A Critical Examination of 21st Century Poetry
Understanding Rupi Kaur Milk and Honey - by Ada Wofford
Rupi Kaur is a bestselling author and Instagram star. Her debut book, Milk and Honey has sold 3.5 million copies, making it the best-selling collection of poetry of all time, even out selling The Odyssey. There has been a lot of discussion both about Kaur and the genre of Insta-poetry. A particularly scathing article titled, “The Cult of the Noble Amateur,” criticizes this emerging medium for its simplicity and shallowness. The author, Rebecca Watts, vents her disdain for this new breed of poet stating, “The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords.”
It’s difficult not to see this situation as intellectual elitism. Just as a classically trained composer might criticize a Top 40 pop song, writers such as Watts view the work of Kaur as something trite and pedestrian, something with no substance that people may easily consume. But because Kaur’s writing is so simplistic, it begs the question: Is it poetry? A Taylor Swift song might not be intellectually challenging or sonically interesting but there’s no doubting that it is in fact music. Kaur’s writing on the other hand is not so easy to categorize. Kaur markets herself as a poet and maybe people have gone along with that title because they don’t know how else to categorize her. If Kaur’s writing isn’t poetry, what is it? And if it is poetry, why isn’t it taken seriously?
There is hardly any critical or academic writing on Milk and Honey. The one article I found, “The Technopo(e)litics of Rupi Kaur: (de)Colonial AestheTics and Spatial Narrations in the DigiFemme Age” by Sasha Kruger, is not a literary paper but an exploration of Kaur’s use of gender, sex, and race in her writings. The paper is a bit superfluous, making easy and obvious connections to various academics such as Judith Butler, Gayatri Gopinath, and Victoria M. Bañales among others. Although it’s not at all a literary analysis, there is still some relevant information. The article discusses Kaur’s use of images in her work and how they heighten the meaning of the words. Kaur refers to her work as “design poetry,” suggesting two things 1) The accompanying images are integral to the meaning and function of the work. And 2) the function of the line-endings is purely visual. This is supported by the fact that Kaur’s poetry is, “based on the spoken word” and so careful consideration of syllables, stress, rhythm, etc. is ignored (Kruger 21).
Line-endings are essential to poetry. They drive the rhythm and the syntax of the words. In the book, The Art of the Poetic Line, author James Longenbach writes, “More than meter, more than rhyme, more than images or alliteration or figurative language, line is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry, rather than some other kind of writing” (xi). The line-endings in Milk and Honey appear to be completely arbitrary. Kaur’s poems often read like a single sentence chopped up to have the appearance of a poem. Take this poem from page 121 for example (many of Kaur’s poems do not have titles so I will refer to them by page number):
how can i write
if he took my hands
In his discussion of line-endings, Longenbach writes, “But even the arbitrary must be driven by necessity, and necessity can be judged only on a poem by poem basis: what does the language of this particular poem require at this particular juncture?” (63). If we look at the use of syllables in the above poem we get, 4, 5, 2. There’s nothing to suggest this was done purposefully or out of necessity. An examination of the use of stresses tells the same story—Nothing appears deliberate or driven by necessity. The only remaining conclusion is that the line-endings are done purely as a visual component. This is reinforced by Kaur’s deliberate choice to eschew punctuation and capitalization with no apparent meaning behind this choice, save for the previously mentioned visual component.
To gain a better understanding of Kaur’s poetry, it’s worthwhile to explore what this poem would look like if we attempted to inject some poetic elements into it, such as attention to syllables and stress. By introducing syllabic-verse the line-endings will become more meaningful:
How can I write
If when he left
My hands he took
It’s still sloppy but at least it has rhythm, purposeful use of syllables, and it no longer has that clunky enjambment at the end. The reason this is better than the alternative, “If when he left/he took my hands” is that now “he” is the second to last syllable in the last two lines. But we can still improve it:
How can I write
If when he left
My hands he kept
Now there is more information in the poem and “left” pairs nicely with “kept”, both having the same vowel sound. All three lines function as pairs of iambs now as well. As for context, it is now made clear that the narrator had given her hands at some point in the past. In the context of the entire book we can infer that she at some point gave her hands to a lover, but in the context of the original poem we are not given enough information.
The big issue with this poem, really with most of Kaur’s poems, is that it goes nowhere. It makes a singular statement, “He took my hands and now I can’t write.” And when I rearrange this to introduce rhythm into the writing it’s like hearing a melody that never resolves itself. Just as the rhythm gets established, the poem is over. It becomes obvious from this exercise that a poem this short actually suffers from the inclusion of classic poetic elements. Now, instead of having a short poem with no rhythm, we have a rhythmic poem that feels incomplete.
