Let Instagram poetry live

Wednesday, November 7, 2018 - 2:42pm

Rupi Kaur

Rupi Kaur Buy this photo
TedX Talks Online

A plain white background, sometimes textured to look like parchment paper. Black text in Times New Roman font, or perhaps the typewriter-esque Courier. Sparse capitalization. As short as one line, and no more than 15.

This is the aesthetic of Instagram poetry, a phenomenon in which users upload images of short, easily-digestible poems to their accounts with hashtags such as #poetryporn, #poetrycommunity and, simply, #poetry. There are hundreds of people posting images in this tradition, and little differentiates one account from another.

With 1.1 million followers, @poets is one of the most highly-trafficked poetry accounts on Instagram. The anonymous moderator of @poets posts multiple times a day.

“a reminder #9,” a post from Nov. 5 says, “you are allowed / to say no / to the things / you don’t want / in your life.”

“a reminder #8,” says another, “get over it / whatever comes / to your mind / when you read this, / get over it.”

While many Instagram poetry accounts are unaffiliated with distinct individuals, some pages are run by writers who are known for their poetry outside the online community of their followers. Two of the most famous “Instagram poets,” Rupi Kaur and Nayyirah Waheed, have made their names as masters of bite-sized poetry. Both Kaur and Waheed are young women of color whose poetry discusses femininity, race and sexuality. It’s worth mentioning that the democratizing nature of Instagram has allowed these poets to find an audience when they otherwise may have been unable to.

The primarily white and male canon of poetry was assembled by academics who would condemn Instagram poetry for parading platitudes under the banner of profundity — but publishers and professors have no say over which Instagram poets find success. Instead, it’s an elusive combination of the writer’s talent or aesthetic and the audience’s taste that elevates some poetry accounts over others.

“if you are not enough for yourself / you will never be enough / for someone else,” writes Kaur, who has 3.2 million followers on Instagram. Her simple verse has spurred numerous mockeries, most notably “Milk and Vine,” a parody of her 2014 book “Milk and Honey.” “i love you bitch / i ain’t ever gonna stop loving you / bitch,” reads one such imitation, quoting a well-known Vine.

These satires are funny in a way that calls into question the emotional authenticity of Kaur’s work. The most common complaint about Kaur’s poetry — and Instagram poetry as a genre — is that it is too general, too sentimental and too easy. By co-opting the most universal emotions — love, heartbreak, anger, hope, pain — and whittling them down, Instagram poems often fall prey to cliché. The Modernists would hate this stuff, but so many people love it, and I understand why.

I’ll be honest: I think a lot of Instagram poetry — including Kaur’s work — is pretty terrible. “my expectations / kill me / more than / anything else,” reads one particularly bad post by @poets. “She conquered all her demons / and wore her scars like wings,” says another from @atticuspoetry.

In our oversaturated world, it’s easy to see why people are drawn to the calm simplicity of this genre and its insistent distillation of language and design. We shouldn’t ask Instagram poetry to be something it’s not: it’s short and sweet, or short and inane or short and obvious. These poems aren’t trying to be Gertrude Stein’s “Patriarchal Poetry.” Like many Instagram poems, “Patriarchal Poetry” deals with feminism and femininity.

“Let her be to be to be to be let her be to be to be let her to be let her to / be let her be to be when is it that they are shy. Very well to try. / Let her be that is to be let her be that is to be let her be let her try. Let her be let her be let her be to be to be shy let her be to be let her be / to be let her try. / Let her try. / Let her be let her be let her be let her be to be to be let her be let her try. / To be shy,” writes Stein, an author whose work is the polar opposite of the Instagram poets’: dense, long, intellectually challenging. But who is to say that Stein’s work is inherently better than Kaur’s? Instagram poets are a product of our time, appealing to our desire for immediate insight and for someone else to articulate our emotions.

It would be wrong to characterize all Instagram poetry as vapid and faux-intellectual. Like any genre, some practitioners will be better than others. Does it really matter whether Instagram poets are talented according to old measures of literary dexterity? These writers have made poetry cool again, a feat in and of itself. That’s good enough for me.