What Do Rupi Kaur and Drake Have in Common?

Poetry has never been the most popular artistic medium. I would know, I’m a poet. However, if you’ve been on Instagram sometime in the last five or six years, chances are you’ve seen “Instapoetry.” An Instapoetry post consists of short poems or fragments of poems made up of direct, confessional lines written in aesthetically pleasing fonts, sometimes accompanied by a photo or drawing. These posts are meant to be shared.

For Instapoetry detractors, and there are lots of them, Instapoetry is not real poetry. Rather, it’s seen as a disgrace to the art form. More specifically, they argue that Instapoetry is emotionless or without meaning and is written primarily to attract followers. Some say that Instapoetry has turned poetry into a capitalist venture.

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.

Kaur’s latest award has reopened the debate about objectivity when it comes to writing. How do we determine what makes the best writing? Is it a numbers game based on how much something sells or how much engagement it gets, or is it the overall quality of the written work? Is it one or the other, or is there some combination of factors that determines who’s the best? How much weight do you give to cultural impact? And who’s making these judgements and setting the standards? 

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. 

I don’t mean to sound like a pretentious hipster but just because a lot of people like something doesn’t mean it’s good. Nearly 63 million people voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and he’s decidedly awful. Please note, I am not comparing Drake or Rupi Kaur to Trump. Unlike Trump, I actually like Kaur and Drake and think that they’re very good at what they do. If anything the pair are more similar to Justin Trudeau, equal parts good and flawed, typically well-liked but not as popular with people who really know what they’re talking about.

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.

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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. 

Whether you love Kaur, hate Kaur or find yourself somewhere in between, I think everyone can be inspired by her. If you love her, draw inspiration from her story, her words of encouragement or her insistence on self-love. Or be inspired by the fact that her savvy use of social media has propelled her to the top of her field. If you hate her, be inspired to find better poetry. Be inspired to bring poets and works you deem worthy to the level of notoriety she’s done. Or better yet, be inspired to write and share your own works. Either way, be inspired to express yourself because you might just influence somebody else.

 

The Secret to Writing Well

They say music alters moods and talks to you. Well, Eminem did. The reason I bring up Sing For the Moment, other than the fact of it being a great song which samples a
great song, is that the overall message of the song is that music, and art more generally, can be very influential in people’s lives. Art demands us to feel and to think; sometimes we experience exactly what the artist intended and sometimes we end up with unrelated, unintended thoughts and feelings of our own.

In the song, Em talks about how music can influence the way people talk and dress, it can inspire them to pursue certain careers and it can lead them to find or embrace different aspects of their personality. Acclaimed American author and journalist, Ernest Hemmingway, said that not only did pieces of artwork inspire him but they also helped improve his writing.

In his memoir, A Moveable Feast, Hemmingway recalls when he was doing an apprenticeship in Paris during the 1920s and how he’d study Paul Cézanne’s painting every day at the museum. “I was learning something from the painting of Cézanne
that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions that I was trying to put in them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides, it was a secret,” he recalled.

There’s a whole genre of poetry dedicated to responding to pieces of art, especially paintings, called ekphrastic poems. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or work of art. Some ekphrastic poems reflect on or narrate the “action” taking place in a painting, scene or sculpture, while others describe its physical qualities. Through an ekphrastic poem, the poet can amplify and expand on the meaning of the artwork.

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Ernest Hemmingway (1939).

According to Hemmingway, a writer’s job is to tell the truth. By definition, a true sentence is not a sentence that’s grammatically or structurally accurate but rather a factually true sentence. Hemmingway believed that true sentences were the key to writing well. “‘All you have to do is write one true sentence’ … I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.”

To write about something using only true sentences would result in descriptive writing that’s full of objective details. Objective details are helpful in writing because they allow other people to understand something without the interference of opinion or experience, meaning, writing objectively tends to produce clearer, more accurate writing. To write true sentences, one must rely on the facts and relaying them accurately to their audience for them to make sense of the text. Making sure that what you’re writing makes sense helps keep the audience engaged. If the audience has to stop to think “wait, what?” or “I’m confused” you’ve lost their attention and taken them out the world your writing exists in, which is never a good thing.

