Instagram poets make me ask: What is good poetry?

Photo by Sandrachile . on Unsplash

If one more Instagram poet tells me how to feel or what to think, I am going to lose my mind.

I was bursting to scream this as I read through Nikita Gill’s book of poems, wild embers, which has a section of fairy tales retold with a feminist bent. The prince’s kiss in the fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty” is reframed as a violation of consent, and the speaker of the poem uses this new version to teach her daughter to say no. “I will use this story to help her understand, no boy has/ the right to touch her without her consent just because he/ thinks she is pretty,” reads the third stanza of “Sleeping Beauty.”

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Does Gill’s poem provide a positive message about consent? Yes. Are there stories in our collective imagination that are misogynistic? Of course. Should new, reimagined versions be written? Absolutely. The problem with “Sleeping Beauty” (and many other Instagram poems) is the execution.

Democracy in Poetry

Right now Instagram poets are developing audiences on social media and turning those followers into fans that buy books. Rupi Kaur, for instance, who has 3.1 million followers on Instagram, made waves when her first book sold 2.5 million copies. And while remaining anonymous and wearing a mask, the mysterious Atticus has published two books with Simon & Schuster and gathered some 905,000 followers on Instagram. Many Instagram poets even reject the title of Instagram poet altogether, saying they are just poets who use the medium.

If one more Instagram poet tells me how to feel or what to think, I am going to lose my mind.

There are, however, themes and commonalities that exist loosely across those who share their work on social media. Many Instagram poets write about self-love, romantic love, heartbreak and sexual violence. They tend to write shorter poems for online consumption (one short sentence is a common length). And by virtue of being available for free on Instagram, these poets are democratizing how poetry is shared and who can write it, bypassing literary journals and M.F.A. programs. This has brought poetry back into the public discourse and given those who have historically been marginalized in the publishing world—including women and people of color—a new way to make their voices heard.

I chose to look at a few Instagram poets who are successful; they all have a lot of followers on social media and have published books. I also chose Instagram poets who have interesting ideas in their work, ideas about what it means to be a woman, to like yourself, to experience love and to make art, but whose poems I thought sometimes missed the mark. I asked myself: Why don’t I like these poems? And I tried to answer that question by comparing Instagram poetry to other poetry I do like a lot and asking: What’s the difference?

Nikita Gill

Often Instagram poets like Gill want to tell the lesson in their writing rather than simply show the reader through the sights, sounds, smells, touches and tastes of their lives and stories. I want to love Gill’s feminist fairy tales, but she beats the reader over the head with the lesson. This is a pattern throughout wild embers.

In the poem “The Truth About Art,” Gill goes so far as to write “What I’m trying to say is,/ You can strive to be perfect./ Or you can strive to be art.” Again, I do not disagree with Gill’s point. I do not think perfectionism is healthy or preferable. What frustrates me is first, that Gill feels the need to have a thesis statement. Second, she chooses to write about how “some artwork is so entrancing, people spend hours/ looking at it” rather than a specific example of artwork that has that effect on people.

Gill is clearly creative, but I wish she made her ideas more concrete and specific. Poetry is vulnerable work, and it requires details—rather than a thesis. As a reader, I expect more from someone who has published three books with Hachette and has over 462,000 followers on Instagram.

Poetry is vulnerable work, and it requires details—rather than a thesis.

Cleo Wade

Like Nikita Gill’s work, the poems in Cleo Wade’s new book from Atria Books, Heart Talk: Poetic Wisdom for a Better Life, are positive but unspecific. Wade has been called the “Millennial Oprah,” and has over 444,000 followers on Instagram. Her small, square book could easily be tossed in a purse; Heart Talk at least more straightforward in its branding as a self-help book rather than simply “poetry.”

The kind of encouraging, earnest writing found in Heart Talk is common in the Instagram poetry world. These words of comfort provide a break in the pretending-to-be-perfect echo chamber of most social media. While millennials have been stereotyped in popular culture as “snowflakes” and are sometimes labeled as emotionally fragile, many of Gill’s poems actually show a willingness to confront emotions positively and productively.

