poetry is one that has largely been discovered, even invented, by poets like Kaur and Atticus, whose work represents a remarkable synthesis of disparate elements: the word/image conjunction of the inspirational internet meme; the residual prestige still attached to the idea of poetry (even by those who never read any) and to print culture (see, for instance, Atticus’s frequent invocation of the texture of paper and typewriting); the Romantic and confessional ideal of the poet as a medium for unadulterated self-expression; the projection of a consistent social media persona through self-portraiture, interactions with followers, and visual distinctiveness; and the unapologetic, entrepreneurial monetization of online following through promotion and sales of books and readings. Poetry on Instagram has, without a doubt, developed its own aesthetic, but it is one produced by the particular demands of the medium and its position within the market, not one marked by a descent from other poetic traditions.

Is it poetry? From the point of view of the other two poetry worlds I’ve described here, no. From its own internal logic, yes; it’s poetry because its makers say it is, and the category of poetry is absolutely crucial to what they understand themselves to be doing.

The poetry worlds of page and stage have increasingly recognized each other, and their practitioners have increasingly overlapped. Neither recognizes the poetry world that lives on Instagram; and for its part, that world doesn’t need them.

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