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6 March 2019

Why are we so worried about “Instapoetry”?

The legitimacy of “Instapoetry” has long been fiercely debated: but the rise of the term has sparked a fragmented critical conversation. 

By Anna Leszkiewicz

When he was 31 years old, Robert Macias was working as an art director for the TV and digital media company Univision in its “content creation facility” in Miami. Macias, the son of Colombian parents and a graduate who majored in digital communication and media, oversaw projects in marketing and adver-tising. He worked with brands including McDonalds and Kellogg’s, creating “visually compelling and engaging interactive experiences for the web”.

Now, you’re more likely to know Macias as r.m. drake, the New York Times-bestselling poet with 1.9 million followers on Instagram. He has published 14 collections of poetry, has a number of celebrity followers, and his poems have been repeatedly shared by the Kardashians. While working at Univision, Macias wrote in his spare time. In 2012, he started sharing his work on Instagram – taking short excerpts, typing them on to handmade paper with his 1940s Royal typewriter in lower case, and signing off with “r.m. drake”. He would photograph the page and post the result, such as: “the best kind/of humans are/the ones who/stay”. By the end of 2014, he had over half a million followers and quit his job to write full time.

Macias is not alone. Often described as “Instapoets”, there are several writers sharing short fragments online to enormous followings. The biggest of these audiences belongs to 26-year-old Rupi Kaur: the author of two poetry collections, she has 3.5 million Instagram followers and has received by far the most media attention of any Instapoet. On her Instagram account, she alternates beautiful pictures of herself in elegant outfits with short poems written entirely in lower-case; many young, attractive poets have followed this winning template. Her most popular poetry post reads simply “fall/in love/with your solitude”, accompanied by one of her simplistic line drawings. Others include “you’ve touched me/without even/touching me” and “she was music/but he had his ears cut off”.

Kaur understands the importance of a visual brand: she credits her degree in rhetoric, media and professional communication with teaching her “design, marketing, creative writing and branding”. She employs the same stylist as Selena Gomez (the second-most-followed woman on Instagram), while an interview with New York Magazine painted Kaur as someone who thinks about “the spacing and the page and the colour” of her work as much as the poetry itself, analysing how different designs perform “across media – to different sizes, to posters, to digital”.

Then there’s 29-year-old Reuben Holmes, who tweets poems and glossy photographs to 1.4 million followers under the name r.h. Sin. Like a lifestyle influencer (someone who uses social media to curate a portrait of a beautiful life, and “influences” their followers into buying certain products), Holmes’s posts are unified by a limited colour palette: a nostalgic, autumnal aesthetic of browns, oranges and sepias. He began life on social media by posting anything from obscure facts (“In Baltimore, Maryland, it’s illegal to take a lion to the movies”) to memes to universal sentiments (“Dear February, please don’t disappoint me”) in a bid to go viral. He began to write for a female audience in lower-case, serif font: “don’t let him make a/hobby out of you”. His wife Samantha King Holmes (410,000) shares stylistically similar work.

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There’s Atticus, who posts quips such as “Don’t be scared to change the prince’s name in your story” (often placed on top of black and white images of semi-naked beautiful women) to his one million followers alongside advertisements for his wine brand, Lost Poet (bottles carry such tag-lines as, “Wine is poetry, write yours.”)

And there are many, many more: Najwa Zebian (890,000 followers: “Sometimes/the best thing you can do/for someone you love/is let them go”), Nayyirah Waheed (715,000: “your heart is the softest place on earth. take care of it”), Cleo Wade (483,000: “your peace/belongs to you alone”), Danielle Doby (200,000: “both soft/and fierce/can coexist + still be powerful”). Some accounts, including Macias’s, consist entirely of poems, with very few photos at all; others, like Orion Carloto’s (550,000: “you are your home”), are indistinguishable from fashion influencer accounts, with the very occasional poetry post thrown in. Some are interspersed with memes, or have poetry posted over illustrations found online.

The quality varies, but there is plenty of comically or offensively banal work to be found on Instagram: genuinely insightful or distinctive work is the exception, not the rule. The same tropes and themes appear again and again: lower-case platitudes in typewriter fonts; earnest insistence of the importance of self-love; writing in the second person; petals, rainbows and coffee stains sneaking on to pages.

Most monetise their output by selling merchandise (from Atticus’s wine and Rupi Kaur canvas prints to r.h. Sin’s clothing range) and tour tickets: Kaur will make a sold-out appearance at London’s Gillian Lynne Theatre on 12 March. And almost all of these poets sell books through the same publisher: Andrews McMeel. The publishing house originally specialised in adult colouring books, among other things, but made over £122m in 2017, with its net income rising by more than 40 per cent, thanks to poets like Kaur. CEO Andy Sareyan claims the publisher has “single-handedly reinvigorated and reinvented this business” – poetry, that is – “for a whole generation of people”, insisting that until then it was “a niche, fringe thing in the past”.

