by Matthew Mapes
Poetry is weird now. Defying definition, this generation of poets and artists exists somewhere between postmodernism and an uncertain, unnamed future. There are at once no voices and too many voices, all vying for recognition and publication. Enter Insta Poetry, a new wave of writers riding the social media art boom to unexpected and alarming levels of commercial success. Characterized by pithy statements and aesthetic design geared toward quick and easy digestion on Instagram or Twitter, Insta Poetry gets a lot of criticism for being overly simplistic, sentimental, and driven by personality over craft.
With a bevy of supporters and detractors, respective sides claim that this new form is either saving or destroying poetry, but we can be sure of at least one thing: people are talking about poetry again. Bookstores are shelving and selling more books of poetry now than they have in the last several years, and the sales don’t seem to be limited to physical copies of these social media collections. More traditional collections of poetry are selling too. Whether Insta Poetry is the punching bag of ivory tower academics or a prime contender for the new literary movement in North America, it’s hard to argue with a new style of writing that moves over 2.5 million copies of a single book of poetry.
“There’s a distinct lack of metaphor or image. Rather, it’s a direct statement, with the title adding a bit of flavor to the idea in the poem. Given the spare language, there’s not much to dive into here apart from what the words say. The lines themselves propose an expression of dissatisfaction, but they resist interpretation. Rather than leading the audience to a realization, this poem simply offers a comment on something.”
So, what’s the controversy? It boils down to how people define poetry. Traditionalists and critics tend to understand poetry in the context of the continuously evolving literary tradition, meaning they are comparing contemporary poetry to all poetry written before. Part of that process is looking for conventions or intentional departures from convention that help identify writing as poetry and not some other kind of prose. And it’s this separation from the historical context where so much of the controversy comes from. You have this huge new thing, Insta Poetry, dominating the modern literary scene and people are calling it all poetry, but is it really?
That’s a hard question to answer. Even if you get people to agree that Insta Poetry is in fact poetry, the next step is deciding whether or not it’s good poetry. All art forms are subjective, so there is no definitive standard for what’s good or bad, so it’s better to look at the concrete elements that make a poem successful: What words are they using? What does it look like on the page? How is it structured? Does it make use of metaphor? And so on. These are the traditional elements of poetry that defines the craft, where every decision a poet makes in the process of writing is put forth for judgement. But contemporary society requires new definitions not only for literature and art, but for all forms of communication. And with that, we might have to once again loosen our strict definitions and embrace this new format even if its first incarnations might feel simplistic to traditionalists, academics, and know-it-alls.
Traditional poetry has no easily identifiable movement right now. They claim this generation lacks a Surrealist movement, a Romanticism, a Beat scene, and that there’s a lack of focus in the realm of poets and critical writing. For example, it’s been popular over the last 25 to 50 years to declare poetry dead. Not unlike a bad relationship, it’s hard to expect the reading public to stay invested when poetry as a collection of writers, critics, and ideas doesn’t exactly have its shit together. In a crowd of ten people today, you’d be hard pressed to find someone that could name ten famous poets. But now if you include young social media influencer poets, you might find more people that could at least name Rupi Kaur, Amanda Lovelace, and Atticus. Insta Poetry is in fact its own movement with its own irreverent rules of craft.
It’s easy to find on Instagram and it’s easy to read and understand. It speaks very directly to a sense of contemporary romance and faux-deep emotional complexity that defines the platform it’s expressed on. One might say, it’s not doing very much. It emerges more like a statement, (or worse, a caption) it doesn’t ask the reader to engage beyond the very basic information the words convey, and to a lot of people that deeper level of engagement is one of the key elements of poetry. For those in favor, it’s immediate and expressive and identifiable. For those against, it’s plain and uninvolved and devoid of depth.
“There’s simply not enough happening with this poem to analyze, and the information on the page isn’t composed of the most complex or overworked language.”
One side believes this new, attractive, available to everyone poetry is the face of now. A poetry that allows for the expression of voices previously marginalized by the predominantly white male canon and publication establishment. The other side believes the poetry is superficial, relying on appeals to base opinion and thought buried so near the surface that it’s toes creep up from the dirt. It is a style of poetry that capitalizes on, or in some opinions exploits, the movement towards inclusion, commodifying the very values it aims to express and liberate.
Part of this comes down to perception. For all the beauty and truth poetry is supposed to convey, it’s not exactly narrative or easy to understand. When you pick up a work of fiction, there are familiar elements like characters and plot, which people can relate to. When a kid in a story gets hit by a car and lapses into a coma, the audience is going to feel a certain way. In poetry, an author might write about a similar traumatic event in a more abstract way, so while the core emotions are similar, the method of delivery may be less obvious to a reader. This disconnect between recognizing the self immediately in a work of art and having to dig for that recognition is one of the major reasons poetry and prose have such a wide gap in popularity with readers.
Often readers feel disconnected from poetry. The most common response is “I don’t get it” or “it’s just not my thing.” Many people experience poetry in an academic setting, exposed to classic works like Shakespeare and Wordsworth. There was an accepted way that poetry looked and sounded, a strict definition of its format, a set rulebook for the craft.
That was until 1885 when Walt Whitman came in swinging his big American voice around in New York by self-publishing Leaves of Grass. In the process he broke open the sacred line and meter of poetry in favor of long, winding phrases and a sort of American free verse. Before Whitman, and even during his own lifetime, poetry had an implied set of rules. It was metrical, formal, and relatively limited in terms of subject matter. Leaves of Grass eschewed most of the formal constraints and started to introduce subjects such as sex, common work, and a characteristically American common man.
