The vague world of Instagram. / Jens karlsson
Soraya Roberts,  January 24

No Filter

How the nicest place online created the worst, most popular poetry

The vague world of Instagram. / Jens karlsson
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“You’re not alone.” “Dare to begin.” “I love you./I know.” Poetry, or Anthropologie sales rack? Is there a difference? Instapoetry, the so-named slips of inspoverse that have propagated on Instagram like the common cold over the past few years, is a boutique of perfectly curated objets de commerce—“Raised lettering, pale nimbus. White,” American Psycho’s ideal business card gone digital—selling a sanitized unreality. It is not inquiry, it is not sedition, it is not richness, it is not even really beauty. It is status quo. It is confirmation that everything you are thinking, everything you are feeling, everything you are doing, is fine, perfect even. Instapoetry is an outcrop of a space that radiates niceness, that has in fact been pruned of that which is not nice. “A cynic may note here that [changes to make Instagram a more supportive environment] are as good for business as they are for the soul,” Nicholas Thompson recently wrote in Wired. “Advertisers like spending money in places where people say happy, positive things, and celebrities like places where they are less likely to get mocked.” This place has thus become a haven for the young, pummeled not only by the digital world but the world itself. And Instapoets have become their bards, reinforcing their narcissism, offering a filtered reflection of an anxious generation scrambling for distraction. “For me, poetry is like holding up a mirror and seeing myself,” Rupi Kaur, the best-selling Instapoet of all time, has said. In other words, this is the poetry of capitalism.


you’ve touched me
without even
touching me

– rupi kaur

 

Even those who don’t buy Instapoetry still sell the party line—that it has reinvigorated poetry. Bypassing critical evaluation, academics and publishing industry vets praise Kaur and her ilk for giving the click of life to a dying art. According to The Guardian, more than a million poetry books were sold in 2017—reportedly the highest number on record—a mere two years after the Instapoets had officially “arrived.” Instagram had launched in 2010, originally conceived as a simple search-and-discovery app and almost immediately accessorized with aspiration when co-creator Kevin Systrom’s then-girlfriend suggested filters so that her otherwise terrible photos would hold up against everybody else’s. “It is one thing to share a photo; it’s another for that photo to look gorgeous,” Systrom told Forbes. Instagram allows even the ugly to be beautiful and bolsters the illusion by excising offensive comments (the creators initially deleted them manually, but have lately used a Facebook-built  filter called DeepText), allowing, by extension, bad taste to masquerade as good.

Despite false appearances, the app quickly became the nexus of aesthetic envy. “If Twitter is the street, Facebook the suburban-sprawl mall, and Pinterest some kind of mail-order catalog, Instagram is the many-windowed splendor of a younger Bergdorf’s,” announced the New York Times in 2013, “showing all we possess or wish for, under squares of filtered glass, each photographic pane backlit 24/7.” Removing the middle man was only a matter of time. Self-portraits without the self were here, the Times argued, and in the place of a selfie, the accoutrements of the self, including books, pages, words, artfully presented, their appearance more important than their meaning. Even their meaning was less about what the writer was saying and more about what it said that the poster chose them to say it. This was not the portrait of a person, but rather of a consumer.

Instagram allows even the ugly to be beautiful and bad taste to masquerade as good.

Three years after Instagram launched, Canadian photographer Petra Collins, one of the more envied users, in part due to her association with Tavi Gevinson’s teen girl mag Rookie, remodeled the parade of preciousness into a site of feminist mini revolution. This was the power of a young woman’s pubic hair, uncontained by a pair of mint-green panties, that its effacement prompted an inquiry into our cultural acceptance of barely dressed girls, but not real ones. Two years later, Rupi Kaur replaced the tufts with a drop of blood. In a photograph for her “Visual Rhetoric” class, the University of Waterloo student lay in an unkempt bed of faded floral sheets, her back towards the camera, a smudge of blood marring her grey sweatpants. Unremarkable within a protracted student history of facile pseudo-art, the image was censored by social media, not for a criminal lack of imagination, but for betraying community guidelines. “thank you @instagram for providing me with the exact response my work was created to critique,” Kaur captioned the image when it was reinstated. The free advertising earned her 100K likes, far above her previous posts, coating her in a feminist patina. This was the moment Rupi Kaur, the most popular Instapoet—and poet full-stop—on earth, materialized.

