Instagram poets society: selfie age gives new life and following into poetry

Published on:
February 26, 2016

– The Guardian | By Michelle Dean –

The phenomenon of Instagram poets – who are also, to be fair, Tumblr poets and Pinterest poets – has been one of the more surprising side-effects of the selfie age.

Poem written by Atticus Poetry starting with "I'll let you into my soul" - instagram poetry by Atticus

“Instagram poets” are, of course, simply poets, but they’re a phenomenon unto themselves because they have cleverly managed to combine the internet’s love of an inspirational quote with artful typography and immediate shareability. Poems are ideally suited, in some ways, to social media, because they pack so much meaning into so little language.

Whatever one might think of their work, they are unquestionably popular, and they are popular in an age when poetry is reputed to be dead. They get reposted by the likes of Karlie Kloss, and even the Kardashians, as the New York Times pointed out last fall. Tyler Knott Gregson, one of the most popular, published a hardcover book of poetry in 2014 that continues to enjoy strong sales on Amazon and an almost perfect five-star rating.

Peruse Kloss’s social media feeds and you will find quite a few re-grams and re-blogs from the mysterious web poet known only as Atticus. Recently, she posted one of his one-liners that reads, “Give like the sun and the whole world grows tall.”

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Karlie Kloss (@karliekloss)

Even among his fellow Instagram poets, Atticus is something of a minimalist. He tends to be sparing with adjectives and descriptions, preferring to remain very abstract. Many of his poems consist of just one line.

Atticus goes only by that name. His identity is a mystery. He has about 174,000 Instagram followers at last count. His profile photograph is of a slim young man wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, only half his face in the frame. This seems an improbable costume for a person whose poetry is pretty much devoid of politics. He writes chiefly about love, and sadness – and sunsets. Most project an aura of extreme emotional fragility, and use the cadence of inspirational literature. “I’ll let you into / my soul / but wipe your feet at the door,” he writes in one poem.

On Instagram, Atticus’s peers include Christopher Poindexter, who has 288,000 Instagram followers and two reasonably successful books of poetry have followed from his popularity online. There’s also Toronto-based poet Rupi Kaur, who is currently promoting her book – milk and honey – across North America to her 345,000 Instagram followers.

It would be too easy to lump the popularity of Instagram poetry as soft-focus, sentimental nonsense. But there is some appeal beyond greeting-card quotability for Kaur, in particular. She chooses harsh subject matter. One of her habits is to draw a photograph to accompany a poem, and these drawings are often disturbing, as with the one accompanying a recent poem that links self-mutilation with despair:

View this post on Instagram A post shared by rupi kaur (@rupikaur_)

Atticus, one senses, would never take a risk like this. He is more of a character in a romance novel, one just as vaguely stoic as any Fabio on the cover of a Harlequin paperback. He has a depressive streak, but it is always modulated by an uplifting message: “I can’t help but feel a little bit sad / for everybody I’ve ever met, / happy for them / but also sad.” At times, his deft navigation of that line – enough emotion to pull at people’s heartstrings, without actually threatening to make the reader uncomfortable – seems his greatest talent.

But that means, most of the time, that this person is hiding. As I read hundreds of poems, I began to wonder if there was something more like an algorithm than a person behind them. The emotions seemed real enough, but there was little sense of voice, only a very good understanding of what his readers wanted to hear and know about their inner lives. “it could be today / the day you realize / they have no / more power over you,” he intoned about six weeks ago, in the manner of an excellent therapist.

Poindexter, by contrast, is a wordier, more openly confessional kind of writer. His poems often posit him as a uniquely understanding, sensitive man. Occasionally this borders on what the internet likes to call nice-guy-ism: “I saw the masks from an early age, called everyone’s bluff, / even my own, and this is why I chose sensitivity, vulnerability. / still knowing so many of the women do not long for it.”

He is fond, too, of observational poems in which he speculates, for example, about the woman who walks by his window every morning: “she gave me ten seconds of her life every day.” The audience for this sort of thing, again, is clearly women, especially young ones, who won’t have the developed critique of a “male gaze” one might otherwise make of this sort of writing.

Still there is, for skeptics and optimists alike, a kind of silver lining here. We are reminded repeatedly, often by older men, that western civilization has died on the altar of social media. Just this week, David Denby worried at the New Yorker that young people were not reading Great Literature, ditching the classics in favor of the iPhone.

One feels tempted to invite Denby into the comments on Atticus’s list of his top 10 poets. The first comment is “You forgot capote:).” His followers go on to add Orwell, Flannery O’Connor, Sylvia Plath, Khalil Gibran and Maya Angelou as their own favorites. Fans of Instagram poetry like Atticus’s seem to enjoy more than just one-liners. There may be hope for them after all.

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