Let’s Talk: Rupi Kaur, Instapoetry, and The Academy

Ada Wofford, Senior Editor
April 7th, 2021

Part One: Introduction

            Last year I published two articles in a lit mag called The Blue Nib about contemporary poetry. The first centered around Rupi Kaur and the genre of Instapoetry (poetry published via the social media platform of Instagram). The article is essentially a close reading of Kaur’s best-selling book, milk & honey. I worked off several sources to analyze and critique Kaur’s poetry in an attempt to understand and explain why so many poets and academics (myself included) disliked Kaur’s poetry. One of my sources was a divisive article by Rebecca Watts, published in 2018 in the PN Review titled, “The Cult of the Noble Amateur.” In the article, Watts criticizes the rise of contemporary poets, Kaur included, profiting off of their “artless poetry.” At the time, I agreed with Watts and drawing from writers such as James Longenbach, Harold Bloom, and James Geary, I picked apart Kaur’s writings and came to the conclusion that Kaur’s writing is not poetry but merely several poor attempts at aphorisms (“poor” of course, being my informed but ultimately subjective opinion). Parts of the article work through specific poems of Kaur’s and highlight the arbitrary use of stresses and line breaks to further critique the work as “bad poetry” or not even poetry.

            The second article centered around the now defunct genre/movement of alt-lit (alternative literature) that popped up in the late ’00s and was born out of Internet culture (Tumblr mostly). Alt-lit had a somewhat significant impact (these writers were published) but disintegrated in the early ’10s when many of the leading male figures of the movement were outed for sexual harassment and even rape. The article took a survey of the genre, pulled from several texts by the more prominent members, with a focus on women writers in the genre, and illustrated how the genre of Instapoetry grew out of alt-lit in terms of style, but also in response to the sexism and misogyny found within the movement. 

            I do not personally enjoy Instapoetry or alt-lit but I am fascinated by my disdain for these genres. I think I’ve fallen into the same trap as Watts did—I have the misconception that poetry should meet a certain standard of form and use of language; and while these two articles were my attempt to better understand just what that standard is, I ultimately failed. I failed because this standard doesn’t exist; there is no “proper” poetry. Even though Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line really makes one think there is a “right” way to write poetry, I no longer believe there is.

            In this series I would like to revisit these genres and explore them from a new perspective. Engaging with the ideas of Wittgenstein, Derrida, Felski, Bahktin, Tomashevsky, and my professor, David Bleich, has made me rethink the claims I made in my two essays, “Understanding Rupi Kaur’s Milk & Honey” and “An Exploration of the Rise and Fall of Alt-Lit.” I plan to give a brief overview of the genre of alt-lit and how it set the stage for Instapoetry. Then I will give an overview of Kaur’s work, how she rose to fame, and how her work functions as the quintessential Instapoetry by comparing it to other popular Instapoets. This will be followed by the criticism I’ve found on Instapoetry, as well as the criticism I’ve written on Instapoetry and alt-lit (it should be noted that there is virtually no criticism to be found on alt-lit). This will bring us to the question of: Who gets to write poetry? Where I’ll explore the gatekeeping surrounding poetry. The series will conclude with a look at how Instapoetry functions as a uniquely online medium and I will consider some criticism that engages with Instapoetry in a positive manner, exploring how the genre promotes ideas of selfcare, feminism, and more.

You can follow Ada Wofford on their Twitter: @AdaWofford.

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