An Instagram post is a small square picture, roughly seven centimetres by seven on an average phone screen. If covered in text it has space for about 25 lines of poetry in a font size you can read without squinting. This is an Instagram poem by Rupi Kaur:
if you are not enough for yourself
you will never be enough
for someone else
Kaur is so famous that parodies of her verse trend on Twitter: ‘i understand/why guacamole is/extra/it is because/you/were never/enough – rupi kaur.’ William Carlos Williams is up there with her as a parodied subject, racking up thousands of posthumous likes for internet rewritings of ‘This Is Just to Say’ – the plums and icebox poem which can handily be tweaked in the Notes app on an iPhone. ‘I have eaten/the plums that were in/the stockpile/and which/you were probably/saving/for post-Brexit.’ Or, more self-referentially: ‘I have enjoyed The meme/That is based on/The plums poem/And which you/Are probably/Sick/Of seeing on here.’
People are definitely sick of seeing Kaur circulating online, but they keep buying books of her poetry. Her first collection, milk and honey, self-published in 2014 but snapped up by Andrews McMeel the following year, has sold more than three million copies, and spent 150 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list; her second, the sun and her flowers (2017), sold a million copies in its first three months. Her fame is unusual, but the arc of her story – young poet ignored by the publishing establishment wins followers and a lucrative book deal by posting work online – is also that of several millennials who owe their fame to Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr. The best known are female, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Cleo Wade, Lang Leav, Nayyirah Waheed, Amanda Lovelace and Charly Cox (‘social media’s answer to Carol Ann Duffy’, the blurbs say of she must be mad). There are men too, including Atticus (not his real name), a mysterious masked Canadian and self-described lover of ‘the ocean, the desert, whiskey and playing with words’ who writes about women in a way that makes you suspect he’s never met any.
Instapoems are minimalist in form, made up of brief lines (sometimes monosyllables) that have a vatic quality. Capitalisation is a no-no, so is punctuation; the impression is of an utterance floating free of its moorings in the stylish white of the frame. (The exception to the no punctuation rule is Waheed, an early inspiration of Kaur’s, whose full stop-littered verses read like non-urgent telegrams: ‘things. that should be asked/often./in every type of./relationship:/how is your heart./is your breath happy. here./do you feel free’.) Rhyme is rare, sometimes deployed in a jokey sub-Byronic mode – ‘I’ve written plenty of letters/And received plenty of emails/I’ve kissed plenty of boys/And one or two females’ (Cox) – but sometimes more McGonagall than Byron:
This is real life
And the word is depression
The medical phrases should be shouted in succession
Because for all the days they’ve made my face nameless
It would help in abundance for them to be shamed less
There is little imagery (it gets in the way of deliverable content), but where visual imagination is employed it works like a magpie, seizing on things that are shiny and pretty. Instapoetry deals in stars, moonlight, birds, flowers, the sea, preferably all of them at once. Lovelace: ‘how can/someone/be/too young/to be/in love/when we were/crafted/from/ocean waves/ & starlight?’ Stars are everywhere, casting their vacant light over mystifying thoughts. ‘Our love – a dead star/to the world it burns brightly –/But it died long ago’ (Leav). ‘if/the stars/can burn/without dying,/then/who’s to say/i can’t do/the/same?’ (Lovelace).
There are some moments of clarity in the starry gloom. Cox is able to look at the human body dispassionately (‘marble ham thighs,/A masculine tone/Dilated pupils and tar-stained bone’), and treads a nice line between sympathy and disgust. Kaur is much better writing gruesomely than prettily. On self-hatred: ‘i peeled my skin off just to feel awake/wore it inside out/sprinkled it with salt to punish myself.’ There is also some evidence of verbal dexterity, an ability to make language look two ways at once or hover between alternatives. ‘I’m a barefaced liar,’ Cox writes of Instagram’s filtered selfie culture, where ‘barefaced’ has its colloquial meaning in tandem with ‘liar’, but also denotes the makeup-free ‘natural look’ celebrated on the platform, reminding us that not all of those who purport to be barefaced actually are.
Bodies – women’s bodies – are the stock in trade of Instapoetry: resilient, fragile, too fat, too thin. Men can write about women as if they are perfect, which Atticus frequently does (‘she was … an angel in my sheets’; ‘to the poet every curve of her was a well-placed word’), but women are barred from calling their own bodies perfect without having acknowledged their imperfections first. No one likes a perfect body if it has always been perfect. To be inspirational to young followers, bodies need to be ‘real’, or better still to have ‘been on a journey’, which means having experienced trauma or self-hatred and come out stronger than before. Kaur is taught to hate her ‘premature double chin’, her breasts that make boys want to ‘feast’ on her, her thick ‘caterpillar’ eyebrows. Cox loathes her cellulite and her thighs. The triumphant fourth-wave narrative they all rehash is about learning to see the mental snares of patriarchal society for what they are and to embrace self-love and self-sufficiency. ‘This stuff that in all these years/I’ve told myself is huge/Has simply been the shape/Of the holiest refuge.’
