A decade of instapoets and what they mean for poetry

Wednesday, December 4, 2019 - 4:35pm

NOSELL

Wikimedia Commons

The best selling poet of 2017 wasn’t Shakespeare, Homer or William Blake. It was Rupi Kaur, a 27-year-old Indian-Canadian woman whose success can be largely attributed to her following on Instagram. In fact, so-called “Instapoets” made up 12 of the top 20 best selling poets in 2017.

Anyone with a passing interest in poetry has likely encountered Instapoets in their social media feed. They’ve come to define much of the literature of the decade. Their poems often deal with themes like relationships, loneliness and mental health. Their meanings are clear so a reader can usually “get it” on the first read. Most importantly, they’re short, making them perfectly suited for the brief encounters social media was structured for. 

Instapoets have almost single-handedly brought poetry back into the mainstream, and yet they’re taken less seriously than “real” poets. There’s a tacit assumption that their poems are about just feelings and emotions and can’t be compared to their print-only counterparts. The critique, when fully thought out, is that Kaur and other Instapoets too often oversimplify their work, hoping to appeal to a large audience, and supposedly resulting in poetry that’s hollow and boring.

While there’s truth to this claim, it would be irresponsible to dismiss Instapoets without asking why a social media presence seems to diminish their legitimacy. One similarity among many popular Instapoets is that their pages aren’t simply free spaces where they casually share new pieces; these pages are polished, deliberate and well thought out. More than just a platform to share poetry, they are an effective marketing tool. There are promotional materials, book release dates and clear intents to build a brand. They’re reminiscent of the pages of Instagram models — they blend a carefully curated marketing message with an intimate space to share and interact with fans. 

The use of social media as a business tool isn’t an innovative practice. It is difficult to find a sizable company without a twenty-something “Social Media Specialist” in its marketing department. It would simply be an oversight to sell anything without having some kind of social media presence, so any poet trying to make money will follow suit. Social media, however, tends to favor smaller units of content as many accounts compete for the limited attention of users. Platforms reinforce this tendency with character limits, dense layouts and systems of ranking posts with an eye for maximizing advertising revenue at the expense of long-form content.

What we find is that medium dictates form. Poets have to meet their audience where they are, and where these readers reside is a space that is hyper-commodified. Everything, right down to a user’s attention, can have a price tag and be sold to the highest bidder. Poets, whose content can’t cleanly fit into this paradigm, are forced into the impossible task of competing with actors willing to instantly gratify a user’s base impulse in search of profit. 

It is then unsurprising that Rupi Kaur’s specific brand of poetry is notoriously able to capitalize on social media’s potential for content promotion. That being said, the success of Instapoets on social media is not an affirmative indictment of their quality. Despite what a tenured English professor might have to say about them, Instapoets have attracted an otherwise disinterested audience to poetry. In doing so, they’ve expanded into subject matters that were previously ignored, and have been highly inclusive of marginalized communities. These are poems that are worth something to many people, and there’s no reason to be concerned about that. Instapoets as they exist aren’t the issue. It is the limiting constraints of social media that keep so many Instapoets from ever being called poets.

This conversation becomes less about whether or not Instapoets are “good,” and more about how markets permeate into increasingly intimate aspects of our lives. You can pay to manipulate Tinder’s algorithms in your favor. Fitness trackers use your medical information to show you targeted advertisements. As we venture forward into a decade where the future of print is uncertain, it may just be the case that Instapoets are all that can survive in a world where something as human as poetry must conform to fit the inhuman logic of capitalism.