On Instafame & Reading Rupi Kaur
Rupi Kaur isn’t just Instagram-famous, she’s famous-famous. Apparently outselling Homer, this young woman of color from the suburbs of Toronto has become a global phenomenon in two short years. Like anyone who is popular, she has her share of detractors. Some critics decry the quality of the verse, others question the means by which “fame” arrives, still others critique the politics of Kaur’s narrative, including the extent to which an exoticizing orientalism may be at more sinister work in commodifying narratives of marginalization and suffering. Regardless of those criticisms, no one can deny the immensity of her audience, both virtual and at the live readings she gives.
So one question I get from my friends and relatives who aren’t poets and who aren’t interested in poetry or in my unlikely life as a poet is, “what do you think of Rupi Kaur?” And how to answer the question? What do I think of Rupi Kaur? Well on the surface of it I’m mildly annoyed that I gave so many years to learning craft, reading deeply, doing everything I could to become a better poet, because it seems that all it takes is some superficial musings, some pretty okay (honestly) drawings, and one (admitted awesome) photo to go viral and make you the most famous poet in the world, and maybe of all time.
But you know what, on the surface of it I’m all right with a young woman of color putting the canon of Western civilization off its pedestal for once. Is it interesting as poetry? Not to me. But neither are Hallmark cards and I still buy and send those. Neither are most pop music lyrics (Grace VanderWaal, I’m making an exception for you) but I still listen to those in my car. Kaur’s verses—okay, okay, her poems—are simple and yes, I would say, simplistic, but they are obviously resonating with a wide and deep audience. And her sales numbers are proof that print’s not dead, aren’t they? Things go viral for a reason—there was an audience just waiting for verse like Kaur’s.
It’s worth saying that no criticism has been leveled at Kaur that hasn’t been similarly leveled at “actual” poets—Mary Oliver has received as much scorn for her mass appeal, Jane Hirshfield for the supposed simplicity of her writing, and certainly Sharon Olds has borne more than her share of disdain for writing explicitly about the female body, of menstrual blood, of the messiness and muckiness of sex. Recent hagiographies aside, even the great Lucille Clifton was called out by critics in her day for all three of these. To me, the real difference here is not about intention or focus or subject matter but about craft.
When I say the poems are “superficial,” I mean that the language is plain, the observations are not stunning or surprising. More often than not, I feel a sense of “recognition” of a feeling I have always had, and not always so deeply buried. Often times the poem repeats a sentiment I have heard before, just with the benefit of line breaks and/or the accompanying drawing. As one example, her poem “I want to apologize to all the women I have called pretty” works more or less without images (there is one, something about the women’s spirits being able to crush mountains) from beginning to end. Her big epiphany is rather than calling the women “pretty,” she will call them “resilient” or “extraordinary.” There’s not too much in the way of surprise or even beauty, the way we ordinarily think about it.
If Kaur were ever to ask my thoughts (and in another life she might have—part of my family lives in Brampton, ON where Kaur lives, and I spent much of my young adulthood there and continue to visit regularly) I would suggest a deep reading of the four poets I just mentioned. I would likely add Naomi Shihab Nye, Douglas Kearney, Carmen Giménez Smith, and Galway Kinnell to the impromptu syllabus. I would tell her to stop putting those summarizing phrases or words at the close of her verses. They may work as “hash-taggable” metadata, but not as part of the poem’s text.
There is such a thing now as “pop poetry,” the way you would think of pop music. Kaur is neither the first—she was preceded by poets like Sahara Sunday Spain, Matty Stepanek, and Billy Corgan—nor will she be the last. Does the music of Britney Spears make space in music for young experimental musicians? Probably not. Does the presence of Spears’s work take opportunities, funding, or audiences away from young composers and performers of more serious artistic approaches to music? Doubtful. I think if I ever decided to try to become Instagram famous and post some evocative selfies with little epigrammatic lyric verses, they would still come out more like Sappho or like Olga Broumas and T Begley’s Sappho’s Gymnasium, rather than a Hallmark verse, but that’s just cosmetics. Besides, there is an audience out there for a more complex and crafted poetry; the recent success of Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones”—which had arguably more exposure than any individual poem of Kaur’s—is one recent example.