Trump, Weinstein and Kavanaugh are all here in the background like doughy ghosts at the feast. Cox calls out Trump directly: ‘Tell me, sir,/ … Why do you consider us so little?’ Lovelace has a poem for Christine Blasey Ford, responsible for speaking ‘mighty truths’ at the time of Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination ‘so a million more truths/could finally escape’. Kaur channels the outspoken ethos of #MeToo: ‘now/is our time/to be mouthy/get as loud as we need/to be heard.’ The references are hyper-contemporary, but have the patina of datedness that comes with the myopic immersion in the culture of a particular moment. Sometimes their descriptions of modern millennial life read as if written from the outside by an attentive alien, or someone’s dad: ‘forty-three unread text messages, fifteen new Tinder matches and one series of Master of None replaying over and over on an infinite loop in the background’. With the exception of Atticus, who seems to live – in his mind at least – in fin-de-siècle Paris (‘she taught me French/and after breakfast she would paint/and I would write’), they are at least self-aware about existing in a social media universe without which none of the poetry or fame would be possible; but there’s little apparent recognition that Instagram’s prettiness might sit awkwardly with feminist body politics, or make things worse.
The niceness of Instagram and the aspirations it feeds means that these poems are also markers of a lifestyle. Posts present poems in the same way adverts place products. Some are scribbled attractively by hand on a scrap of paper and shot in ‘flat lay’ alongside artisanal coffees. Some are framed as inspirational prints to cheer up the wall of an Airbnb kitchen. Books for sale are shown nestled in white duvets or scattered attractively with bits of rose quartz. Leav reposts selfies uploaded by her followers featuring her books balanced on gym-honed abs or used as backdrops to gel manicures. There is associated merchandise: ‘limited edition’ hand-painted silkscreen canvases bearing Kaur’s poems and line drawings for $80 apiece; a blank ruled ‘journal for writing your own story’ from Lovelace called slay those dragons – a great way to make money as a writer if you don’t fancy filling pages yourself. The sheer inoffensive sweetness of the writing – and its brevity – means it works anywhere, inside a greeting card or as a caption to commercial wedding photographs. ‘love is giving all we can/even if it’s just the bigger slice of cake.’ ‘mint chocolate chip ice cream will fix just about everything.’
What if they turn out to be the new Beats? Or the next Bloomsbury Group? Or a gaggle of Sylvia Plaths? (All these comparisons have been drawn.) They aren’t the first coterie of young writers to be ‘misunderstood’ and rejected by conventional arbiters of taste, nor are they the first to win popular admiration before being taken on by more mainstream publishers. Critics find them awkward because their work is hard to assess traditionally: technical analysis can be butted away too easily as gatekeeping. ‘History will look back on critics/as one collective voice,/tainted with bitterness,/coloured by their ignorance/and failure to find/the pulse of their generation,’ Leav writes in ‘Making History’. It’s just like the literary establishment to pick fault with form or rhyme or imagery, because this is the ground it feels most comfortable on; its attacks merely confirm the way it always misses the point, and – by extension – show how much these fresh voices are needed to shake it up.
Instapoetry may be the work of a moment, its defenders say, but its fidelity to the feeling of that moment – in whatever shapeless guise – is what distinguishes it from ‘traditional’ poetry with its thought and artifice, its respect for time and second thoughts. Leav and Cox have published poems they wrote at the ages of 12 and 15 respectively, preserved like holy relics. The printed versions of their poems are identical to those posted online months or years before. ‘People [are] throwing up poems that they didn’t spend a lot of time on … I don’t think you can fault that necessarily; it’s just a different art form,’ Atticus observes. A ‘different art form’ can’t be evaluated according to the same old rules, because literary criticism fetishises complexity when what matters is spewed-up realness. It also – wrongly – looks for knowledge where innocence is what is prized. Atticus is happy to admit to a near total ignorance about the history of the form he practises: ‘how little I know about poetry and the immense world of poetry.’ ‘I didn’t know a thing,’ Cox writes by way of preface to her collection. ‘I just knew how to feel.’
The Instapoem is a badly wrought urn, self-contained, free-floating, divorced from history. It would be a New Critic’s dream if it weren’t so barren of interest. It reads as proverbial but not all that wise, like an adage you can’t apply. (Atticus: ‘She wasn’t given wings/to see the world from a tree.’) Sometimes the message is so general that it resembles a piece of advice from a desperate horoscope writer looking for a one-size-fits-all formulation: ‘if you need more time to understand how you feel about a thing. give yourself more time to understand how you feel about a thing’ (Waheed). Each poem is as unmemorable and reusable as a coffee keep-cup, deployable several times over the course of a few weeks while still seeming new. The format suits a readership hunting for relatable content, for free-form wisdom malleable enough to be regrammed and stretched to fit the individual situation. Lots of people – hundreds of thousands – seem to want this. In Kaur’s words, ‘there are far too many mouths here.’