Still, the poetry left me wanting more details and images. For instance, in “where to find it,” Wade writes: “kept looking for goodness/ kept asking everyone/ where I could find the/ good in the world/ it was not/ until I looked within/ and/ grew/ my own/ goodness/ that I/ began/ to see it/ everywhere.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Find it inside & share it outside. Page 91 from #HeartTalk

A post shared by cleo wade (@cleowade) on

I appreciate the message, but, as with Gill, the imagery is lacking. What does it look like to grow goodness? (Or smell like? Or sound like? Or feel like tactilely? Or taste like?) I want poetry that encourages me to grow by offering me a different way to imagine growth. What is growing, a field of sunflowers or tangled weeds?

And is there any sensible reason for “and” to occupy a line of its own in this poem? The short lines in “where to find it” are characteristic of Wade’s style throughout the book, but her line breaks at times feel choppy. It is unclear if this fragmented style is intentional or not.

Reviewing these poets has forced me to re-examine what it is I love about poetry. While wading through Instagram poetry, I frequently returned to some of my old favorite poems, some written long before social media even existed. I marveled anew at these lines from Mary Oliver’s “A Summer’s Day”:

Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—

That specificity—describing how a grasshopper’s jaw moves—is the sort of observation that makes Oliver’s work concrete rather than abstract. I see the same commitment to detail in Ada Limón’s poem “The Conditional” as she imagines the end of the world:

Say owl’s eyes are pinpricks.
Say the raccoon’s a hot tar stain.
Say the shirt’s plastic ditch-litter
Say the kitchen’s a cow’s corpse
.

Limón’s work is a reminder that you can write poetry about big ideas, like the rapture, in vague terms—or you can write about those big ideas as if there is a melted raccoon on the street and a dead cow in your kitchen. Many Instagram poets are settling for vague, unspecific terms and doing a disservice to their good ideas and creativity.

Rupi Kaur

Among the popular Instagram poets I surveyed, Rupi Kaur stood out—and not just because she is the most famous. (She is currently in the middle of a 12-city tour of the United States. Having a book tour is usually not a possibility for poets, and selling out theaters and stadiums (or even selling tickets at all) is unheard of.) What makes Kaur different is that her poems do get into specifics.

Although her work does at times dip into telling rather than showing, Kaur offers some fresh images for the reader. In an untitled poem in her book The Sun and Her Flowers, Kaur describes demolishing her self-loathing, writing “i went for the words…. I lined them up and shot them dead” and “my thoughts...i had to wash them out/ i wove a linen cloth out of my hair/ soaked it in a bowl of mint and lemon water.”

Here Kaur takes the abstract notion of destroying a sense of self-hatred and makes it concrete with images—linen cloth, mint and lemon water— that give the reader something specific to hold on to.

Kaur has those strong moments, but she can also be over-reliant on her illustrations and fall into cliché. Consider this untitled poem from The Sun and Her Flowers:

What draws you to her
tell me what you like
so i can practice

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

page 43 #thesunandherflowers

A post shared by rupi kaur (@rupikaur_) on

 

The poem is accompanied by a compelling image of a woman unzipping an outer layer, but you do not get that in the poem itself, which seems like any old sentence. Moments like these make me wonder how long Kaur and other social-media poets work on a poem before they share it on Instagram.

Most Instagram poetry, whether on social media or republished in a book, seems unrefined—not uncultured, necessarily, but as if it has not been filtered and edited to excise unnecessary words, to build concrete images and to choose meaningful line breaks. Not every interesting phrase or idea is suddenly a poem. Most good poetry is not written in one pass. Often, it takes a few drafts (or 30) to have a really good poem. When I read most Instagram poetry, I do not think it is without merit: It just reads like a first draft.

Editor's Note: This text was updated April 29, 2019.

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