Since the advent of social media, Instapoetry has emerged as a popular form of written work. Mostly shared through Instagram but not limited to social media, Instapoems are typically characterized by brevity, minimalistic language and emotional vulnerability. Maybe you’ve seen some of these poems on your own feed — simple words and short verses fit into the square of a single post.
As New York Times book critic Carl Wilson puts it, these poems are “often brief enough to fit into a tweet, or to be overlaid on a photo or an illustration.” Social media subcommunities like BookTok and BookTube have further pushed Instapoetry into light as a topic of literary discussion. This digitization of poetry and its growing evidence of success, has sparked public controversy in recent years. But Instapoetry shouldn’t be as controversial as it is.
There is much to appreciate about Instapoetry: It’s accessible, digestible and reaches a wider audience than traditional print or online publication. According to a survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, poetry readership declined from about 20 percent of the American population in 1982 to approximately 7 percent in 2012, then rebounded to around 12 percent in 2017. This recent growth in poetry readership could be attributed to expanding online platforms for poetry exposure. For people unfamiliar with poetic language, scrolling through Instapoems can be a passive and entertaining way to spend their time and delve deeper into poetry as a genre.
So then, what makes Instapoetry so controversial? Literary critics argue that Instapoetry devalues the art and essence of poetry. Instapoetry is disregarded as holding little to no literary merit while still packaging itself as a form of poetry. In Instapoetry, minimalistic language is often criticized as plain and content exploring emotional vulnerability is deemed cliche and unoriginal.
However, crafted language in this sense is a two-way street. What may be oversimplification and plainness for some may be accessibility and enjoyment for others. The content Instapoetry has popularized is surprisingly not too different from that of traditional poetry. Heritage, love, identity, family — the list goes on. But differences in crafted language have led to a difference in how these themes are explored and perceived.
Among this discussion, Sikh-Canadian writer Rupi Kaur has emerged as the controversial face of Instapoetry. Kaur’s 2014 debut book “milk and honey” embodies the core characteristics of Instapoetry: short verses, simple language and emotional intimacy translated through themes of love, survival and healing. The purpose of “milk and honey” means well to empower and move readers, but at times Kaur’s writing can appear unoriginal and unprofound — which, admittedly, I can attest to.
Let’s take a look at an excerpt from “milk and honey”:
“it is a part of the
human experience to feel pain
do not be afraid
open yourself to it”
Although these lines make use of poetic structure, it seems to lack poetic language and purpose in a conventional sense. The absence of rhythm and sensory details makes the piece appear more a statement than a poem and there is little depth or nuance to these words. Intuitively, the content and message conveyed seems overplayed as well; accepting pain as part of the human experience is not only a common theme in literature, but also a universally accepted circumstance in society. And while this excerpt is organized by line breaks, they seem to occur arbitrarily.
The release of “milk and honey” resulted in a twofold response: eminent success and harsh criticism. These reactions are common in pop culture, to which Instapoetry is often linked (many people refer to Instapoetry as “poetry going pop”). From one angle, I feel compelled to sympathize with critics.
As a writer myself, I understand how difficult it is for poets to gain recognition at the smallest scale, let alone make a living off their work. Writers are still human; despite the sentiment that we enjoy writing for ourselves, we still want to reach an audience that appreciates and recognizes our work. While Rupi Kaur made millions of dollars selling copies of her Instapoetry-style books, many poets who write in a more traditional sense reach a more limited audience.
That said, criticisms against Instapoetry tend to be rigid and uncompromising. Instapoetry is not necessarily devaluing the literary community. Whether you consider it to be a real form of poetry or not, Instapoetry is vastly different from traditional forms of poetry. For this reason, they cannot be pitted against each other. Just as traditional art is examined differently from digital art, Instapoetry and traditional poetry should also be considered separately. Instapoetry blends the line between tradition and experimentation and with this reasoning, it could be categorized as an interdisciplinary art of sorts: one that does not represent poetry as a genre but can exist under the umbrella of it. Recognition-wise, many poets who write in a more traditional sense have accumulated great public attention — take best-selling author Ocean Vuong as an example, who’s gained nearly 300,000 followers on Instagram and whose name strikes as familiar as a mainstream celebrity.
Because art is subjective, people will always voice their opinions on whether a piece is good or bad, jumping to conclusions with these labels without considering gray areas. Some may condemn Rupi Kaur’s work as a dishonor to standard poetry that breaks all the rules of its foundation, while others may praise her work as a novel reinvention of traditional writing that caters to a more suitable audience in today’s day and age.
For 5C students interested in learning poetic craft and analyzing pieces, Instapoetry might not be the best way to go. There are plenty of creative writing courses and external resources at your disposal to introduce yourself to poetry. For others, checking out a copy of “milk and honey” at the library could be a nice way to spend time unwinding or exploring various styles of writing. Feeling connected to a piece of literature should be a personal experience, not one that is dictated by the media or your peers. So if an Instapoem moves you, allow yourself to feel connected to it.
The bottom line is this: you may not be the target audience of Instapoetry — you may even hate it. My own tastes in literature tend to lean towards more traditional forms of contemporary poetry and I rarely spend time reading Instapoetry on my own time. But that doesn’t mean others can’t enjoy it for what it is.
Corina Yi PO ’27 likes em dashes and chai lattes. She misses her dog a lot.