In defense of Rupi Kaur and Instagram’s “pop poets”

Why so attached to ideas of good and bad?
Why so attached to ideas of good and bad?
Image: Ephrat Livni
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Poetry is suddenly popular, which ought to make poets happy. But the poems circulating on the internet right now tend to be short, full of feels, and written by young women with lots of Instagram followers—which makes some literati mad. They’re hotly debating whether this kind of social media verse even counts as poetry, or art, at all.

Poet Rebecca Watts, writing in the journal PN Review, bemoans what she calls “The Cult of the Noble Amateur,” as exemplified by the self-made Canadian poet Rupi Kaur, whose book Milk and Honey sits atop New York Times bestseller lists and can be found in almost any North American bookstore. Kaur, Watts writes, belongs to ”a cohort of young female poets who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’—buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft that characterizes their work.”

It’s true that Kaur’s poems are simple, personal, and easy to understand, dealing with no grand abstractions. They contain few words and mostly reveal the power of blank space. They’re frankly not to my taste.

But the last laugh could still be on critics measuring poetry with dated yardsticks. After all, the history of literary and visual arts is riddled with examples of underdogs forcing insiders to reevaluate, and eventually embrace, artistic works that are at first disparaged and decried as meritless.

The case against Kaur

The 25-year-old Kaur has emerged in recent years as that most rare of artistic phenomenons—a genuinely successful poet. Milk and Honey outsold all other poetry books in 2016 and 2017, lively years for the typically sleepy business of verse. Kaur’s been profiled in New York Magazine, the New York Times, PBS News Hour, and The Guardian; her book is so well-known that a spoof called Milk and Vine also became an Amazon bestseller upon its release.

But Kaur has faced a lot of backlash from critics like Watts, who argue that her work gives poetry a bad name. Writing for PN Review, Watts quotes what she calls a “typical” Kaur poem: “she was music / but he had his ears cut off.” Watts argues that such simple stuff doesn’t pass muster from an artistic perspective. She also criticizes the young pop poets for disregarding the old masters. Kaur’s UK counterpart, Hollie McNish, has admitted that she doesn’t read much; Kaur told New York Magazine that she hadn’t finished a book in a year.  Watts finds their disdain for authority and tradition infuriating:

If only Schopenhauer could have read [McNish’s] Plum! It would have distracted him from his hatred of Hegel. It is such stuff as madmen tongue, and brain not; the product of a ‘(mind)’ with a limited grasp of denotation and the ways in which words can be combined to form meaningful phrases.

And so, while acknowledging that ”artless poetry sells,” Watts wants literary types to be more critical of the new poets and their fans, rather than ”pretending that poetry is not an art form.”

The problem with her position, however, is that from a historical perspective, much of the work that we consider worthwhile now was once seen as decidedly lowbrow. Consider Andy Warhol’s prints of Campbell’s soup cans, inspired by ads, or Jean-Michel Basquiat’s graffiti, which was once seen as vandalism. Both artists were eventually elevated from the realm of the new, crude, and laughable to the artistic canon, with their works sold in galleries and hung in museums. Similarly, one-time pulp writers, like horror’s H.P. Lovecraft and hard-boiled detective master Dashiell Hammett, are now seen as literary greats, in retrospect, decades after they emerged in lowbrow publications.

Watts wants to stop the populist tide before it starts when it comes to her chosen art, poetry. But this is one of the oldest stories in the art history book. And Watts, who is all about tradition based on her essay, should know that history isn’t on the side of old-timers.

Going on instinct

Watts’ essay is part of an age-old debate about what qualifies as “good” art, and the role that popularity ought to play in making that judgment. This question is ultimately unanswerable, but people love to debate it.

Some assess art based on their instincts, simply saying that they know it when they see it. This is essentially the approach the US Supreme Court took in defining pornography in the 1967 case, Jacobellis v. Ohio, but applied to all culture. It’s a personal judgment, a sense.

