Rupi Kaur is an Indian-Canadian poet who rose to fame for short enjambed poems, usually with themes about sexual abuse and self-love, posted on instagram accompanied by an original illustration. She is the frontrunner of a new culture of “insta-poets”, taking her success on the internet to ground-breaking commercial success in bookstores all around the world. For her readers, Kaur is a brave young woman speaking fearlessly and simply about extremely difficult themes. And I can see the appeal as someone who, too, has scoured social media like Pinterest and Tumblr for some light poetry reading, but to think that Kaur’s poetry is good poetry– that its writing is actually adding merit to the literary canon– is a gross overration of Kaur’s talent as a poet. If anything, her poems are visually stunning, give the illusion of depth, and she’s willing to give voice to the suffering of young women– but they are not actually good. Here are some of her poems:
Kaur has mastered the art of making her poems seem profound, especially by capitalizing on the lazy technique of lines breaks. She writes moderately interesting sentences– usually about something taboo and difficult, like rape or confidence or being a woman of color to give an extra sense of thematic intensity– breaks them apart, strips them of punctuation, and adds an appealing image to compliment it to give the sense of a verse form. I can do it here:
grows sprouts bursts
in my heart
every time i
The original sentence: A flower grows, sprouts, bursts, in my heart every time I contemplate the garden of our love.
Kaur’s lazy use of line breaks has been ridiculed by many Twitter users:
Kaur’s poetry states obvious, mildly interesting stream-of-consciousness shower thoughts in visually appealing ways. For a young audience who wants to read something about their problems about love or being a woman, Kaur is a championing figure who doesn’t shy away from these intense themes. Her poetry is extremely accessible and readable. You don’t have to read it multiple times in order to understand it, don’t have to crack open a dictionary in order to know what the words mean, don’t need an english degree to unknot the mess of allusions and symbolism and critical theory– it just means what it means. Doesn’t this make it good?
Well, no. Poetry isn’t good because it’s simple, and it’s also not good because it’s complex. Poetry is good because it says something interesting in an interesting way, that it is rich in meaning, and that it contributes to something about a larger poetic narrative. Consider William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is Just To Say”, which follows much of the structure and line-break pattern that Kaur does, but is wildly different in its quality:
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
There is a chaotic energy in this poem, a powerful subtext that needs to be unpacked, something playful and intriguing between the tension of its conversational tone and the almost murderous delight of stealing someone’s plums. This interest and interaction with form is utterly lost in Kaur’s work. Her poems are expected, obvious, and vacuous, painting an illusion of depth where there is none.
And perhaps you didn’t like William Carlos Williams’ poem about the plums. Maybe you’re someone who prefers Rupi Kaur’s poetry, and maybe you think it’s pretentious of me to decide that it’s actually quite bad. Perhaps you’re thinking that this whole poetry thing is extremely subjective– who gets to decide what poetry is good and bad, anyway?
If all literature was subjective, then, there would be no point to literary criticism and an entire discipline dedicated to the study of good literature. Poetry is not subjective. There is good literature and there is bad literature. Your experience of either can be subjective— as in, you can like bad literature and hate good literature, but your preferences don’t change the fact that it’s bad or good. There are certain measures for what it means for poetry to be good, and rupi kaur’s poetry simply doesn’t cut it. Of course, it’s great that a whole new wave of people are enjoying poetry and it’s been made accessible to them. It’s just really bad poetry, vacuous, full of lackluster language and the illusion of profundity, all set on the background of simple type font and a cute line drawing. That’s all.
(Images from Google Images)