In 2014, poet Rupi Kaur began posting her works on Instagram, and in a short amount of time, her poetry went viral and Kaur published her debut book milk and honey in the same year. Her second and third book, the sun and her flowers and home body, were published in 2017 and 2020. As of 2021, she now has more than 4.3 million followers on Instagram. Kaur is also a survivor of sexual assault and a strong advocate of feminism.
In more recent years, however, Kaur has been attributed as the pioneer of Insta poetry, a subgenre of what some consider to be poetry and others accuse of ruining it.
The Rise of Insta Poetry
Insta poetry has been a controversial topic from the moment it was born. While some attribute it to a revival of contemporary poems, (How Instagram Saved Poetry: Social media is turning an art form into an industry) the mainstream opinion seems to be skeptical of its genuinity. The major criticisms are that most Insta poetry lack depth, as they are often only a few lines in length, and they focus on the aesthetic appeal of words rather than the content of them. A typical Insta poem would consist of a single sentence with many line breaks within– “the irony of loneliness / is we feel it / at the same time.” (together) The sentence would often be more straight-forward rather than descriptive, and would display little to no traditional literary devices, such as imagery.
As its name suggests, Insta poetry would not have been successful if not for Instagram. The reason why this subgenre is so popular is that when someone scrolls down their feed, they’re most likely not purposely looking for writing to critique, but rather, taking in information from an array of photos– pictures of friends, of celebrities, memes, art, and more. People are not looking for material to analyze; they’re learning from other creators around the world, and at this absorptive and vulnerable state, it’s easy for their minds to connect a simple “what is stronger / than the human heart / that shatters over and over / and still lives” to memories of failed relationships and their damaging effects.
Furthermore, Instagram users’ options are limited to “like (and maybe comment, share, and save)” and “not like,” and there’s nothing to “not like” about a sentence that is plain and bland, but otherwise relatable to their own lives. Insta poems are simply not judged for being poetry, but as sentences with line breaks– and because there is nothing wrong with a sentence exhibiting little to no signs of being poetic, Insta poems are surely “liked.”
In traditional publishing, on the other hand, readers are active in reading through a literary lens, and their opinions extend far beyond whether something is “relatable” or not.
The Best of Insta Poetry, the Worst of Insta Poetry
The hatred for these “low-effort” poetry seemed to have peaked with Youtuber Gabbie Hannah’s infamous poetry collection adultolescence, which went viral for being poorly-written. Many other Youtubers reviewed Hannah’s work in their videos, the alleged first of which being Youtuber Rachel Oates. In her videos, Oates attributed Hannah’s poetry as being lazy, stating that all the pieces seem like underdeveloped bad tweets and boring sentences with line breaks. However, looking at the pages of adultolescence, it is hard to look past the similarity in both structure and content of the poems with that of Rupi Kaur’s.
What actually marks the difference between the universally-loved and what is considered the worst of poetry is the prejudice that readers project on Hannah and Kaur, the first one known for being problematic and the latter a symbol of strong feminism. The following two lesser-known poems discuss similar topics of uncertainty in relationships. One of them is from milk and honey and the other from adultolescence. Have fun deciding which is which.
“don’t mistake / salt for sugar / if he wants to / be with you / it’s that simple” (reveal)
“next time you pour everything you have into someone, make sure they don’t have any leaks” (reveal)
There are far more examples of looked-down poetry implicitly inspired by Kaur published by Youtubers, such as Swimming Lessons by Lili Reinhart and Tears for Water by Alicia Keys. All of them share the same characteristics as Kaur’s poetry– short lines, few literary devices, and being explicit. These are, of course, not inherently bad traits in writing, but the “aesthetics” they create is not an absolute determinant of quality poems either.
Rachel Oates and milk and honey
In another video titled Milk & Honey Is… Not That Great, Oates has given her thoughts on Rupi Kaur and Insta poetry while giving a review of milk and honey, describing many of the poems as:
“…very important message, very important to talk about. It's just expressed lazily and that's a shame. It's over simplistic, it's underdeveloped, it's fairly generic, and it's nothing original or new. And this definitely feels like a first draft, an idea waiting to be developed not a complete finished poem.
