Rupi Kaur has achieved a rare feat for a modern poet: mainstream popularity. Part of a new generation of instapoets – young poets publishing verse primarily on social media – Kaur, who turns 25 this month, pairs her dreamy, aphoristic poems with doodles reminiscent of those found in the margins of old school books. Kaur writes about love, sex, rejection and relationships, all topics common on social media, but she also deals with darker material: abuse, beauty standards, racism. Her debut collection, Milk and Honey, has sold 1.4m copies – so far – and she has 1.6 million followers on Instagram.
But success often comes with a backlash, and for every ardent fan, there is a sneering keyboard critic. Her trademark fragmented free verse makes her easy prey for online sceptics. Their mimicry is often witty, and close enough to Kaur’s formula to sting: examples include “I wanted / Chick-fil-a / but / you / were / a Sunday morning” and “I understand / why guacamole is / extra / it is because / you / were never / enough.”
Even if you like her writing, these little jabs at her plaintive voice are spot on: one of Kaur’s actual poems muses “If you are not enough for yourself / you will never be enough / for someone else” and, while that gained 175,000 likes on Instagram, it has the air of the slurred advice you might overhear at the back of a Wetherspoons.
Kaur treads a fine line between accessibility and over-simplicity, and often stumbles into the latter. But does she deserve a 3,000-word article on Buzzfeed criticising her “for blurring individual and collective trauma in her quest to depict the quintessential south Asian female experience”?
There have also been plagiarism claims, most notably when her second collection, The Sun and Her Flowers, was announced. Nayyirah Waheed, another young poet who posts work on social media, had accused Kaur of ignoring her messages about the similarities between their work. These claims aside, the truth is that both writers have hit upon a winning formula: rupturing short confessional pieces with erratic line breaks to share hard-won truths.
Kaur and Waheed, alongside Warsan Shire, Yrsa Daley-Ward and Amanda Lovelace, are examples of a new style that blends the spontaneity and rawness of a teenage girl’s Tumblr with the poise and profundity of lyric poetry. These authors write about shared themes: anger at how the world treats young women, especially women of colour; defiance in the face of dismissal; celebrations of modern femininity. A rush to accusations of plagiarism undermines the emergence of a movement.
Kaur’s detractors claim her use of honey and water as metaphors were poached from Waheed, despite such imagery having been used in poetry for thousands of years (Sappho wrote of honey in the sixth century BC). A shared eye for uniting female power with earth-mother imagery isn’t fuel for conspiracy; rather, it indicates how these young female poets are, across countries and cultures, forging distinct identities. In the internet age, it is only right that a poetic movement no longer needs a geographical nexus. Kaur is part of a new creatively fruitful, symbiotic coterie – perhaps this is the new Harlem Renaissance or Bloomsbury Group. So why are so many people so eager to denigrate and dismiss her?
Verse goes viral: how young feminist writers are reclaiming poetry for the digital age
The reason might be to do with her mainstream success. Kaur is the most popular, and arguably the most marketable, of her cohort. She is pretty, stylish, unapologetically feminine, and earns a lot of money for writing that appeals to young women. The last of those qualities perhaps makes her ripe for ridicule: like many pop musicians before her, she commits the sin of engaging with a demographic whose taste is often seen as a byword for bad quality. Push criticism of her actual writing aside and Kaur is a victim of a toxic mix of snobbery and misogyny.
As a young woman of colour in a world where white, male delectations are treated as the definitive barometer of taste, Kaur speaks a truth that the literary establishment is unlikely to understand. Even the most sincere critique of her work can slide from healthy debate into vicious attack at the turn of a page. But to read Kaur’s success as an omen of the death of poetry would be to unfairly dismiss writing that contains bravery, beauty and wisdom. Frankly, the literary world is saturated with white male voices of dubious quality. Kaur’s poetry should be given the same freedom to be flawed.