Critics panned the work as crude and inappropriate, with several libraries going so far as to ban the book. Of course today, Whitman is recognized for his vision of interweaving a sense of real American freedom and idealism into his work, a sense of freedom that would lay the groundwork for a uniquely American style of poetry. This, in conjunction with the wide cultural shift following the civil war and modernization, led to a departure from the distinctly Victorian style of writing that had previously been the most influential style in both Europe and America. And then not surprisingly it happened once again in a post war 1950’s American landscape when the Beats started howling and taking to the road. These cultural shifts are reflective of societies form which they emanate.
Walt Whitman’s story had many parallels to the story of modern day Insta-Poets. Let’s take Rupi Kaur, for example. Both poets self published their books at a point in history when poetry itself was relatively unpopular, both works drew a good deal of attention over their lifespan, and eventually incited a noticeable change in the trend of work being read and written. There are even some similarities in the criticism each poet received, where sexual or explicit content was called out, and the dramatic shift away from contemporary poetic convention comes up as a main point of contention. Now, are Whitman and Kaur equally talented revolutionary writers penning texts that will change the course of literary history? In terms of impact, it’ll be another fifty years before anyone can say for sure. In terms of comparing the literary qualities of their writing? That’s a different matter.
Contemporary poetry is full of people writing relatable, easy to read, and meaningfully deep poems. But for some reason, people still picture poetry as some kind of scholars-only club of forever dead white dudes writing in off-English about birds or being sad. So while there are still people writing about birds and being sad, at least now they use words you can understand and it’s also raw, in your face, uncomplicated and available to anyone with an internet connection.
“This is fairly limited in terms of words on the page. The function of this poem appears to point to the idea that a set of wings, or maybe freedom, is pointless if you don’t have the will to use those wings or freedom or something? There’s really not much to go on here. Again, the poem doesn’t really take its audience any further than the end of the text.”
It resonates with a huge audience because it reaches a huge audience. Both physically and emotionally. The success of Insta Poetry, given the historical context, actually makes sense because it brings down barriers that people might have unconsciously built. While it sounds incredibly simple, a person can read a Lovelace poem in an instant, like it, and then go on to believe they read and understood a poem. By passively generating an audience through social media, Insta Poetry lets people feel seen and recognized for their engagement. Reading, understanding, and talking about poetry is no longer restricted to the intimidating setting of a classroom. It’s no longer your professor handing out a reading list and then asking you to stand up and explain its meaning; now it’s your friend, or that cute guy from class, or your favorite celebrity showing you the poem and hitting the little heart icon on the bottom is all the pseudo-intellectual explanation you need. If we know people come to literature to feel seen, then it makes sense this writing style has a large following.
Arguments against Insta Poetry range in intensity from people suggesting that it be called something else to more accurately reflect whatever goal it’s aiming to achieve, to outright denials of Insta Poetry. Some go as far as to suggest that it’s detrimental to the idea of poetry as a whole. For those more extreme arguments, the idea is that by putting a copy of Milk and Honey on a shelf next to a collection of Robert Frost somehow devalues the latter. The logical extension of that concern is that somehow the future of poetry will be all Insta Poetry, completely enveloping and overshadowing “good poetry.”
Keeping in mind that contemporary poets are still churning out poetry more in line with traditional work, and MFA enrollment rates haven’t nosedived to zero, it’s safe to assume that most of the extreme reactions are knee-jerk statements. Though recognizing over the top statements doesn’t fully discount the legitimate concerns of people that have been working and writing in the industry for years. In response to the explosive growth of Insta Poetry, an equally impressive number of critical articles and conversations have emerged to address this strange new phenomenon.
Fortunately, the majority of articles are civil and regard Insta Poetry with a cautious optimism. Excited by the resurgence of interest in poetry as a whole, and wary of the less than stellar quality of writing (by traditional standards), the most common critique of the new style is that it lacks substantive work. That’s not to say the poetry being produced has no impact, as it clearly speaks to a very large audience.
Shedding this more critical light on Insta Poetry, the triumph of this great new medium feels a bit hollow. If this new style of poetry existed in a vacuum, if contemporary poets didn’t exist, if literary tradition and artistic integrity weren’t incredibly significant factors, then perhaps there would be less critical response to poetry with roots in social media. In a technical sense these poems don’t suggest that a great deal of effort went into their creation as a piece of art. Meaning, it just comes off as too simple in comparison.
But what new art movement hasn’t come off as too simplistic at one point? When it comes to emerging new art and artist, craft is always under critical question. When Jackson Pollock first came to the scene many people took a look at his drip paintings, scoffed and said, “my kid could do that.” Many people claimed Cy Twombly’s paintings looked like scribbles on a chalkboard. Hell, even Andy Warhol and the whole pop art movement were laughed off as low-brow, ridiculous, and commercial. For readers today, it might seem that the audience for a widely panned style is equally at risk for criticism. The truth is that even with the incredibly negative reception from more traditional leaning writers, there is a thread of optimism woven throughout the entire situation.
So, while a copy of Milk and Honey on the nightstand isn’t the most exciting thing from a literary perspective, it does go to show that poetry in some form still has a place in people’s lives. The most promising and optimistic vision is for a future where Insta Poetry revitalizes an interest in the whole span of poetry and literary tradition. The idea that Insta Poetry might act as a gateway book into the seedy underbelly of contemporary writing is something to get excited about. Even if people can’t agree that it’s worth reading, it’s absolutely worth talking about.