To me this isn't a poem, in the sense that the words aren't chosen with any real intention or thought. The line breaks feel random and without purpose. This is more like a single sentence you'd see written in an essay. It feels like the author wrote this one sentence and couldn't be bothered to write the rest of the essay, so they just hit enter a few times and they call it a poem instead. There's no interesting structure, no interesting use of language, or any poetic techniques; there's no intentional meter or rhythm. Even the lack of these things isn't intentional. They're just not there and it's basic.
Just because the subject of the message behind the poem is important, it doesn't mean you can get away with expressing it lazily… If I take a random sentence from one of my videos where I've spoken about something important and added a few random line breaks, that doesn’t suddenly make it poetry.”
the hurting, home, and home body
trigger warning: mentions of sexual assault
While scrolling through Kaur’s Instagram feed, it is hard to not notice the feminist themes in both her poetry and her photoshoots and videos. Throughout her career, she has always used her large-following platform as a place for social activism. She discusses casual misogyny in today’s society; in milk and honey, she writes that “I want to apologize to all the women I have called beautiful before I've called them intelligent or brave… From now on I will say things like you are resilient, or you are extraordinary, not because I don’t think you’re beautiful, but because I need you to know– you are more than that.” While this is an excellent and relevant point, the problem lies in that this is not conventionally what is considered a poem. They are lines in a speech.
However, some of her less popular poems showcase both poetry and feminism. In her next book the sun and her flowers, a poem titled home details the horrible reality of her sexual assault. As a child Kaur was sexually abused by her uncle, and even many years later, remember all the graphic details. At that time, her males relatives had shunned her down when she and her mother tried to speak out about the abuse, and because her father was afraid of her voice, Kaur had grown to be afraid of her own words. Years later, she began her poetry career, regaining her body autonomy and the narrative of her life. Now, she advocates for other women to voice themselves too. The poem home illustrates how “my voice threw itself over the edge of my throat / landed at the bottom of my belly and hid for months,” followed by a series of graphic violence she had endured in the hands of her uncle. Poems like this are one of the major reasons why art existed in the first place– to tell stories that couldn’t be told otherwise.
Kaur’s life journey is truly an inspiring one. Her latest book, titled home body, is self-explanatory– she has found herself back in the body that was once taken away. She writes that “I dive into the well of my body / and end up in another world / everything i need / already exists in me / there’s no need / to look anywhere else” in a poem of the same title. Once again, the fact that Kaur could feel a reclamation of her body is an entirely great thing, but she expresses it in quite a redundant way that distracts critiques from the positive nature of the content. People tend to focus on how “lazy” home body is without realizing the symbolic value it carries. Of course, this isn’t to say that Kaur is “wrong” in her writing style, but rather– both sides of whether she is overrated or not are valid.
Anyhow, what readers should get out of Kaur’s feminist poetry is that even though the poetic elements are questionable, the messages conveyed are important nonetheless. It is rather impressive for her to feed these ideas in a seamless manner so that her audience doesn’t feel like they’re sitting in a gender studies lecture, and more people would be willing to listen.
Bottom line: Rupi Kaur is popular for unexpected reasons. Her success on social media is well-deserved, but in coexistence, it’s reasonable why most other Insta poets are subjected to so much criticism. milk and honey, the sun and her flowers, and home body are products of their contextualization and it is possible for them to contain feminist messages while simultaneously being poorly-written poetry. Most Insta poets who try to copy off of Kaur don’t succeed because they are writing under a different context. The existence of Rupi Kaur has evidently made society a better place.
Last words on Insta Poetry
On the other hand, the silver lining to the rise of Insta poetry is that not all poems on the platform fall under the stereotypical sentence with line breaks. There are a handful that seem to write in somewhere between “professional” and the “aesthetic” poetry, such as strawberysyndrome, sunlight.and.nostalgia, cinnamonwords, livia.writes.stories, and many, many more.
While the debate between whether Insta poems “revived” or “is not a part of” the genre of poetry rages on, it is necessary to keep in mind that it is never a platform or a movement that has the power to save a culture, but rather, individual creators who put their time and efforts into writing.
The 2am writer that lives in the mind of sixteen-year-old Yun-Fei Wang has been taking over her sanity for a few years now, tearing her lifeline down, yet building up an escapism in the same breath. Find her in the evanescence of black-inked words, or at @rainofelsewhere on Instagram.