I won’t pretend I know the first thing about writing poetry. In all honesty, talented poets appear less like artists or authors and more like literary Rumplestiltskins— shrouded in mystery, fashioning phrases into gold. Despite the sense of amazement, I only started reading poetry seriously in the past year or so: it started drip by drip, taking a liking to some of the pieces read in class or maybe noticing something online, and snowballed into a full-blown addiction (the anthologies are stacked so high on my desk I fear it will crumble under the weight).
Therefore, when I take this stance, I take it from the position of an avid, and slightly awestruck, fan of the craft.
I am absolutely and unabashedly baffled by “Instagram Poets.”
The term may be unfamiliar to you, but most people have encountered the phenomenon in some form. I remember my first brush with the trend perfectly: a sunny November morning, making small talk with my next-door neighbour while waiting for the bus. I’m reading this great book, she says, it’s called ‘milk and honey’, by Rupi Kaur? You might have heard of it? Three days later, It appeared at my doorstep. The covers were a sleek black, the kind that betrays every fingerprint, every smudge, encouraging a gingerness of touch, so I held it lightly— almost recoiling (as I should have, before it was too late); all my books are littered with dog-ears and pencilling-ins, a way of picking out parts which are particularly breathtaking: ‘milk and honey’ seemed resistant to this heaviness of handling, but I was determined to try. So I read, highlighter in hand, waiting to have an emotion impacted upon me. And I kept reading. And I finished the book, and felt nothing but confusion.
Perhaps unwisely, I didn’t stop at Kaur. I read Reuben Holmes (otherwise known as “rh sin”) and Samantha Holmes, I read “Atticus”, I read R.M Drake. Not books, mind you, but Instagram feeds. Hundreds of poems per profile, all published online for free. Artsy photos of couplets hot off a typewriter, perhaps with a cigarette butt or a cup of coffee thrown in for good measure, litter the online poetry communities. Every book cover is the same sleek black, every poem is left uncapitalised and unrhymed, and every author is a bestseller.
But clichés do not a bad artist make, at least not independently. So what about the concept is so inherently off-putting? After all, the aspect of self-publication that online spheres boast democratise art: the only person that must be pleased is the audience member, and everyone is an audience member. What could even begin to negate the enormous positive effect that the Internet has on writing in the 21st century?
The content of the poetry. Don’t get me wrong, there are some stunning authors online: both Nayyirah Waheed and Warsan Shire found international acclaim through websites like Instagram. Even otherwise underwhelming poets write truly heart-wrenching pieces on occasion, but a vast majority of the works floating around on the blogosphere appear to be lukewarm at best. Take Reuben Holmes as a particularly infuriating example. The New York Times quotes Holmes as saying he finished “possibly 11” poems during a four hour interview; the rush through and the lack of attention paid to each piece is apparent when his poetry is read. A quick scan of his Instagram present us with poems like “scene thirty-one”, which reads as such: “the best revenge // is realising that you never needed // the person who hurt you.” Very few pieces pass 140 characters, but the words used still do not feel deliberately chosen. With such little space used to convey his message, you expect heft and originality in the imagery— something to be left with once the book is closed. But the metaphors are overused and obvious, as if he is counting on the reader to link his work to their own experiences, and then misattribute the emotion attached to memory as emotion brought about by the literary strength of his poetry. When you see pieces that read “to the girls/ with wild hearts/ may your souls/ remain free”, you understand why all the articles that sing his praises often refer to their favourite “quotes” instead of poems. His work reads more like a daily planner with pithy and empowering sayings than an anthology of poetry. And he is not alone in writing like this.
Maybe the superficiality of the poetry is but another product of the platform. Do people have the time to read experimental, impassioned work in between cat photos? Do people have the motivation to? Maybe the faux-etry is enough to provide the sense of intellectual superiority, without actually asking the reader to mentally challenge themselves. After all, these poets have mastered the art of fifty-second feeling, and they all post enough to keep their audience sated, drowning in adages about self-love, and dealing with trauma, and letting go of the past, and “being enough” (whatever that means). Maybe we’re moving into a new era— one where poetry is self-affirming and ephemeral. Or maybe not: for every “Instagram Poet”, there is a talented newcomer finding fame in between the soundbites. Who am I to judge artistic merit, anyway? Maybe I should just stick to stupefied observation...