As for criticism of Kaur for posing with veils or whatever it is that an American audience reads as “exotic,” that’s what cultural syncretism is, what life is like in the West for those of us raised in South Asian cultures. Are we “pimping” our culture by using what appeals to a mass audience to increase our popularity? It’s a question that needs to be asked, but there isn’t one answer. Kaur has a cultural context same as you, same as me. If anything, the infamous photograph of her with menstrual blood is even more radical when you consider that context, menstrual blood being considered in South Asian (and Middle Eastern) culture to be an actual state of spiritual as well as physical uncleanliness: women who are menstruating are not allowed in mosques and temples, or even to participate in religious rituals and prayers in their own homes, in many religions of the region.
It’s also worth noting that in contrast to the styled, model-like images of her accompanying major media articles, in the portraiture she herself does in her work as a photographer, Kaur’s iconography works sharply against the more typical South Asian beauty standards. More often than not, her hair is unkempt. Though she uses make-up on her eyes and lips, she leaves her face undressed; it is often drawn, tired, or haggard and the lighting she uses accentuates, rather than conceals, that state.
There does exist an exciting potential for a poetry of brevity which can reach mass audiences, for poetry that utilizes the instantaneousness of the internet, its non-linearity, potential for multiplicity of viewpoint and voice. In one fashion, Kaur’s work moves against these modes of futurity back to a singularity of selfhood, back to a romantic, heroic ideal. Maybe it is in this quality that the real problem lies. Kaur’s verses touch the surface of situations. They identify; they do not interrogate. They provide moments of recognition; they allow the reader to notice something in their own perception through the voice of Kaur, but they do not uncover new moments of perception. To me, in a poem the writer reaches for the reader and the reader reaches back—in this moment of contact the unknowable or unthought is illuminated. There’s no such transaction yet in these or in other kinds of instant poems, or “pop poetry”—they are more texts for consumptions, they are a one-way ticket. None of that means they have no purpose or place.
Kaur’s success is its own. It has not resulted in a greater interest in other poets, younger or otherwise, those involved in social media or not. It is not about whether she is “accessible” or not, but about what the work is for and who it is for. “Worth” is a tricky equation. I prefer my literature more provocative, more dangerous; I hope to be led by poetry into confusing and previously unutterable places. But in my very lifetime the notion of audience and writer has transformed radically. Social media and its attendant forms and languages have blossomed at a geometric speed. Perhaps the leap to instantaneous and single-note perceptions was inevitable.
If you have no other poetry in your life and you want something close at hand, at bedside or in the glove compartment, you may already own a volume of Kaur’s. To anyone who is interested in the richness and strangeness of contemporary poetry, I would have some further suggestions for you. If you wanted to read epigrammatic brief poems, perhaps check out Yannis Ritsos or Fanny Howe or Jane Hirshfield’s translations of Izumi Shikibu and Ono no Kamachi. Brief does not have to mean superficial—the canon of classical East and Southeast Asian poetic forms and the continuing popularity of haiku teaches us that. If you want to read younger poets who are writing in a very contemporary idiom, including the idiom of social media, check out recent books by Tommy Pico, Ruth Madievsky, Ben Fama, Alex Dimitrov, Morgan Parker, and Anaïs Duplan.
Kaur’s medium and her treatment of her subjects are tied to one another. Hers is a voice of the future, which is the instantaneous now. There will be others. But we cannot anticipate them nor mimic them nor know where they lead.
Poet, editor, and prose writer Kazim Ali was born in the United Kingdom to Muslim parents of Indian descent. He received a BA and MA from the University of Albany-SUNY, and an MFA from New York University. Ali’s poetry collections include The Far Mosque (2005), which won Alice James Books’ New...