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.
Rupi kaur and drake occupy the same niche just different mediums https://t.co/Vh8njGu3xU
— ryanberry💯 (@ryanberry100) December 31, 2019
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.