Rupi Kaur, 29-year-old Canadian “Instapoet,” is one of the biggest names in contemporary poetry, reaching a level of mainstream success rarely afforded to poets of any generation. Her debut collection Milk and Honey even overtook The Odyssey as the best-selling poetry book of all time. So, her success and wide reach are undeniable— but can she be considered a poet?
Kaur first entered the public consciousness in 2015 when she posted a photo on Instagram of menstrual blood leaking through her trousers and onto her bed as part of a university project to “challenge a taboo.” Instagram removed the image for breaching community guidelines, to which Kaur responded with a strongly worded letter and posting on social media “Their patriarchy is leaking. Their misogyny is leaking. We will not be censored.” After this incident went viral her poetry quickly gained more attention, and as is often the case, criticism.
Kaur ’s work has been widely critiqued since its publication for being overly simplistic and lacking depth and substance, with many disgruntled readers turning to Twitter to post satirical imitations of her poems which parody her distinctive style. These views are absolutely not unfounded. It’s true, most of her poems feature a single sentence, entirely in lowercase, with no punctuation and relatively random line breaks which seem at least to give the impression of profundity. Obviously structural and linguistic complexity are not at the crux of what makes a good poem, but poems shouldn’t lay everything bare. They are contractual affairs; they require some groundwork before you can receive the reward. In fact, Kaur’s poems are overly consumable, functioning like an Instagram post you like and then soon scroll past, they don’t prompt deep contemplation or re-evaluation. The best poems stick with you, whether you like it or not, they don’t allow you to read and immediately move on. Of course, poetry should by no means be an elite or exclusive art form, whether you’re the one holding the pen or turning the page, but do a series of sentences unbound by structure or form really belong in this genre?
Just because her work can’t really be considered poetry does not mean it is without merit. In her collections, Kaur broaches taboo topics such as sexual abuse, misogyny, and trauma, with much of her writing being incredibly confessional and personal. The mainstream publicity of explicitly feminist writing can surely only be a positive thing. With a predominantly young female readership, her prevailing messages of self-love and female empowerment are sentiments to be championed. Many women feel Kaur’s talent lies in how she can simply and succinctly articulate incomprehensible experiences. Comedian and actress Lilly Singh remarked that “whenever I read her poems, I have the same thought: ‘This is exactly how I feel but never knew how to say it.’”
Another frequent criticism of her work is that it has aided the transformation of poetry from an art form to a capitalist business venture. However, in a generation where an appreciation for poetry is becoming increasingly rare, Kaur’s success is encouraging more young people to engage with the medium. Also, as a woman of colour who emigrated to Canada from Punjab, she offers representation for South Asian women in a predominantly white literary scene. Kaur believes it is inspiring for women of similar backgrounds to see her name on the shelves of every bookshop, commenting that Kaur “is the name of every Sikh woman. If I was six years old and I saw this in Barnes and Nobles, I would cry. I would sit there and be like, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’”
Whilst her work is probably unlikely to find its way into the literary canon anytime soon, her collections are definitely more meaningful than their trendy nature suggests. However, we shouldn’t see Kaur’s work being reposted by teenage girls on Instagram or being stuck to the walls of uni rooms as something that devalues her art. For generations, the interests of young women have been ridiculed and belittled. Even The Bell Jar is now “beneath” some people now that it has become synonymous with edgy teenage girls. The worth of Kaur’s work shouldn’t be diminished just because it’s democratic isn’t literary critics.
Kaur defends the simplicity of her work, “it’s like a peach,” she says. “You have to remove everything and get to the pit of it.” Whilst for me this calls its status as poetry into question, literary forms are continually adapting so we shouldn’t be so quick to criticise her work just because it deviates from poetic conventions and is largely found on the bookshelves of teenage girls. It is not perspective- altering or revolutionary, but it is admirable in the way it broaches taboo topics, articulates universal feelings and helps many women to feel seen.