By Sahej Marwah Mar. 30, 2021
It’s easy to hate on Rupi Kaur. Social media is replete with mockery of her work. Yet her fame has only augmented over the years. She has sold millions of copies around the world and given several TED talks. So what keeps people coming back for more?
For as long as I can remember, poetry has been laden with pejoratives like “high-brow” and “convoluted”. For most people, poetry implied an unfathomable profundity but this changed with the advent of Instagram. Today, you need not have a deep understanding of TS Eliot’s “The Wasteland” or casually drop lines from WB Yeats’ “Byzantium” to call yourself a poet. Of this new breed of artists, Rupi Kaur emerged most popular. Currently flaunting 4.3 million followers, she has been vastly celebrated for her bite-sized poems complemented by self-made line sketches.
Rupi Kaur is an Indo-Canadian “Instapoet” whose works include milk and honey, the sun and her flowers, and the latest, home body. (She’s not a believer of cases or punctuations.) She writes extensively on abuse, womanhood, trauma, and the diasporic experience. Her work which is described as “greeting-card verse” and hones simplistic ideas marks the defining reasons for her mainstream success dabbling in an artform that couldn’t keep up with the ever-changing pop-culture landscape. Whatever your opinions may be of her work, one cannot deny that it has brought poetry back in the spotlight. In a world that was obtusely thwarting it due to some misplaced sense of complexity, she has managed to make it accessible to readers of all ages and creeds.
Kaur is not the first to explore these text message-sized poems. Before her, poets like Lang Leav, Christopher Poindexter, Beau Taplin, and Atticus had dominated the scene. Fortunately or unfortunately, their presence had secured a platform the summit of which Kaur has managed to scale. What makes her poetry stand out from that of her contemporaries is not only the fact that she is Brown but also her exploration of this very identity. She shot to fame when there was a glaring paucity in the representation of Brown voices – a fact that could be purely coincidental to her success but has expedited it nonetheless. Interestingly enough, the original plug to her page was not poetry.
In 2015, Kaur’s Instagram post went viral where she’s seen lying down on her bed with a patch of period blood gracing her pants and her bedsheet. Instagram took it down for violating community guidelines which resulted in her criticising them and re-posting the image. This post was part of a college assignment about “challenging taboos”; she had no idea that it would bring her poetry in the limelight. She consolidated this journey best when she said, “They came for the photo, but they stayed for the poetry.” Having said that, the crown weighed heavy on her head when she met with plagiarism accusations from a fellow WOC (Woman of Colour) poet, Nayyirah Waheed. Waheed claims that she tried to reach out to Kaur but was met with a non-response. In a Tumblr post, she said (sic), “a general trust. artist to artist. woc writer to fellow woc writer. that trust felt it had been violated. and that boundaries were being crossed… this author has expressed on social media. and in professional interviews. that i am one of their main WOC writing inspirations. and i truly thought that they valued and respected my work… and i feel that i have been utterly blindsided…” Many critics have also distilled her work as “sad brown girl poetry” and called it formulaic. Eventually, her poetry that was previously lauded for its unconventional form with an aleatory sentence structure, lower case letters, and simplistic content was parodied. Facebook pages were replete with mockery of her work. Case in point, “loving you / was spring / and i went out / without a jacket / too early”. The latest addition to this mockery was provided last week by Kaur herself when she posted a video of herself reading a poem from her maiden collection, milk and honey, on her TikTok account. This video has since gone viral and has had the audience at loggerheads. While some appreciated her courage to unabashedly be herself, others were repulsed by her sexual elocution.
Many critics have also distilled Kaur’s work as “sad brown girl poetry” and called it formulaic.
In spite of this, Rupi Kaur’s fame has only augmented over the years. She has sold over 2.5 million copies around the world and given several TED talks. So what keeps people coming back for more?
Even though her poems are riddled with clichés and propagate a kind of “fake deep”, the themes in Kaur’s poems have a universal appeal. However, it’s not just the content that makes her work so readable and relatable. Social media has radically transformed the manner in which written content is consumed. Poetry has leapt out of yellowing pages and translated to ubiquitous pocket-sized screens; size which has become characteristic of the content itself. But, it is within this translation that there has also been a loss and gain of measured proportions; anyone could be a writer and hence, not everyone was writing well. This transition to digital consumption also encouraged visual elements in the form of doodles or line drawings as are often seen accompanying Kaur’s works. Call it being at the right place at the right time but her online presence cements the fact that she has a sophisticated understanding of what works when it comes to Instagram poetry.
What most watchdogs of literary canons fear is that Kaur’s opus is going to dilute the legacy of poetry that has been created before her. At the same time, her work offers relief to those who wish to indulge in this artform but may not possess the bandwidth to consume layered texts. As The Guardian succinctly put it, “Like many pop musicians before her, [Kaur] commits the sin of engaging with a demographic whose taste is often seen as a byword for bad quality.” Her work may not stand the test of time but by then, the audience will have found someone else to deprecate.
Sahej Marwah likes to have a finger in every bowl. She spends her time baking, writing, editing, podcasting, and pampering her cat. It's safe to say that she is now running out of fingers and is open to donations.