Insta-poetry: Just a load of hype?
The subgenre of insta-poetry has undeniably exploded worldwide, challenging literary snobbishness, cultural barriers and accessibility. But is it just a load of social media hype, another millennial swipe? Tess Davidson takes a look at where we can draw the line between the likes of Rupi Kaur and Warsan Shire (featured in Beyonce's Lemonade) to the misogynistic lines of Collin Yost...
Collin Yost is a poet who “is inspired from unbridled free expression and spirit”. Or so his Amazon bio eulogises; something that doesn’t seem to have been reflected in the customer reviews and sounds like it was concocted at 1am after one drink too many. His ‘poetry’ became painfully aware to me several months ago, when I was suddenly stopped on Twitter by the line:
Surely this couldn’t be serious? Bemused, I clicked on the Instagram account. Cue Yost, a tattooed ‘bro-poet’ who, it turned out, loves a bit of blatant sexism with his morning coffee and enjoys using his cigarettes as an edgy literary barometer for measuring his sheer poetic brilliance.
Yost was an insta-poet – a writer who shares their work on social media. He had self-published his work in January 2017 and within eight months had almost 10,000 Instagram followers, the attention of Barnes and Noble and he was on Amazon’s “Hot New Releases” page. It was as though satire had gone one step too far.
The rise of social media through Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter has created a new platform for wannabe poets. Growing up, my poetic failings were confined to furtive scribblings in a notebook, never to see the light of day. Now, within a couple of seconds you can share your thoughts and deepest feelings with thousands of people. It’s free, accessible and, without the barrier of an editor, completely organic. Which has led many to question the ability of these poets.
Insta-poets are in essence, no different to other poets. Yet their ability to maximise on creative platforms such as Instagram has seen their methodology fast becoming a serious template for successful online poetry. And with celebrity endorsements such as Beyoncé quoting Warsan Shire in her iconic album Lemonade, it hasn’t taken long for these literary figures to gain their own celebrity status. According to the New York Times, three of the top 10 bestselling poetry books in the US in 2015 were written by poets whose very foundations stemmed from the Insta-poet movement. It’s hard to argue with their legacy of success. Rupi Kaur’s first published work Milk and Honey has sold two and a half million copies internationally since its 2014 publication, while her latest collection The Sun and Her Flowers was ranked at the top of the New York Times paperback fiction best-seller list. For her contemporary Tyler Knott Gregson, he became a national bestseller with his poetry collection Chasers of the Light, selling over 120,000 copies in print and reportedly becoming a top 10 bestseller of nonfiction by the second week of its publication.
Part of the success lies in the medium. In reclaiming digital as a space for creative innovation, social media overcomes the traditional limitations of print. So, for example, in using the hashtag as a selling point for their poetry, insta-poets are able to reach out to an increasingly diverse audience that would not have been possible through print alone. And in establishing this social media following so early on in a career, it also acts as a safety net for interested publishers, ensuring that at least if the poetry is bad, it will still sell. Yet it’s more than just good business sense. There is something about combining the visual with the written word, through the context of an internet community, that seems to lend itself to the collaborative process. In many respects, it’s not all that dissimilar to the success of spoken word poetry, which has also seen a meteoric rise in recent years with figures such as Kate Tempest. In both spoken word and insta-poetry, accessibility is at the core of the process. From the language used to the short, punchy lines and lack of punctuation, the free verse form creates an opportunity to reject the literary establishment and to bring poetry closer to popular culture.
This challenging of the literary form is nothing new. In many respects, insta-poetry and spoken word are modern-day descendants of the zine culture which permeated the twentieth century. From the sci-fi zines of the 1930s, the counterculture movements of the Beat generation and punk, to the queer and riot grrrl rebellions of the nineties, it’s clear that there is a strong legacy within self-publishing which challenges cultural norms. Zines were, and still are, a rejection of the literary institution's norms. And while many insta-poets may be mocked for their sometimes clumsy, simplified verse, there’s little denying that the aphoristic, confessional undertones of such work creates a space for voices which have traditionally been ignored by more formal literary circles.
Arguments about the aesthetics of high and low culture are almost always at the root of criticism regarding insta-poetry. Like with many mainstream cultural reference points, if something is popular, it’s only a matter of time before it is snubbed as being in bad taste or lacking in quality. True to form, insta-poetry has been mocked for its shallow content, for lacing twee sentiment with a writerly aesthetic of bespoke typewriters in a delicate filter. And it’s true to an extent. They are simple and, more often than not, they read less as poems and more as motivational pep talk. Usually, the poems are shared online, unedited and as rough drafts. Yet, isn’t this the point? I’m not sure any reader would argue that Rupi Kaur, to go with an obvious example, is a perfect poet. But it’s her open flaws that make her human and ultimately, relatable for her many fans. After all, accessibility often lies in simplicity. The issue with criticism is more than just literary snobbishness but a fear of how digital is challenging the traditional confines of creativity and, fundamentally, breaking down cultural barriers.
Accessibility can never be a clear-cut defence, though. It is also clear that a universal tone created through social media can create a misplaced sense of authenticity. Take Rupi Kaur. Her work tackles trauma in all of its forms. It is gendered, explicit, and many of her themes transcend a set audience. Yet Kaur also has self-styled herself as a spokesperson for the South Asian female experience. There has been criticism, therefore, that Western audiences have appropriated Kaur’s poetry. Does this create a conflict of interest then, if her work is meant to represent the experience of a non-Western community? Can a poem be authentic, and true to its intended roots, if the excerpt-sharing nature of Instagram leaves it vulnerable to being interpreted into a mainstream, Western narrative? It's clear that even when intending to be inclusive, many of these poets are in danger of fuelling a form of literary privilege.
Insta-poetry has undeniably become a new subgenre. It’s not without complications but in highlighting these issues, it’s always worth asking who is more to blame — the poet, or the entrenched nature of how we approach and read poetry? These poems may be simple but they also reveal a subtle lyrical sensibility. If a chance encounter on social media means you end up finding a new voice that resonates with you and allows you to dip your toe into the messy, beautiful world of poetry, then seize it. And if not, at least Collin Yost will make you feel a bit better about your failed attempts at being poetic.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Tess Davidson is a freelance writer and journalist currently working at the TLS.
You can follow her @tess_davidson.