Arts and Entertainment

The Ills of Instapoetry

The meteoric rise of Instapoetry over the past few years has changed many people’s perceptions of poetry and has had unintended negative consequences on the genre of poetry as a whole.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Rupi Kaur, a Canadian-born poet, released her first poetry collection, “milk and honey,” in November of 2014. Most of her poems are written in lowercase and feature excessive line breaks, but the book was quite well-received, staying on The New York Times Best Seller list for over 77 weeks. Though the poems are simple, they touch on heavy yet relatable subjects such as abuse and self-love, and Kaur quickly gained social media popularity. In the years following the release of “milk and honey,” similar poetry began cropping up on every social media platform imaginable, most notably on Tumblr and Instagram. Similar poets include Nayyirah Waheed, R.H. Sin, and Amanda Lovelace. Today, it’s hard to avoid the onslaught of Instapoetry, though much of the writing is impersonal and interchangeable, and it’s not exactly clear if Instapoetry can truly be considered “poetry.”

Before “milk and honey,” Kaur published her writing on her Tumblr blog and Instagram, where it was highly praised for its relatability and simplicity, as well as its focus on heavy subjects like sexual assault and race. She eventually became popular enough to get a book deal, which led to the release of “milk and honey.” Wanting to follow in her footsteps, thousands of aspiring poets began publishing their writing on a myriad of social media platforms. Her writing was especially lauded by teenage girls, who also tried to imitate her style. Instapoetry became popular for its simplicity and accessibility: many who had felt intimidated by the elitist culture surrounding traditional poetry sought refuge in the easy writings of “milk and honey.” Poetry has historically been a literary field that’s hard to break into, and the brevity of the form means that poetry can contain many hidden meanings that can be difficult to parse out. Kaur is always clear about the meanings of her poems; many of them are simply prose sentences split with line breaks, and the emotion is almost palpable in much of her writing. The sentiment is easy to understand, and it often appeals to the masses.

At certain points in “milk and honey,” Kaur’s writing feels more like prose than poetry. Aside from the line breaks, “milk and honey” has little in common with, say, “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman. It’s difficult to define Instapoetry as a subgenre of poetry when it can barely be considered poetry in the first place. While the rules behind poetry are not rigid, after reading the writings of Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop, it somehow feels cheap to call “milk and honey” poetry. Both Plath and Bishop wrote about femininity and angst in their poetry, just as Kaur does now, but their writing features a certain mysterious intensity that Kaur’s lacks. In fact, most traditional poets, even contemporary ones, carry this depth in their writing. While Kaur essentially writes brief sentences and hits her enter key at various points, poets have traditionally utilized their language in much more careful ways. Each word should be purposeful, which creates a sense of seriousness.

It’s worth noting that Kaur was accused of plagiarizing Nayyirah Waheed’s poetry. Waheed is sometimes considered the pioneer of Instapoetry, though Kaur is the one who made it famous. Waheed’s 2013 poetry collection, “salt,” features the same stylistic choices with lowercase letters and line breaks, as illustrated in her poem “reminder”: “even if you are a small forest surviving off of / moon alone. / your light is extraordinary.” This is where the simplicity of Instapoetry becomes a flaw. Both women write in lowercase and use jagged punctuation, but the vast majority of the Instapoetry community do the same thing, regardless of fame or recognition. Though Waheed’s poetry collection technically came first, Kaur popularized the style, and she’s often credited for kicking off the Instapoetry trend. If the style that she supposedly forged is so imitable, who gets to decide who came first? And who deserves the recognition more? The bar to entry in becoming an Instapoet is non-existent, and while this is what made Kaur an overnight sensation, this is also the fatal flaw of Instapoetry. The idea behind Instapoetry cheapens the real work that goes into becoming a professional in any field; it requires hard work, diligence, and a sprinkling of talent. Instapoets are able to mass-produce sentimental scrambles of words for likes and followers without putting in real thought to their writing, and it drastically decreases the quality of the poetry. While a formal education isn’t necessarily a requirement to become a poet, the entire idea of poetry is based around purposeful brevity. Instapoetry destroys this economy of language by encouraging the inclusion of filler words through split-up prose.

Despite its flaws, Instapoetry has not been all bad. One positive aspect of the Instapoetry trend is that it has given women of color a space to express themselves. Kaur, an immigrant from India, has discussed racism and the dynamic behind immigrant families through her work, and the accessibility of her poetry has made it possible for other women of color to exchange their ideas and reach fame. However, the benefits of having a platform are overshadowed by the unintended ills of Instapoetry: Warsan Shire, for example, is a Kenyan-born British poet who has written on many of the same issues, but her poetry feels much more real than Kaur’s. While much of “milk and honey” is bland and recyclable, Shire uses her poetry to talk about personal experiences and issues that directly impact her, as seen in her poem “home,” in which she describes her war-torn hometown with stunning imagery like “the boy you went to school with / who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory / is holding a gun bigger than his body / you only leave home / when home won’t let you stay.” However, Shire’s poetry is often overlooked because of the sheer ubiquity of Instapoetry.

Additionally, the Instapoetry trend has recently been co-opted by white men who often use their poetry to objectify women. Colin Yost, who has become famous for hopping onto this trend, references whiskey, cigarettes, and an unattainable manic pixie dream girl in nearly every one of his poems, and he is one of the most popular poets on Instagram right now. His poetry doesn’t exactly contain depth, as illustrated by lines such as “I pulled her hair / and / she pulled my heartstrings.” Such a dynamic is dangerous for women of color who have dedicated their careers to poetry, and it risks wiping out important poetry that should be read.

While many argue that Instapoetry has made poetry a more accessible genre as a whole, it has merely replaced what many people think of as poetry. When Instagram users begin to read Instapoetry, they rarely branch out into traditional poetry or even the works of contemporary poets. Instead, they look for more Instapoetry to read. If Instapoets such as Kaur could use their platform to highlight the works of professional poets such as Shire, perhaps this dynamic could change. Even better, Instapoets could begin to treat their writings with real dedication, just as professional poets do. In other words, if Instapoets could become “real” poets, they could save the future of poetry.