Those who try to justify their classifications of “art” and “not-art”—people like Watts, or art professors, for example—draw on history and authority, looking to the artists and movements from the past, along with famous critics, for guidance. They attempt to evaluate the quality of a given work based on allegedly objective measures and put aside personal feelings. But the experts also know the experts can be wrong sometimes.

The French Academy of Fine Arts, for example, is the most prestigious artistic institution in the nation. At one point, the Academy had a hierarchy of painting styles, prioritizing realistic works above all else. In 1863, this institution rejected so many artists from showing at an exhibit in the Louvre that another display, the Salon des Refuses, was held outside the museum. That outdoor show proved extremely popular, featuring artistic greats like the painters Edouard Manet and Paul Cezanne, and paved the way for avant-garde movements like impressionism. Today, the “show of rejects” is also a symbol: it represents the fallibility of conservative art institutions. The Academy now embraces strange, postmodern works.

There are also scientific approaches to measuring the quality of art, like a New York University study published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts (paywall) on Nov. 30, which sought the secret to effective poetry. Psychologists asked 400 American adults to read either haiku or sonnets and respond to them in an extensive survey. They found that form mattered less than vividness of imagery when it came to people’s levels of enjoyment. Similarly, it’s known that people find fractals in nature and paintings extremely pleasing.

But is art that is pleasing necessarily good? What we like, individually and as a society, and what constitutes quality—what makes art good or great—are often two different things.

Digital heroes

As Watts notes, “The ability to draw a crowd, attract an audience or assemble a mob does not itself render a thing intrinsically good: witness Donald Trump.” That is clearly true. Quantityof readers, Twitter followers, sales, or votes—is not a reliable measure of quality.

But Watts further likens the new poets to the latest US president because they’re all “products of a cult of personality, which demands from its heroes only that they be ‘honest’ and ‘accessible’, where honesty is defined as the constant expression of what one feels, and accessibility means the complete rejection of complexity, subtlety, eloquence and the aspiration to do anything well.” In other words, Watts argues that the pop poets are only capable of expressing themselves crudely, in a way that negates nuance and depth. And that’s not quite right.

Watts’ criticism is overly simplistic. In fact, both the pop poets and the US president have a talent for doing at least one thing exceedingly well. That something is the internet, which happens to be a very big deal.

On the internet, they understand how to reach people. They speak to internet culture, and it clamors for more. They don’t just have a lot of followers; they are masters of a new, still-emerging form, the social media post. To dismiss them as idiots is to disrespect the instinct and intelligence it requires to get millions of people to relate to you with just a few words in this new form; to reach people who are always claiming to be too busy.

In her critique, Watts inadvertently reveals the very reason that Kaur, McNish, and their ilk are poets, whatever one’s personal feelings about the quality of their verse. Poets must “strive, through innovation and engagement with tradition, to find new ways of making language meaningful and memorable,” she writes. And that’s what the internet poets are doing.

The poets are innovating by using social media to popularize a form of writing, a tradition, that seemed not long ago like it was about to be irrelevant—poetry. They’re igniting intellectual debates. And they’re calling into question the authority of their elders, as well as stuffy old rules about what an artist must know before she can create. They’re doing exactly what rebellious artists have always done.

Becoming what we loathe

By pitting herself against the new poets, Watts becomes what she claims to loathe—an emotional writer who prioritizes personal feelings over allegedly objective measures of art. Her resistance to the internet’s popular poets ends up making her a typical citizen of the digital age, a person inclined toward polarization even when there’s no need to divide the world into “us” and “them.”

Watts writes that “it is the job of poets to safeguard language.” But language is always changing. It is not a precious object or a limited resource. It’s a free tool we use daily. It transforms with the times, often in unpredictable ways, and there are always plenty more words we can use. English can easily accommodate both highbrow and lowbrow lexicons and modes of expression. Language doesn’t need poets’ safeguarding; it needs people who will play.