It takes more than line breaks.
If you enjoy reading Lang Leav or Rupi Kaur’s poetry, that’s fine. I’m on your side, I promise.
I can understand, though, if you feel that no one else is. Many have described the work of these poets as superficial or shallow. You might be wondering, why all the fuss? Why can’t I just like what I like?
I’ve tried to make a point before in an honestly mediocre Twitter thread that the way we decry Instagram poetics now mirrors the way we criticized spoken word poetry, back in the early 2010’s. Overbearing sentimentality. A thematic obsession with love and heartbreak. The notion that depth has to be sacrificed for accessibility.
These concerns are valid but they barely scratch the surface. It isn’t wrong to be sentimental, writing about only love and heartbreak sometimes just indicates thematic focus, and anyone who thinks that deep, complex ideas can’t be acclaimed by the public has probably never listened to Beyonce’s Lemonade album with the Warsan Shire parts.
I’m not here to offer a hard science about how to define poetry, or what makes a poem good. But the popularity of Instagram poets tells us a lot about how we look at poetry, and what purpose it serves us.
We tend to think of poetry — and not just the kind being peddled by the likes of Leav and Kaur and their contemporaries, but even the classics — as convenient emotional pick-me-ups, verses to pick at like finger foods when we’re hankering for paragraphs cut up into lines. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Poetry, like any art form, helps deepen our understanding of the world and who we are as human beings, and that deepening doesn’t have to always come as a grand epiphany. It can be a small resonance, settling softly inside you after a rough day. “I wanted you to fall in love / but the arrow kept hitting the mirror and coming back.” Louise Gluck wrote, and that picks you up. Kaur says, “how you love yourself is / how you teach others / to love you,” and that too is comforting and nourishing. Sometimes it takes a line or two to get us through our day to day lives.
But it’s an unjustly limiting way of looking at poetry, to treat poems as handy, convenient aphorisms. If you want those, crack open a fortune cookie. But a powerful poem, I think, in deepening our understanding of the world and ourselves, interrogates what we think we know. Rainer Maria Rilke tells us, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.” You don’t read a sentence like that, think it pretty then call it day.
I think that loving the questions themselves includes conjuring the courage to face poems that interrogate, to seek works of art that threaten to shake up what we think we know, instead of just repeating, as Kazim Ali puts it, “a sentiment I have heard before, just with the benefit of line breaks and/or the accompanying drawing.” Is that what you get from your favorite poets?
If that’s true, if that’s what Lang Leav, or Rupi Kaur, Michael Faudet or Tyler Knott Gregson do for you, fine. If for you, they do a good job of articulating truths you have trouble grasping, fine. But why stop there? Why limit your choices when there are so many great poems about loving yourself (Ocean Vuong), about going through Facebook profile pictures (Nate Marshall), about political unrest (Marie La Viña)?
Dear lover of Instagram poetry, you’re entitled to like what you like. But thinking about why you like what you like is another thing altogether.