She was ready. The Punjabi-Canadian had already scrubbed her image to within an inch of its life, replacing her initially warm, artless snapshots with stylized cool. Her first poem, about a woman being physically abused, posted in November 2013, was entirely lower case, as is her wont—like Sikh Gurmukhi script, she has said—signed “(rk),” and attracted around 2000 likes. She had decided to post her poetry because, as she told The Huffington Post, “It seemed more important for me to express solidarity with women going through similar struggles than to continue being that ‘polite, shy, quiet girl.’” Her account soon acquired the minimalist curated aesthetic of lifestyle Instaporn—a hand holding a flower, a hand holding a camera—and by the new year, she was signing off like her idol Nayyirah Waheed with a stated theme and “- rupi kaur,” and, for levity, had added some art naïf.

Early on, Kaur’s immigrant-themed work attracted women of color looking for representation; after the viral photograph, young white women caught up in the tide of fourth-wave feminism and the solipsism of the Trump era flooded in to read her sage self-affirmations. One of Kaur’s top posts (180K likes) reads: “i do not need the kind of love/that is draining/i want someone/who energizes me.” Beneath it is the sketch of a flower and two fireflies (self-illumination?). Kaur eventually published two books of poetry, the first of which had sales exceeding The Odyssey’s ten-fold in 2016. “No matter where I am,” she told the Globe and Mail, “folks always tell me that ‘You put the words to this feeling that I’ve always had, that I didn’t really know how to define.’”

R.M. Drake (Robert Macias) is sort of the male equivalent of Rupi Kaur, minus the guru façade. He has slightly fewer followers—1.8M to Kaur’s 2.1M—despite having joined the site around the same time, but, like her, he has self-published several best-selling books. He occasionally pairs his text with sketches, as well, one of his most liked posts (which he  refers to as “micro-narratives”) being: “with a heart like that, you deserve the world.” 79.3K. Both Khloe Kardashian and Ludacris have quoted R.M. Drake. “At least on social media, people want to expose how they’re feeling and things they’re going through and that’s what my writing does,” he told Tech Times. “It’s self-exploration and self-therapy.”

And it’s virtually indistinguishable from the aphorisms of almost every other popular Instapoet. They all practice the same brevity in largely the same style with the same themes, all of them unconsciously mimicking internalized greeting cards and custom mall tees. There’s Atticus, who has managed to brand his anonymity by constantly obscuring his face (notably with a mask in his profile photo), and is responsible for, “Love her but leave her wild.” 11.8K. There’s Lang Leav, an illustrator as well as a poet, who has published four best-selling collections and a novel. “If they were meant to be in your life, nothing could ever/make them leave. If they weren’t, nothing in the world/could make them stay.” 61K. There’s Tyler Knott Gregson, a photographer who looks like an Abercrombie and Fitch model, who each blessed day posts a haiku, type-written or scribbled on scraps, against a backdrop of stock symbols of masculinity—flannel, wood, work boots. “I/would give up/the world/to feel/you/sleeping in/my tired arms/tonight.” 11K. His first book, Chasers of the Light, sounds like an issue of The Watchtower, but it became a best seller and was once, yes, sold at Anthropologie.

Within our increasingly frantic quotidian, and Instagram’s youthful metabolism, Instapoetry is perfectly timed.

Gregson never edits. Leav considers her posts a first draft. “Fidget spinner poetry” is produced quickly and consumed quickly. Within our increasingly frantic quotidian, and Instagram’s youthful metabolism, it is perfectly timed. Who can commit to reading The Odyssey, let alone thinking about it? The lack of specificity translates to speed, universality being a shorthand for everyone, appealing to everyone, everyone open to hearting and regramming. As Chiara Giovanni noted in BuzzFeed, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon” by British poet Warsan Shire—famous for her poetry’s appearance in Beyonce’s Lemonade—went viral after the Paris terrorist attacks of 2015—the first part, that is, not the part about the conflicts in Africa. Removing such markers of singularity dissolves the medium into a homogeneous sea of verse. Refusing to respond to allegations that she had plagiarized the work of Nayyirah Waheed, Kaur told Rolling Stone that “similar experiences and similar ideas about the world” breed lyrical uniformity. Never mind that Waheed is an African American, whose experiences vastly diverge from those of Kaur’s Sikh relatives, whose lives she claims to be writing about.

