Has populism infected all levels of society? When Instagram poet Rupi Kaur’s first collection of poetry, “Milk and Honey,” hit number one on the New York Times trade paperback bestseller list nearly a year ago, the collective of classically trained poets gasped, worrying that their art had been sullied by an upstart innovator.
They aren’t wrong to worry. Kaur’s second book, “the sun and its flowers,” came out in October and is steadily climbing bestseller lists. Kaur’s poetry, originally published on Instagram, is a collection of adages, all lowercase, and without commas. Accompanying the short verses are Kaur’s minimalistic drawings.
One of her most famous poems reads:
“if you are not enough for yourself
you will never be enough
for someone else”
Profound stuff. And wildly popular. She originally self-published her first book on Amazon in 2014. Sales were so good that in 2015 Andrews McMeel Publishing reprinted it. Since then, sales have not slowed. The book has been translated into 25 languages and has sold a million copies. The Instagram poet outsold Homer this past year.
Apparently Lots of People Like Nothing
If Kaur’s success means anything, it provides a window into the proliferation of populist sentiment. Testing her poems on social media, she can gauge accurately how her tone and subject matter connect with her audience. She took her most-liked poems, packaged them in black and white, and now her slim tomes line the shelves at Walmart.
It’s populism conquering the higher realms of artistic achievement. Kaur is not unlike our president, who gauges his popularity via Twitter and tailors his statements to the public weal.
But what makes art appreciators shiver at the sound of her name isn’t the commercial success of her poetry, nor the near-nauseating “wokeness” that her identity poems about her Indian heritage show. It is the seeming lack of thought and profundity that have made her poems so popular.
As Kazim Ali, a poet of Indian descent like Kaur whose work has appeared in Best American Poetry, said in an essay for Poetry Magazine, “I’m mildly annoyed that I gave so many years to learning craft, reading deeply, doing everything I could to become a better poet, because it seems that all it takes is some superficial musings, some pretty okay (honestly) drawings… [to] make you the most famous poet in the world, and maybe of all time.”
Although Ali is a bit miffed over the popularity and quality of Kaur’s work, her success shows that the people still feel they should be reading poetry. This impulse may lead to seeking more poetry and as a result, some may stumble upon more complex and interesting work.
Although her book may lead readers to read real poetry for the first time since high school, she is not really making poetry herself. She uses neither images, nor poetic devices, nor characters. She presents vacuous statements that invite readers to insert themselves. Her writing is meant to be so relatable that it becomes meaningless.
Access Is Great. Lack of Quality, Not So Much
Poets must contend with Kaur’s marketing acumen to get eyeballs on their work and away from Instagram. The appeal to individual feelings and emotions may actually dissuade lovers of her work from liking better poetry, which relies less on overused images like flowers, wounds, and the ocean and focuses even less on the poet’s personal experiences.
“All the things that we think of as important in poetry and in literature in general, it’s not present in her work. It’s not complex,” poet and critic Matthew Zapruder said of Kaur’s work. “It’s devoid of the particularities of personality… It is a kind of genius, in a way, to pick the things that almost everyone could recognize in their lives.” Kaur is bringing poetry out of the academy and back to the people.
Perhaps the tide is turning for poetry, which has been largely confined to university English departments ever since the Beat Movement gripped America in the 1950s and ‘60s. Like Jack Kerouac and Ginsberg, Kaur tries to capture the emotions and feelings of her generation, without confusion, pretense, or complexity. But ultimately, she has neglected the craft of poetry in favor of desperate appeals to emotion.
She summed up her philosophy in an interview with NPR: “Art should be accessible to the masses, and when we start to tailor it in a way that keeps people out, then there’s an issue with that.”
It’s populist poetry, fueled by social media obsession, but it touches many deeply. A recent Instagram poem received nearly 250,000 likes from her 2 million followers. She is a new and beloved star, even if her work is not terribly interesting. But maybe her readers will find themselves exhausted enough from their own emotions to open other books of poetry and find well-crafted poems that amount to more than melodrama.