Written by Caitlin Smith
Love her or hate, her, Rupi Kaur’s impact on the poetry world is undeniable. When first starting out, Kaur only posted to her Instagram account, but now has two published books under her belt: Milk and Honey (2015) and The Sun and Her Flowers (2017). Her poetry has sparked controversy among literary critics and everyday readers alike. One Buzzfeed article even claimed that her poetry, which aims to shed light upon South Asian issues, feels “disingenuous.” That hasn’t stopped her second book from selling over 600,000 copies, though.
In fact, according to Publishers Weekly, poetry sales in general doubled from 2016 to 2017. Some speculate that this increase can be attributed in part to poets like Kaur. Their contemporary style is easier to understand than what many associate with poetry—the sonnets of Shakespeare or lyrical odes of John Keats, or even the often-baffling stylings of E.E. Cummings. Kaur, and many of her peers, convey relevant subject matter through the language teenagers and young adults are already accustomed to, driving engagement beyond what might be found in an AP Literature classroom. Does this “Instagram Poetry” actually act as a primer for more traditional poetry?
Copper Canyon executive editor Michael Wiegers says that his own eighteen-year-old daughter thinks so. “[S]he sees Rupi Kaur and other Insta-poets as a ‘gateway drug,’” he told Publishers Weekly. Still, a great deal of canonical poetry is dense and highly topical, making knowledge of the time period crucial to understanding the underlying message. For a more casual reader, that can be a tall order to fill and could easily scare someone away from a writer like Pope or Dryden. While they have immense literary value, not everyone has the time to take an eighteenth-century literature class.
However, the idea of poetry needing context could be the reason Instagram poetry is so well received by Millennials and Generation-Z readers. Our political moment is one for the history books, with major news breaking nearly every day. From the Women’s Marches of this year and 2017 to increasing anti-NRA sentiments, there are certainly enough topics to fill multiple poetry anthologies. Kaur’s poetry appears in sign after sign at protests for equality. One line in particular from Milk and Honey shows up most frequently: “if you were born with the weakness to fall you were born with the strength to rise.” That’s the kind of quote movements are built around.
Even if this trend of poetry isn’t conducive to spurring interest in more traditional, classical poets, it is definitely helping to define a moment. Maybe the question shouldn’t be whether Instagram Poetry is helping poetry sales or not, but rather whether it is helping sustain poetry as an art form. While the former is a question of capitalism, dependent solely on data, the latter is a question of humanity and personality. The former is a question that will be forgotten in years to come, but the latter will live on in creative works for generations.
Is Instagram Poetry helping poetry sales? Probably. Is it increasing an overall love of poetic expression? Definitely.