In the era of online feminism and Trump, wholesale empowerment sells. And the medium of Instagram—as well as Tumblr —lends itself particularly well to these burps of uplift, as opposed to Twitter (and Facebook), which prefers outrage, which is perhaps why Instapoets have comparatively fewer followers there. Paradoxically, studies have demonstrated that all this positivity can be depressing to the lone scroller, rendering Instapoets’ self-love narratives all the more profitable. As a visual medium, Instagram is a particularly apt showcase for the illustrated platitudes of the Kaurs and the Gregsons and the Leavs. Of course, as always, those with the most consistent brands—see Atticus’ mask—are the most memorable. The reason Rupi Kaur is so popular is because she has harmonized all of this perfectly—she is fast, inspirational, inclusive, and beautiful.

The formula is so transparent that it has borne a parody meme on Twitter in which banal statements are washed of grammar and signed “- rupi kaur,” such as,“i was orange juice but you/had just brushed your teeth – rupi kaur.” At one point Texan poet Thom Young, who was nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize, started to regularly spoof “pop poets” like Kaur as an experiment. “I decided that a parody or satire was needed to demonstrate how easy it was to get popular on social media, particularly on Instagram, writing this short, trite poetry,” he told PBS. “And right away I started getting followers and likes like crazy.” This is one of his posts: “love.” 1.4K. In his captions, Young has begun explaining his intentions and his followers have started requesting his real work. “That was the goal,” he said, “to expose people to the real poetry and the real craft.”


she was music
but he had his ears cut off

– rupi kaur

 

One of Oscar Wilde’s most recognizable maxims is often misquoted, but here it is in its original form: “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.” Some twenty years after Wilde died, T.S. Eliot filled this idea in a shade further—to the point of eclipse—in the essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” As he explained it, “the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him ‘personal.’ Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

What is perhaps as consistent as the badness of Instapoetry is the general unwillingness to speak openly of its badness.

What is perhaps as consistent as the badness of Instapoetry—there are rare exceptions, Shire (who, it must be said, is more a Tumblr and Twitter poet, her Instagram being primarily made up of images and video) being one—is the general unwillingness to speak openly of its badness. Admirers focus on its genuine feeling, its emotional truth. Critics shrug it off, claiming it’s just not their thing. Which is basically how it was designed: Instagram was developed out of a project titled “Send the Sunshine” at Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab, not exactly a project intended to accommodate criticism. Though critical trepidation is a common consequence of the slippery definition of art—we once believed readymades sucked, too—part of this reluctance is also to do with the genre appealing predominantly to young women and haven’t young women been policed enough? Rupi Kaur herself wields this tack as a way to deflect excoriation, equating the criticism of her work to the criticism of marginalized demographics. Of the label “Instagram poet,” she told PBS, “A lot of the readers are young women who are experiencing really real things, and they’re not able to talk about it with maybe family or other friends, and so they go to this type of poetry to sort of feel understood and to have these conversations. And so, when you use that term, you invalidate this space that they use to heal and to feel closer to one another.” You also invalidate women of color as Kaur frames herself within a landscape of both female and immigrant oppression, a context in which judgment is tantamount to muting the disenfranchised. To the literary world, she has pronounced, “This is actually not for you. This is for that, like, seventeen-year-old brown woman in Brampton who is not even thinking about that space, who is just trying to live, survive, get through her day.” It is a savvy move, invalidating all manner of criticism before it has even been formulated.

But here it is: Her poetry, and much of Instapoetry, is poor. This poetry is not poor because it is genuine, it is poor because that is all it is. To do more than that, regardless of talent, requires time, and, by its very definition, Instapoetry has none. Ezra Pound’s epic collection of poems The Cantos took decades to complete. Maya Angelou has said she has found poetry the most challenging of all her professions: “When I come close to saying what I want to, I’m over the moon. Even if it’s just six lines, I pull out the champagne. But until then, my goodness, those lines worry me like a mosquito in the ear.” Even Rimbaud, who was already composing his best work in adolescence, conceded in his “Letter of the Seer,” “The poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses.” Time is what is required to think, the kind of thinking that allows the poet to imbue each individual word with a world of meaning. Harold Bloom described canonical writing as that which demands rereading, William Empson that it needs to work for readers with divergent opinions, provoking a variety of responses and interpretations. All of this implies a richness, a complexity, a variety of strata. The majority of Instapoetry has none of this. It is almost exclusively a banal vessel of self-care, equivalent to an affirmation, designed for young women of a certain privileged position and disposition, one that is entirely self-absorbed. The genre’s batheticisms remove specificity, to avoid alienation, supplanting them with the sort of platitude you find on a department store tea towel. Because this is what Instapoetry is—it is not art, it is a good to be sold, or, less, regrammed. Its value is quantity not quality.

