It is a truth universally recognised that poetry is a hateful art form and that no one reads it. Ben Lerner, one of America’s most-accoladed contemporary poets, wrote a whole book called The Hatred of Poetry. Poetry is something we read huge amounts of as children (or, have read to us/we are made to recite/we are pushed to imitate) and none of as adults – it is at once both childish and pretentious. That being said, I’ve been trying to read more poetry lately.
Poetry has been long looked down upon as too easy, undefinable, not serious art but a purging of feelings. (Not unlike the hatred of ‘modern art’ – “My kid could make that!”) Audre Lorde writes in ‘Poetry is Not a Luxury’ about poetry as a feminine art, based in feeling, and that ‘the poet’ is ‘the Black mother within each of us’, the antithesis of the ‘rational’ white man. The hatred of poetry by the gatekeepers of other art forms is based in sexism, racism, and classism, according to Lorde. This class aspect is explored in her essay ‘Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference’. Poetry is seen as ‘a less ‘rigorous’ or ‘serious’ art form’ because,
‘[o]f all the art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is most secret, which requires the least physical labour, the least material, and one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper… A room of one’s own may be a necessity for writing prose, but so are reams of paper, a typewriter, and plenty of time.’
We are wholly familiar with the hatred of other kinds of women’s things, especially girls’ things, anything which sees an audience in teenage girls is likely to be written off as unserious, not proper writing. We see it with YA fiction, Fanfiction – which several famous YA authors, such as Rainbow Rowell, have been writers of – and with the Romance genre.
It would seem, perhaps, that these discriminations (against poetry/against the teenage girl) team up in the hatred of Instapoetry – Rupi Kaur, the most famous of all instapoets, certainly fits the bill as a young woman of colour for someone whom the ‘serious’ white male artists would deride. Critique has certainly turned to hatred in some critics’ mouths. I do however remember reading Milk and Honey shortly after it was published and being glad I’d borrowed it from the library and not bought it. As a poor eighteen-year-old student with a lot of required reading for university, every penny and every reading second was precious. So I put the book down without finishing it and returned it to the library.
I find it hard to believe that reading sub-par writing is actively dangerous, my partner is more likely than me to get angry over the popularity of David Walliams’s kids books and instapoet Atticus’s poetry collections. (Though his accusing them of sexism and other bigotry is fair and deserved.) I always want to encourage reading in any form, especially for the very young and the very old. When my late Nan seemed to be losing some of her mental faculties, my parents encouraged her to read by buying her copies of Yours, a magazine aimed at old women about fairly ‘shallow’ or mundane subjects, because it was the only thing she’d happily read. According to the charity Age UK, ‘engaging in reading can reduce symptoms of memory decline, helping you to retain your short-term memory for longer.’ The mental benefits of reading are numerous, and just like physical exercise’s effects on the body, pushing your mental capacity can make your brain stronger, more elastic, and lengthen its life.
Many seem to forget that Kaur’s writing, to date, is really just the YA version of poetry, and there’s more and better YA poetry out there. Poetry aimed a children isn’t looked down upon in this way, and nor should poetry aimed at teenagers. The reason Sarah Crossan and Dean Atta don’t really get the same negativity for writing verse aimed at teenagers, though, seems to be because Instapoets have come up through social media, not the traditional paths. They’re coming up under the scrutiny of the media – they’re new, rare and strange.
But coming up through Instagram does have some bearing on the quality of instapoets’ writing. Instapoetry is a populist art form: whatever gets the most likes is what gets published and makes money. And as anyone who’s tried to gain popularity on a social media platform knows, relatability is king. That’s why the tags #poem, #poetry and #instapoetry are filled mostly with dull, single-sentence platitudes about unrequited love. It’s all very ‘deep’ and all very for fourteen-year-olds. I can’t say I wasn’t sharing something similar on Tumblr at the same age. But if you want to be a popular instapoet who gets a publishing deal – your writing needs to be relatable and shareable. It needs to be universal and exceptionally ‘easy to understand’.
Kaur has admitted that: “I’ve always loved English class and I love reading books, but, the truth is I never even understood the poetry we were given at school.” A big part of her craft, therefore, is making her poetry as easy to understand as possible: “I don’t want someone to read my poetry and think: what does that mean? So every time I’m writing, I’m thinking: OK, what word can I take out? How do I make this more direct? What’s too technical?” This is a frankly worrying position to take on writing. By no means does poetry need to be impenetrable to be worthwhile, and, yes, Orwell gives advice very similar to ‘what word can I take out?’ in his rules for writing. (‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.’) But there is a difference between making your writing finely crafted, without excess and pompousness, and making sure it’s an easily digestible slurry. One of the most wonderful things about reading, especially reading poetry, is freedom of interpretation. That you could read the same poem or novel or short story a hundred times and still get something new out of it on the one-hundred-and-first read. The message I would give to young readers, if I had Kaur’s platform and reach, would be: ‘Don’t worry if you don’t understand! Let the words wash over you! Underline the parts you like and keep moving! You can come back to the words that seem difficult, look them up if you like or don’t – there is no ‘right’ way to read! Enjoy yourself and follow your nose!’
Instapoetry can certainly be thanked for a rise in sales of poetry. Kaur alone was responsible for the huge rise in poetry sales in the UK in 2016/17. Huge bestsellers like Milk and Honey are often great at reminding people who wouldn’t normally read to, well, read! Which can certainly spiral into a general love of reading – I returned to reading because of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, the attacked teenage-girl book of my generation. The more I read back then, especially when I started to read more feminist writing, the more I would eventually distance myself from vampire books and YA. Some would see this as progress, but there’s no ‘wrong’ genres, and my period of snobbery is thankfully over. I’ve come back to YA in recent years and found a lot of wonderful prose and poetry. Some of the most experimental and forward-thinking writing is being done in YA right now.
