I first heard of the term “insta-poetry” about a year ago, while scrolling my life away on my daily commute to university. As a literature student, I could not help but notice that poetry seemed to be solely consumed in the confinement of our classroom, while the rest of the world appeared to have forgotten it ever existed. Rumours had it that these presumed “insta-poets” were reviving the poetry industry. Was this true? Was this a rebirth of poetry? I put my reading glasses on and set off to find out more about it.
Unlike traditional poetry, which adheres to specific forms, rhythms and meters, Instagram writers are particularly concerned with their poetry being visually appealing. Rupi Kaur, one of the leading figures of the movement, writes bite-sized pieces of poetry using only lower case lettering, which she usually combines with doodles and sketches, giving the poetry a very intimate feel.
Kaur’s poems explore contemporary themes and range from feminism, sexuality, violence, racism, LGBTQ identities, as well as other social injustice topics. Despite their underlying complexity, the poems are written in a peculiarly simple style. This succinct style of writing works (or should I say, sells?) like a charm in a world in which the attention span of the average human being is now eight seconds, thus highlighting the consequences of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain.
Another interesting factor behind the popularity of the insta-poetry phenomenon is that the brevity of the poems allows authors to post one every single day. In such a content-driven world where people want to consume as much as possible, in as little time as possible, it seems like Instagram poets have really found a way to making poetry popular again.
However, as it usually happens with anything gaining extreme popularity in an internet-centric world, people approached the concept of insta-poetry with the usual dosage of either love or loathing.
In an article titled “Challenging the insta-poets community,” Vinu Casper deems Instagram as “a site littered with pictures of one or two or four lines of sentimental, generic drivel in a typewriter font that is meant to be poetry.” He labels the poets as “identical,” their poems lacking both meaning and artistry. He also compares these self-made “insta-poets” with those who “spent years honing their craft, carefully writing and rewriting every line, practising their performance over and over before they take to stage.”
According to Casper, this phenomenon is merely the product of a fame-driven world: “Sometimes these poems are written by the genuinely interested newcomer who’s too eager to perform and doesn’t work on their writing enough; other times, they’re written by the social media influencer who saw a new platform to exploit.”
Another writer, Thom Young, enraged by the growing fame of these new internet poets (while award-winning authors seemed to be barely getting any attention) set off to conduct a social experiment by creating an Instagram account of his own where he would write the most simplistic and prosaic poems to see what happens with them:
I decided that a parody or satire was needed to demonstrate how easy it was to get popular on social media, particularly on Instagram, writing this sort, trite poetry”, he mentions. “Right away I started getting followers and likes like crazy”. He reported having gained thousands of followers in less than a year, thus confirming his theory that people consume digital poetry because of its fast, easily digestible content.
I have to say—I do partly agree with these people’s theories. We live in an incredibly fast-paced world, and we need everything readily handed to us without having to work too much for it. However, I definitely do not see this issue as being black and white. I believe there are myriads of variables that we should consider before discarding the movement altogether.
Firstly, though Instagram poets are not particularly challenging the tastes of the classic literary canon (and despite some critics’ incentives to “stop celebrating amateurism and ignorance in our poetry”), I wonder whether their writing is not just another mode of expression that responds to our techno-consumerist society. After all, the statistics are not lying: poetry readers have gradually declined in the last couple of years and suddenly, because of these writers, it is gaining popularity again.
A Survey of Public Participants in the Arts released in 2015 reported that the share of Americans who had read at least one work of poetry in the previous year had dropped from 17% in 1992 to 6.7% in 2012. Another survey showed that in 2017, only 19% of Americans read for pleasure on a given day. Around the same time, in Canada, Rupi Kaur’s poetry collection skyrocketed sales by 154% and thus made poetry culturally relevant again. Yes, her poetry might not suffice for the highbrow intellectuals, but then again, she never intended it to. While some academics might dislike the overly colloquial digital poetry, others might find a type of relevance in them that was impossible to find in pages and pages about an ancient mariner.
Poetry, over the years, has been predominantly directed to a rather mature, elitist audience. Chaucer, Keats, Whitman, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Swinburne or Browning—how many of us spent long and tedious hours studying their verses and still found no relevance in them?
In an article titled “Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Difficulties of Victorian Poetry,” we find that Robert Browning, another high canonical poet, created a radical new form of poetry which his audience did not even know the rules for. He also used difficult and arcane words, made obscure allusions and, put simply, did not write with a conventional sense of audience:
Browning (….) was home-schooled and self taught, and he enjoyed reading obscure biographies and reference works with the result that he had an unsure sense of what he could expect his readers to know. (He didn't always realize when he was being difficult!) The scholarly and equally well-read Swinburne similarly often showed little attention to the needs of his audience, characteristically attempting to popularize his political and poetic hero Victor Hugo with a poem filled with dozens of allusions to the French author's works that only a someone who had practically memorized them could possible recognize.
These writers are the epitome of the elitist attitude which assumes their audiences are just as well read as they are and have no difficulties deciphering their work. James Joyce, upon finishing Ulysses, claimed that the book is going to “keep critics busy for 300 years” and that “the only demand I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my works.”
Nowadays, that mentality seems (finally!) to have shifted. Poets write poetry for a totally different audience: people like themselves, minorities—people who, if we are honest, (Anglophone) poetry has not specifically been written for in the past.
So then, why are we still bothered by some writers who decide to share their poems online? Part of the problem, the way I see it, stems from the fact that there is a new generation challenging the old one, thus making academia losing more and more of its market share.
In the case of Browning, who used a radically new poetic form (he invented the dramatic monologue), many uninitiated readers had a hard time interpreting his poetry. It goes without saying, then, that reading his work was not a particularly enjoyable experience. It came with years of interpretation, analyzing, dissecting. But why would readers do that? What was the reason behind academia’s determination to put up with all this (what appeared to be) nonsense?
According to Wordsworth, the first duty of a great poet is to “create the taste by which they are to be enjoyed.” This, in a nutshell, means that in the academic world especially, readers will have to learn the new rules put forward by these great poets if they want to make sense of their works. This is why early-twentieth-century stream-of-consciousness narration was initially deemed incomprehensible by most readers, whereas now it is just another narrative method with which most literature students are or should be familiar.
But this is not the case anymore. As I previously mentioned, unless you are part of academia, fewer and fewer people are willing to dedicate extended periods of time reading, let alone reading (obscure) poetry which requires stillness and concentration. We want our poetry short, simple and neatly presented. Most importantly, we want it serving sincerity and emotion in the place we need it the most—the ever-cynical place which we call the internet.
Lastly, I believe that our modern era calls for a redefinition as to what it means to be a poet. According to the dictionary, a “poet” is simply “one that writes poetry.” Why, then, must we label poets according to the platform they choose to display their work on? Is there really such a big difference in terms of a writer’s literary skills between print and digital platforms? Is a poet less of a poet if they publish their work in someplace instead of another?
Likewise, I find it peculiarly condescending that we tend to confine poetry within the academic world—why should people’s art be lessened just because it doesn’t subscribe to old modes of thinking, or to individualist tastes? Is there a legal definition of what poetry means? Not really. “Poetry,” rather, is an extremely versatile term, and it should be able to speak to anyone in need of it—be those Browning scholars or Rupi Kaur aficionados.
After all, what is the purpose of a technologically driven world if not to accommodate each and every one of our particular needs and tastes?