Rupi Kaur’s poetry tastes sour. As I perused her latest works via Instagram, it was clear Kaur was attempting to nurture my spirit with empowering insights and relatable musings on heartbreak and injustice. Instead, I left her page feeling unimpressed and dull. Kaur’s poems read more like overused girl-boss Pinterest quotes than engaging literature. It would not be difficult to confuse her Instagram bio, which reads “my 3rd book ‘home body’ / is available everywhere books are sold,” with one of her poems. Kaur’s work just doesn’t seem to hold the intuitive something that great poems do.
However, my critiques of Kaur’s poetry are equally as mundane as her poems. Kaur’s enormous success as an author completely overshadows nitpicky analyses of her literary merit. In fact, Kaur breathes life into the poetry community. Her popularity marks an unprecedented expansion of poetry’s creation and consumption into the digital realm, challenging literary gatekeeping and inviting us to rethink what “good” poetry even means.
Kaur is not only the queen of Instagram poetry with 4.3 million followers, but is also a wildly successful author. As of March 23, her latest book “Home Body” dominates Amazon’s Best Sellers in Poetry at number eight, and her 2015 publication, “Milk and Honey,” sits comfortably at number seven. Kaur was even recognized in Forbes’ 2018 30 Under 30 in Media. Clearly, Kaur can do without my support; the numbers speak for themselves.
Is it even fair, then, for me to say that I think Kaur’s poetry is bad? I argue that it is, in fact, fair and warranted. Exploring Kaur’s success reveals two principles: There is a difference between “good” and “successful” and — despite our efforts to treat taste as objective — calling art “good” or “bad” is nothing more than a personal opinion.
Kaur’s supporters might argue I am wrong in calling her poetry bad, pointing me toward her massive sales and social media platform as proof. To this, I respond with the fact that “successful” is not at all synonymous with “good.”
We might say PSY’s “Gangnam Style” was a successful song, but most sane people above the age of twelve would hesitate to say that it is a good song. Likewise, I am happy to admit that Kaur’s work is massively successful without agreeing that it is good. In fact, Kaur’s genius lies not in the poetry itself, but in the way she capitalized upon the power of social media to reach an impossibly large and diverse audience. One would never think that poetry, which is meant to be thought-provoking and complex, would survive on social media, which generally serves us quick and thoughtless entertainment. Kaur consistently debunks this paradox, demonstrating that social media outreach may, in fact, be integral to poetry’s survival as print dies out and digital media thrives.
Moreover, when we use “good” and “successful” synonymously, we operate on the false assumption that literary merit can be measured objectively. This is impossible. Poetry is an inherently subjective human practice. Its quality cannot be proven by a lab test or even a logical argument. Poetry is governed by emotion, not rules; it is inextricably tied to the subjective emotional experience of the individual. No matter how much I may dislike Kaur’s poetry, it may only be bad to me. My judgment of a poem cannot amount to more than a personal opinion without denying poetry’s essence, which is inherently irrational, illogical and entirely individualized. Determining whether Kaur’s poetry is good or bad is, therefore, a misguided endeavor.
Those of us who dislike Rupi Kaur’s poetry may try to discredit her work by labeling it as “Instagram poetry” — a term denoting meaningless, fluffy poems fit for social media consumption only. This way of thinking will only lead to the death of poetry. Instagram poetry dismantles the very mechanisms which limit poetry’s reach — literary gatekeeping, antiquated mediums like print and countless traditional constraints that police “real” poetry. Instagram poetry makes sharing and consuming poetry easier, wider and more accessible than ever before. It transcends limitations.
Kaur deserves credit for transforming the way we understand and consume poetry, and I don’t have to enjoy her work to see that. Regardless of the mixed reviews, Kaur is a major contributor to poetry’s integration into the digital world. Even more importantly, she inspires countless other writers to transform their social media usage from a mindless pastime into a tool that can support and bring visibility to their work to a degree that no other publishing medium can. At the end of the day, I won’t give Rupi Kaur a follow, but she doesn’t need me — she has 4.3 million others to back her up.
Alexic Hancz can be reached at email@example.com.