Column by Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas
Sometimes a mismatched couple wanders by, and the whispers begin before they’ve even passed. Meanwhile, they stroll on, blissfully unaware, as if they were the most obvious pair in the world.
Poetry and Instagram, for example: an improbable marriage of word and image proving wrong all of us who said it would—or should—never last.
Twitter should have been our platform. If we poets couldn’t say our piece in 140 characters, maybe no one can.
More often Twitter rewards—with likes, retweets, follows—the quotable clapback over the nuanced ambivalence of the best poetry. And don’t get me (or your racist uncle, for that matter) started on Facebook.
Scroll through Instagram, though, and you’ll find poetry in renaissance—or in ruins, depending whom you ask—post by filtered post.
This “Instapoetry” phenomenon did not begin with Rupi Kaur, but the 26 year-old Indian-Canadian poet has certainly become its face since 2014, when she began posting poems like this one:
of course i want to be successful
but i don’t crave success for me
i need to be successful to gain
enough milk and honey
to help those around
Kaur has since amassed 3.7 million Instagram followers, and her first book, the self-published milk & honey, has sold an astonishing 3.5 million copies. (Full disclosure: I claim a robust 1,032 Instagram followers of my own.
Such numbers—even wildly successful books of poetry sell thousands, not millions, of copies—inspire imitators, detractors, and plenty of thinkpiece content.
Last October, Faith Hill and Karen Yuan published “How Instagram Saved Poetry” in The Atlantic, the magazine in which Dana Gioia famously asked, in 1991, “Can Poetry Matter?”
Gioia’s tone then was elegiac: poetry, he argued, had fallen out of the cultural mainstream by ignoring the “general reader.” Hill and Yuan strike a similarly democratic tone in their meditation on Instapoetry:
Social media seem to have cracked the walls around a field that has long been seen as highbrow, exclusive, esoteric, and ruled by tradition, opening it up for young poets with broad appeal, many of whom are women and people of color.
But the subtitle of Hill and Yuan’s essay is more circumspect, and touches the concerns of Instapoetry skeptics: Social media is turning an art form into an industry.
Even poetry cannot escape the commodification of influencers and disruptors, the world itself a platform in which we no longer behave “in character” but “on brand.”
In such a world, Rebecca Watts argues, poems are not the craft of poets but “products of a cult of personality [. . .].” The poet’s 2018 essay “The Cult of the Noble Amateur” rebukes Instapoetry, lamenting that “artless poetry,” remarkable only in being “‘honest’ and ‘accessible,” “sells.”
Perhaps Instapoetry’s most unforgivable sin (at least among fellow poets) is being popular. This supposed sin it shares with the YouTube spoken word performances often critiqued in similar language.
Such critiques seem to me shortsighted and tonedeaf. I rarely find myself compelled to like, share, or retweet their work, but neither would I dismiss wholesale poets who explore innovative approaches to writing and earning a living, especially when so many poets are young women of color.
But I find the rhetoric of poetic rescue or renaissance as troubled as the ongoing (mostly exaggerated) reports of poetry’s death.
What interests me most about Instapoetry is what it reveals about how we experience poetry: in this case, the poem as visual document, an image as well as an artifact of words.
Ever since Gutenberg, poetry has lived a double life, in the air and on the page. There the experience of the poem includes its appearance, its shape on paper, the space itself.
On Instagram, context becomes texture. Each serif of each letter matters all the more for being set against blank space; you can almost touch the tooth of the paper there.
For all my own emphasis on poetry as an embodied art—one that we carry with us in our lungs and diaphragms, etc.—poetry is also a craft of the page. Or even the screen.
I think of the screens—mostly still images and television static—in the pages of Claudia Rankine’s genre-defying Don’t Let Me Be Lonely (2004). Rankine sets these images astride prose passages in what she calls “An American Lyric”—as if to claim that in contemporary America even an art of the lyre can be as visual as it is sonic.
But this was just as true a hundred years ago, in Mina Loy’s experiments with type size and font in “Feminist Manifesto” (1914) or Ezra Pound’s appropriation of Chinese and Arabic characters in his uncompleted masterpiece The Cantos.
In Loy and Pound’s work, the radical collage technique of Modernist poetry—the stream-of-consciousness shifts from narrative to associative logic—finds a visual analogue.
They might have found Instagram an appropriate medium for this technique. So may e. e. cummings for his “r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r,” a poem often understood as the representation of a leaping grasshopper:
a)s w(e loo)k
Try reading this poem aloud and you’ll find yourself lost in the tall grass. Only from the pictorial frame of the page can cummings’s grasshopper spring skyward.
The dual experience, the visual and verbal art of written language, finds some of its most profound expression in the Arabic calligraphy of the Islamic tradition. From the Qur’an to the Hagia Sophia to the Air Emirates logo, the appearance of the word is implicated in the meaning, and the aesthetic experience, of words.
Despite this long and eclectic history of the poem as image, critics fear that Instagram will change poetry forever.
Indeed, it already has. But so did photography and television for that matter, and the motion picture and the novel. So did movable type and written language itself.
I don’t know if Kaur’s work, or that of any of the Instapoets, will age as well as some of these other examples. But I do believe that Instapoetry fulfills Pound’s old demand to “make it new.”
At its worst, Instapoetry commits the same sins as other bad poetry, and all bad art for that matter: it presents a world more simplistic, more easily understood and reduced to cliché than real life.
At its best, this work challenges our perceptions of multiple media—letter and literature, text and texture. At best Instapoetry may even challenge our idea of poetry itself.
However unlikely their match, the couple saunters on together, unconcerned with our whispers. We can only wonder where they are going.
Dave Lucas is the author of Weather (VQR/Georgia, 2011), which received the 2012 Ohioana Book Award for Poetry. Named by Rita Dove as one of thirteen “young poets to watch,” he has also received a “Discovery/The Nation Prize and a Cleveland Arts Prize. In 2018 he was named the second Poet Laureate of the State of Ohio. A co-founder of Brews + Prose at Market Garden Brewery and Cleveland Book Week, he lives in Cleveland, where he was born and raised.