Ada Wofford, Senior Editor
April 16th, 2021
Rupi Kaur is easily the most famous Instapoet in the world. A 2018 article in The Atlantic titled, “How Instagram Saved Poetry,” explores Rupi Kaur’s immense success and the new direction of poetry:
Rupi Kaur is a case study in how dramatically the world of poetry has changed [. . .] The 25-year-old Canadian poet outsold Homer two years ago: Her first collection, milk & honey, has been translated into 40 languages and has sold 3.5 million copies, stealing the position of best-selling poetry book from The Odyssey. (Yuan and Hill)
The publication and success of milk & honey was a catalyst that turned poetry, for perhaps the first time, into a highly profitable industry:
According to one market-research group, 12 of the top 20 best-selling poets last year were Insta-poets, who combined their written work with shareable posts for social media; nearly half of poetry books sold in the United States last year were written by these poets. This year, according to a survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Census Bureau, 28 million Americans are reading poetry—the highest percentage of poetry readership in almost two decades. (Yuan and Hall).
Kaur first gained notoriety in 2015 when she uploaded a photograph of herself with a menstruation stain on her pants and bedsheets on Instagram and it was removed for violating Instagram’s standards. The photo was part of a series on menstruation Kaur was working on as part of a college project on visual rhetoric.
As you can see, there is nothing pornographic about this image and yet, it was removed twice from Instagram for going against their standards. Kaur was attempting to position this in contrast to popular porn Instagram accounts that sexualize women but go uncensored. The censorship of this work is what first put Kaur in the spotlight and led to her eventual fame. Lili Pâquet writes: “The attempted censorship of her work positioned Kaur as a cultural producer who appeals to women (particularly women of color) who are suppressed, shamed, and silenced” (298). Kaur’s personal experiences inform much of her poetry. Kaur’s poetry is unique in the way it is presented, not just because it is often designed with Instagram in mind, but in how it is presented on the page as well.
Kaur’s poetry is sometimes referred to as a kind of ekphrasis, but Kaur considers her work to be “design poetry” (Kruger). Here is an example from milk & honey:
In my essay on Kaur, I argued that this poem does not count as ekphrasis because, “[. . .] it is not Kaur’s words that amplify and expand the meaning of her illustrations but the other way around—It is her illustrations that attempt to amplify and expand the meaning of her words” (“Understanding”). Now I believe I was too strictly adhering to the particular definition of ekphrasis I had found and so, I don’t see why this poem cannot be considered as such. What’s important to recognize though is that metaphor only exists in this poem via the interplay between text and illustration. Furthermore, the title essentially functions as the ending of the poem. So, while this might be considered ekphrasis, Kaur’s insistence that it’s “design poetry” is a better fit considering how Kaur manipulates the different elements of the poem. I point this out because design poetry is not a widely recognized genre of poetry (if it’s recognized as a genre at all), unlike ekphrasis, which is a very old form of poetry that is widely recognized and studied by scholars. This is one of many instances in which one can place Instapoetry outside of the realm of what might be considered “traditional poetry.”
Here is a more recent poem that was published to Kaur’s Instagram account December 15, 2020:
In this example, the illustration does not engage with the text as in the previous example. Some of Kaur’s pieces have no illustrations such as this untitled poem from milk & honey: “my tongue is sour/from the hunger of/missing you (116). And some pieces are written in prose. So, while some of Kaur’s work might necessitate the need for a new term such as, “design poetry,” much of her work functions within the more traditional spaces found within prose and written poetry.
But Kaur’s not the only one creating such work. Kaur’s influence on Instapoetry is undeniable. Search for #poetry and you’ll find a number of imitators, some almost as successful as Kaur. Here is an example from a popular Instapoet who goes by Atticus:
Atticus often makes posts with no visual element, but the writing is similar to this one. Notice the use of hashtags in the description. Hashtags are an integral part of Instapoetry, functioning as simple metadata tags users can search for, but sometimes hashtags are used to add context to the post itself or even subvert certain conventions or expectations. In the article, “Selfie-Help: The Multimodal Appeal of Instagram Poetry,” Lili Pâquet argues that the use of hashtags actually qualifies as a form of ekphrasis:
While poetry makes use of ekphrasis in order to verbally describe visual settings, scenes, and items, Instagram poets often also use hashtags in a kind of modern ekphrasis, making their visuals (whether selfies, illustrations, or typewritten poems) available by describing them in search terms [. . .] The use of ekphrastic effects in hashtags and poems is supported by the images in the selfies to create an overall effect; that is, the human brand of the Instagram poet. (300)
The way these hashtags are used varies from poet to poet. The December 15th post by Rupi Kaur, shown above, only uses a single hashtag: #homebody (Homebody is the title of her new book). In the Atticus post, he uses only three hashtags. But a beginner Instapoet trying to get recognized will use a slew of different hashtags:
The use of hashtags helps poets get discovered, it helps readers discover new poets, and it places pieces in conversation with one another by unifying them all under specific labels. This aspect of community, of an online community, is as essential aspect of Instapoetry and a big reason why it’s so successful. In our next installment we will dig into the criticisms of Instapoetry.
You can follow Ada Wofford on their Twitter: @AdaWofford.