Praising an Instapoet for her profitability is like chucking Apple on the shoulder for moving units.

An executive at the Canadian book store Indigo told the Globe and Mail that, even neglecting Kaur’s, poetry sales had “nearly doubled” since her ascendance. In the U.S., NPD BookScan reported Milk and Honey, despite being originally published in 2015, was still one of the two bestselling books of 2017 (more than one million copies were sold; and sales of her second book, The Sun and Her Flowers, published in October, had reached more than half a million by year’s end). This is Instapoetry’s original intention. Praising an Instapoet for her profitability is like chucking Apple on the shoulder for moving units. These are companies whose goal is to produce goods for the market. These are not artists. Criticizing the Instapoet for failing to achieve the transcendence of Sylvia Plath or Angelou or Anne Sexton is comparing apples to oranges, a cliché that even an Instapoet could appreciate. But it is equally disingenuous for the Instapoet to present his or herself as equivalent to the aforementioned trio. Plath, Angelou, and Sexton worked themselves into immortality; Instapoets don’t have the time.

Some of them are more transparent about their mercenary quest for attention than others, like r.H. Sin (aka Reuben Holmes), who produces feminist epigrams—“so many strong women began as broken girls” (45K)—and prints them onto his own clothing line. “The object is to be seen or heard, and I make a lot of noise,” he told The New Yorker. Rupi Kaur, meanwhile, was presented as a materialist in a profile in The Cut late last year, commenting on her own book sales, the physical appearance of a Kafka collection, and her taste for nonfiction biographies of famous “big, big thinkers”—artist Marina Abramović, Apple’s Steve Jobs—whose personal brands often eclipse their work. Kaur is particularly unsettling as she purports to have a higher purpose while exercising extreme commodification. The twenty-five-year-old Toronto suburbanite has fashioned herself into an icon of timeless female South Asian oppression—“our trauma escapes the confines of our own times”—without really acknowledging the discrepancy. “Kaur is marketable because she presents a homogeneous South Asian narrative while remaining just vague enough to appeal to the widest possible demographic,” wrote Chiara Giovanni.

In an associated vein, Kaur regularly conflates art and commerce, presenting aestheticized vulnerability with the objective of selling it. The wannabe fashionista echoes the themes of her first book, Milk and Honey, by appearing alongside it in various stages of bedridden undress, and posing almost nude with the cover of her second collection, The Sun and Her Flowers, painted on her back. (Around the same time, fashion designer Prabal Gurung, whose blazers retail for about $2000, etched one of Kaur’s lines, “our backs tell stories no books have the spine to carry,” on the back of a suit jacket.) This is not art, it is marketing, but to her they are indistinguishable. “Art should be accessible to the masses,” Kaur told NPR, “and when we start to tailor it in a way that keeps people out, then there’s an issue with that.” The question becomes to which people is she referring, when top-tier tickets to a New York event around the release of The Sun and Her Flowers, including a performance by Kaur herself, cost $250.

 


i think my body knew you would not stay

– rupi kaur

 

“In this digital world where content marketing is this sort of buzzword, Rupi is the content and it doesn’t need the marketing.” Like Instapoetry, the words of the publisher who releases Kaur’s books sound good but don’t mean much. Kaur doesn’t need marketing because the work itself is marketing. Instagram has formed an algorithmic utopia in which negativity is a distant nightmare and regurgitated dreams choke our real-life desires with their wholesome effluence. Online, our taste is not formed, it is dictated. The founder of Instagram has envisioned it as “the nicest place online,” which sounds a lot like an advertising slogan, which is perhaps the point. It is holding up a mirror and seeing itself, just as Instapoetry has taught it to, just as it has taught Instapoetry to.

Soraya Roberts is a regular writer for Hazlitt and the author of In My Humble Opinion: My So-Called Life.

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