I’ve been running a #bookstagram for a year and a half, albeit not especially successfully. I’ve shared a lot of pictures of book covers and spent a good amount of time surfing the #bookstagram family of tags. I’ve tried to make pictures of books look pretty with little to no decent backdrops – my home is a small, dirty hole carved into Norwich – and I’ve tried to get a following that might want to read my blogs about reading and my book reviews. I’ve made experiments into cosy content and found it all a bit gross. A bit sell-your-soul to create very pretty but very shallow content. My cosy writing somehow still came out political (thank god) and all my pictures look a bit naff. But I really enjoy sharing what I read with the world, and the bookish internet, with Goodreads and Instagram dominating, is really the only way to do that, however awful both sites are.
I’ve made a conscious decision to read more poetry this year; I’ve dipped into Carol Ann Duffy, Charlyne Yi, Wendy Cope, Mary Jean Chan, Langston Hughes, Morgan Parker, and Grace Nichols. I’ve had a good time with poetry! But because I’ve been sharing what I read on Instagram, I’ve been forced to inspect Instagram’s poetry world. If you don’t know how Instagram works and why I’m getting so worked up about ‘tags’, hashtags are key to making sure you don’t just send a pretty picture into Instagram’s void, unseen. Tags help other people find the posts they’re after. I’ve been trying to find the right tags so people with similar tastes might find me. But the poetry tags contain nothing but people sharing their own poetry or inspirational “quotes”.
Because of #instapoetry, unlike what would be its sister tags #fiction, #nonfiction and #YA, the tags for #poetry are not filled with people sharing what they’re reading, but what they’re writing. You just can’t force Instagram to show you a cute picture of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel sitting on the immaculate bedside table of a rich teenager.
If you’re looking for fellow horror book fans on Instagram, you need to search #horrorbooks and not #horror, similarly with #scifibooks, because horror and sci-fi are being posted about in the context of films and art, video games and photography, too. You can make Instagram show you stacks of Stephen King, with #horrorbooks but you can’t make it show you a book of poetry with #poetrybooks – not even a Rupi Kaur collection! I came up with what I thought would be the killer tag, #poetrycollection, because #poetrybook and #bookofpoetry were duds, and it still didn’t work! Admittedly there were maybe five pictures of physical poetry collections in this tag, but it was nothing compared to just #horror without the added ‘books’!
So – no one is reading poetry on Instagram?
I mean, certainly not no one at all. Certainly. In fact the case may be that any books of poetry being shared as #currentlyreading are probably being drowned out by platitudes and inspirational quotes. But in comparison with the amount that’s being written and shared on there? No one is reading published poetry on Instagram. And no that’s not going to kill off poetry, and no it’s not destroying children’s brains, and no I’m not asking anyone to stop writing. But where is this new market for poetry? Outside of people buying the handful of instapoet books in enormous numbers? I understand the charge of snobbery against a lot of people who critique the poets who came up through social media, I do, but I see poems being posted by people who simply do not read poetry. A writer that does not read their own form is not worth a lot.
It reminds me of Stephen King’s advice to new and aspiring writers – to read. ‘The real importance of reading’, says King in On Writing, ‘is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing… It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page.’ Anyone who’s read the writing of someone who doesn’t read will know what he’s talking about here . You can see words dead on the page (see: iPhone screen) across Instagram #poetry.
It’s true and it’s not snobbishness to suggest that you should at least be familiar with the genre, the form you’re trying to publish and make money in. Why on earth should anyone read your poetry if you don’t read anyone else’s? Should we all be writers who simply spray our thoughts onto digital squares and then run away?
The desire to be seen as a writer or poet can be powerful. In The Hatred of Poetry, Lerner talks about editing a poetry magazine and reading work from people ‘who had clearly never read our publication but whose cover letters expressed a remarkable desperation to have their poems printed anywhere.’ Their desperation is so strong that ‘it is as though the actual poem and publication do not matter’, only the title of ‘published poet’, so powerful that ‘poetry makes you famous without an audience.’ Even through the traditional routes to get published, for some the label ‘poet’ is more important than anything else – a desire I see an enormous yearning for by some poets on Instagram.
Lerner is talking about people finding a way to call themselves a ‘poet’, with no regard as to whether anyone will actually read it, knowing in fact that poetry journals and magazines often have very few readers. But the inverse is largely what’s happening on Instagram, people are using ‘poetry’ as a means by which to obtain a following. The most common form of this ‘poetry’ is immensely popular and a great way to get likes and clicks. People love these one to two sentence platitudes about ‘finding strength’ – they’re so shareable and so relatable. Instagram users might find that their inspirational quote posts get a lot more than, say, the recipe posts they came to Instagram to share. Hastily put together poems might get more likes than their selfies. Many of these ‘poets’ are trying to ride a popular market towards clicks and likes. The algorithm might encourage them to do so!
The more sinister version of this method of account growth is re-sharing anything blandly relatable, including #instapoetry content, building an enormous following and then selling the account. Or then finding advertisers who want to tap into your following. YouTube commentators have covered this type of content on Instagram, especially ‘relatable memes’, many times over. But the point is that blandness sells, populism sells, and that a social media website might be a rather unhelpful way to develop your craft as a writer.
But clearly my real problem with #instapoetry is… where are all my poetry readers? And what are you reading? Can I get a recommendation? I need you!