Writing true sentences is important even when you’re writing about something that isn’t true, like non-fiction. In non-fiction, a true sentence is one that’s based on the facts and rules established which govern the world the story exists in. The famous American writer Mark Twain once said, “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please,” and that’s the approach one should take when writing true sentences about untrue things.

Hemmingway said that he wanted to write as Cezanne painted. In a deleted section of his short story Big Two-Hearted River, Hemmingway wrote about his alter-ego protagonist, Nick Adams, and his literary future. “He broke the whole thing down and built the real thing. It was hell to do … He, Nick, wanted to write about country so it would be there like Cezanne had done it in painting. You had to do it from inside yourself. There wasn’t any trick. Nobody had ever written about country like that.”

It makes sense that this passage was taken from a deleted section of Hemmingway’s work and that he claimed to be “not articulate enough” to explain what he learned. It was a secret.

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The Two Hearted River in Michigan.

The key takeaway from the passage is “to write about country so it would be there like Cezanne painted it.” It goes back to the point about true sentences and descriptions. When it comes to visual art, like painting, aspects like colour, depth and focal point give them detail, specificity and make them visually interesting. As a writer, one’s job would be to accurately describe the things that make the painting interesting. So, if describing a painting of a forest it would insufficient to say there were numerous trees, even if the statement is accurate. Good writing would describe the different hues used, the positions of the trees in relation to everything else, a comment on the different styles and techniques employed, among other details to make the description of the painting as close to the objective reality as possible.

Talking about how Hemingway’s trick for writing using paintings reminded me of another technique writers can use to improve their writing through studying art. Many people have argued that listening to classical music can teach writers about narrative structure. In short, the hypothesis states that the rise and fall of classical music teaches writers about building tension, character development and creating narratives.

Back in second year, I wrote an essay for my Listening to Music course comparing the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 to the battles of a war. In the essay, I argued that changes in the music like the dynamics or speed in certain sections or which instruments were used reminded me of different battles within a war. The different battles were represented by different instruments, varying dynamics
and changes in pace.

I argued that the main phrase of the movement, the famous dun-dun-dun-duuuuuuun,
dun-dun-dun-duuuuuuun, was a sergeant in the war who fought many battles, with varying results. The phrase is repeated several times throughout the piece but is arranged differently each time. By changing the rhythm, the dynamics, or the syncopation in different sections of the song, Beethoven was able to make the music feel as if it were moving through time. I noted how the changes in the music occurred gradually, things flowed into each other without being abrupt. Balancing the main theme with loud dynamic sections met by periods of softer slower music, evoked feelings from anxiety to loss.

A good story will follow a similar floor plan. Introduce your main character early and feature them regularly throughout the piece. The audience learns about the main character through their actions and their interactions with others throughout the story. There are high-energy scenes, like a battle, sandwiched between more intense, intimate moments like two soldiers having a conversation. Most importantly, in the story, something happens. If the main phrase were to be repeated over and over and over, the music wouldn’t be a story it’d just be a repetition, a loop.

I got a 96 on the essay, and I’m not bringing that up to flex my academic muscle. In truth, I think I got a 96 on the essay because I identified and explained the connection between music and writing, specifically storytelling. Classical music has long been used to accompany plays, ballets and movies for just this reason; music tells a story by the way it opens, unfolds and finally closes. For example, music from the classical era (1750s-1820s) was usually divided into four sections: an Allegro in sonata form, a slow movement, a scherzo or minuet in a triple metre and a closing allegro. So in theory, if you know this formula all you need to do is fill in sections with the instruments you need for the story you’re telling.

But sadly, it’s not that simple. Experts and greats have a tendency to make complicated things seem effortless. They also tend to downplay the difficulty of said thing when they talk about it to non-experts. While people may say “oh, it’s nothing, anybody could do it,” that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do or understand. Like flying a plane, knowing how to write well takes more than knowing the function of the buttons at your disposal. Yes, it’s helpful and possibly important to know about true sentences and the narrative flow of classical music when it comes to writing but it is not enough to make one’s writing great. It’s up to you, the writer, to craft a piece with the right formula of structure and details. Let art inform and inspire you so you can create for your own.