With two best-selling books and a poetry account on Instagram registering 3.7 million followers, 26-year-old Indian-Canadian Rupi Kaur’s signature style consists of simplistic sentences, the lowercase, italicised titles, free verse, and (self-drawn) accompanying illustrations.
Most of her poems sit snugly under 5 lines, and Kaur defiantly shuns the obscure vocabulary and complex metaphors considered vital to poetic canon.
Iconic of the new rise of ‘Instagram poets’, Kaur’s contemporaries include Nikita Gill, Lang Leav, R.H. Sine, and Nayyirah Waheed. As a young, brown, immigrant woman, her audience – primarily young women – celebrates her as a sorely-needed voice of diversity. Her work, with its resonant themes of heartbreak, sexual assault, identity, love and family, has been fiercely proclaimed accessible, raw and honest.
But Kaur has been… controversial.
Detractors have declared her work uninspired, tokenistic and overtly formulaic. She has inspired an explosion of parodies: Milk and Vine (a parody of Kaur’s first book, Milk and Honey) consists solely of Vines written in Rupi-esque format. My personal favourite is “i thought/ you were bae/ turns out you’re just/ fam”.
One can sympathise with this point of view – one of Kaur’s poems simply reads “if the hurt comes/so will the happiness.” This two-line poem, not much more than an aesthetically rehashed platitude, has garnered almost 400,000 likes. Upon encountering it, I couldn’t help but partially agree with her critics’ cry that Kaur does nothing but manufacture pseudo-deep, easily consumable content that can be monetised easily. After all, alongside her books, Rupi Kaur t-shirts, canvas prints and more, can be purchased online.
Online engagement with this debate has been so extensive that a Redditor recently used an AI to churn out Rupi Kaur poems. He then crafted a point-based game wherein users must determine whether the poem presented was written by Kaur or the AI. I played the game. It was surprisingly hard to tell the difference. I lost 25 points.
And yet a large portion of her work (in my opinion) is both fresh and genuinely impactful. The poems are simple, yet employ strikingly complex imagery. While some of these better-crafted poems may be just as short, they have an alluring sense of rhythm. They also don’t shy away from the political.
A poem I particularly liked, from her book The Sun and Her Flowers, poignantly expresses the plight of modern refugees. Kaur links this to the memories of her grandparents and their experiences during Partition.
The first few lines read: “your legs buckle like a tired horse running for safety/drag them by the hips and move faster/you do not have the privilege to rest/in a country that wants to spit you out.”
Clearly, Kaur has talent. Her thoughts can be phrased exquisitely, her pen expelling lines that invite multiple re-readings. In this poem, as in many of her others, her lack of capitalisation seemed meaningfully used and effective – rather than lazy or needlessly ‘edgy’.
I’ve found myself in the strange position of agreeing with both Kaur’s fans and critics.
After pondering it over, I arrived at the simple conclusion that Kaur is perhaps merely inconsistent. She seems to have no problem outputting a high volume of poetry that doesn’t come close to the quality of her best work. Perhaps she’s not too great at editing. Perhaps she simply writes what she wants to tell herself, not others. Perhaps she’s shrewd enough to know what sells. We will likely never know, but perhaps we must be wary about generalising – either positively or negatively – her work, or the genre, as a whole.
Moreover, the sheer venom and intensity of the criticism seems both unfair and unearned. After all, we are regularly exposed to a plethora of uninspired movies, songs, YA novels, sitcoms etc. Almost none of these generate the same hateful fervour. As Housefull continues to release sequels, we may not rate them cinematic masterpieces, but we also don’t really care. It releases in theatres, we watch it or we don’t. We might laughingly cite an opinion. But after that, we move on. The ‘badness’ of Housefull simply doesn’t affect us.
Yet when it is content manufactured for women, specifically teenage girls, the vitriol starts.
The amount of hate leveraged at anything marketed towards teenage girls can be slightly disturbing. One Direction, Twilight and many others, have met the axe of frighteningly fanatic public condemnation. The internet can seem a haven for those who believe teenage girls inherently frivolous and incapable of coherent thought. There are many issues with both Kaur and other ‘Instagram poets’, but disliking them so vehemently just because teenage girls connect with them is both nonsensical and misogynistic.
At the end of the day, while I may have certain misgivings about her ‘commercial’ poems, I still strongly believe that neither I nor anyone else gets to ‘decide’ what art is.
Inika Murkumbi studies in class 12 at Dhirubhai Ambani International School, Mumbai
Featured image credit: Facebook/Rupi Kaur