This landscape leaves some wondering to what extent this is an exercise in poetry and to what extent an exercise in producing visually engaging, relatable content for as wide an audience as possible: essentially a kind of digital branding that uses the sort of phrases you might find on fridge magnets or T-shirts. Some insist that Instapoetry is not poetry at all. “It is not art, it is a good to be sold,” Soraya Roberts writes in the Baffler. “These are not artists.” Even some of the Instapoets themselves have doubts. “I would never consider these poems,” Macias bluntly told a reporter in 2014. “I am not a poet.”

Of course, questions of what does and does not count as a real poem inevitably drags us down the thorny path of defining poetry itself. We know that wine is not poetry, even if Atticus tells us so, but proving that an Atticus post is not poetry is much trickier, even if many people will instinctively feel that it’s not. Many canonical poets have themselves struggled with settling on a definition: AE Housman admitted, “I could no more define poetry than a terrier could define a rat”, while Emily Dickinson wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry […] Is there any other way?”

Samuel Johnson said that “to circumscribe poetry by a definition will only show the narrowness of the definer”, even as his dictionary said that poetry was simply a “metrical composition”. Perhaps this is what Macias means when he says his work is not poetry: that it’s prose. If we define poetry against prose through formal considerations such as metre, rhythm, line breaks, or even unusual vocabulary, then we can eliminate many of the most popular Instapoetry accounts. If we instead look to the audience response, like Dickinson, and define poetry on its ability to move readers to tears, or laughter, or a strong feeling of connection, then much of Instapoetry must be let back in (and maybe Atticus’ wine too).

Auden emphasised originality, claiming that “what the poet says has never been said before”, and yet poetry can be trite and derivative and still by definition be poetry; and the difference between bad and good will forever be subjective. If both Rupi Kaur and Adrienne Rich use the line “You are a mirror” in their work, is it necessarily too basic a metaphor to be good? It’s similarly knotty to try and differentiate poetry as art from poetry as commerce, since poets have always tried to make money from their work.

If defining poetry is fraught, defining Instapoetry is even more so. Arguably, the term has as much inherent meaning as “paperback authors” or “Kindle novelists”, and many of these poets share their work through multiple mediums. Does Instapoetry refer to short poems or sections of poems popular on Instagram, especially those which include some of those aforementioned visual and linguistic tropes? If so, we might have to start describing accessible, brilliant poets such as Frank O’Hara and Mary Oliver as Instapoets: both have found extraordinary popularity on the social network. So should we define Instapoets as those who have found an audience almost entirely through Instagram? There are many more complex, skilled poets working in this way who share few similarities with the likes of Sin and Drake: such as Warsan Shire (44,000 followers) and Yrsa-Daley Ward (154,000). Why then do so many poets who neither started nor sustained their careers on Instagram – Kate Tempest, Patricia Lockwood, Hera Lindsay Bird, Melissa Broder and Jacqueline Woodson among them – frequently get lumped together with Instapoets?

The term has been used as a journalistic short-hand to make “the new poetry” sound exciting: which has led to a violent backlash. Reviewing the work of Hollie McNish (24,000: repeatedly described as the UK’s answer to Rupi Kaur) in PN Review, the poet Rebecca Watts accused “the poetic establishment” of “celebrating amateurism and ignorance in our poetry”. Many Instapoets see critical responses like this as snobbery, elitism and prejudice. Amanda Lovelace (70,000: author of The Princess Saves Herself In This One) argues “people call us ‘Instapoets’ as a way to differentiate us from ‘real poets’ – aka dead white, straight, cisgender, males.”

So perhaps “Instapoetry” is just the latest in a long line of poetic terms that can in the words of British poet and critic Sandeep Parmar, frame “work by poets of colour as unliterary”, as with “‘light verse’, ‘performance poetry’, or whatever dog whistle might be on the go at any time”. McNish says the label is “an obvious and easy way to belittle the writing” (though she adds of her own work: “I know it’s not the best poetry”). Kaur sees criticisms of her work as a kind of gatekeeping: “We have a form of art that is highly, highly traditional – meaning poetry – and then you have this other thing which is new and quite non-traditional, which is of course social media. And so the gatekeepers of these two things are kind of confused at this moment.”

Perhaps it’s the elasticity of the term that has enabled such a messy critical conversation to develop. If Instapoetry variously refers to the platform on which a work is published, the style of writing, the poem’s level of popularity, the poet’s path to publication, or the work’s artistic value, then unsurprisingly it generates discussions that are confused, lazy, sometimes superior (or worse), and sometimes vapid. The phrase seems to have been stretched beyond the limits of its usefulness. Until we can successfully revise our vocabulary, perhaps we should examine poetry on a case by case, or post by post, basis.

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