A few times in Milk and Honey, Kaur forgoes her pseudo-poetry and just writes in rambling prose. The use of language and lack of rhythm results in these sections reading exactly like her poems. Even her use of paragraph-endings is as arbitrary as her use of line-endings. Here is a passage from “how we make up”:
when the entire street is looking out their windows wondering what all the commotion is. and the fire trucks come rolling in to save us but they can’t distinguish whether these flames began with our anger or our passion. i will smile. throw my head back. arch my body like a mountain you want to split in half. baby lick me.
like your mouth has the gift of reading and i’m your favorite book. find your favorite page in the soft spot between my legs and read it carefully. fluently vividly don’t you dare leave a single word untouched. and i swear my ending will be so good. the last few words will come. running to your mouth. and when you’re done. take a seat. cause it’s my turn to make music with my knees pressed to the ground. (Kaur 77)
The prose sections are interesting because Kaur uses periods. She uses these much more purposely than her line-endings and paragraph-endings. For instance, the lines, “the last few words will come. running to your mouth,” uses the period very purposefully, creating a pun out of the word “come.” Although this wordplay is both obvious and a bit juvenile, it’s a subtle use of wordplay done through the employment of a line-ending; a technique Kaur tends to ignore in her poems.
Despite the introduction of more meaningful line-endings in her prose, these sections are still problematic. Kaur tends to rest on under-developing her ideas and presenting them under the guise of minimalism. When she attempts to flesh out her ideas in prose things tend to fall apart. For instance, the simile in the line, “like your mouth has the gift of reading and I’m your favorite book,” is already quite poor. The action of licking doesn’t visually translate well into the act of reading. In this context, the licking is sexual and the feeling the passage is attempting to evoke is one of passion and lust. But the act of reading is a solitary, methodical process that does not involve touching—the hands may touch the book but the eyes do all the reading from a distance. The comparison doesn’t make a lot of sense to begin with and then, to make matters worse, Kaur attempts to expand on it, making the scene less sexy and more baffling with each word. At the end, when her partner has finished, she writes, “it’s my turn to make music.” But this implies that her partner was first making music, if it’s now her turn. Kaur completely derails her own lousy simile.
It’s clear that Kaur’s writing is not attempting to emulate anything that has come before it. Her prose is rambling and confusing and her poetry eschews pretty much all poetic elements. It might be interesting if this was done deliberately, if this was an attempt at deconstructing our conception of prose and poetry, but nothing in Milk and Honey suggests this. There’s a difference between someone not playing the piano and John Cage’s 4:33. Cage’s composition is deliberate, there is an actual structure to the piece, and there is meaning behind the decisions that went into the final performance. The same can be said about abstract-expressionists. How many times have you heard someone look at a copy of a Pollock and claim that their 4-year old could create a similar painting? To the untrained eye, a Pollock might look like the random scribblings of a child but of course the two are worlds apart. Interestingly, Kaur’s writing seems to function in the opposite sense: To the untrained ear, her poems apparently sound intelligent and deep. Even more so than say Whitman or T.S. Eliot because no one is buying their books in the numbers they’re buying Kaur’s.
Though more people are interested in Milk and Honey than Leaves of Grass, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are choosing one over the other. Poetry never sold as well as it is now. This fact reinforces the idea that Kaur’s writing isn’t poetry, at least not in the sense that we are accustomed to—Kaur’s writing style lacks the self-awareness and cultural-awareness it would need to be considered a new form of writing; Kaur isn’t the Cage or Pollock of poetry. Regardless, Kaur’s writings resonate with millions of people and so it’s important that we attempt to understand why.
In The Art of Reading Poetry, Harold Bloom writes:
As you read a poem, there should be several questions in your mind. What does it mean, and how is that meaning attained? Can I judge how good it is? Has it transcended the history of its own time and the events of the poet’s life, or is it now only a period piece? (41).
These are suggestions; Bloom doesn’t go through and start answering each one but it’s an interesting template for critiquing Kaur’s work. Take the poem above from page 121, we immediately understand its meaning. It attains this meaning by being explicit, which makes for pretty boring poetry. The second question is interesting because you might shrug your shoulders and think, “Why can’t I judge how good it is? I like it or I don’t.” But that’s not what Bloom is asking, he’s asking how good is the poem, not whether or not you like it, nor is he asking whether or not it’s good. Being as it’s difficult to even categorize Kaur’s work as poetry, it seems we can’t judge how good it is—the work doesn’t appear to adhere to any self-imposed standards. The last question is easy to answer because all of Kaur’s work is highly personal, so all of her work is nothing more than a “period piece.”
Furthermore, Kaur’s poems lack variation and purposeful disruption. As James Longenbach writes in The Art of the Poetic Line:
What matters within any particular formal decorum is variation: the making of pattern along with the simultaneous disruption of pattern. [. . .]This kind of movement—the establishment of a formal decorum in which even the smallest variation from it feels thrilling—is what makes the act of reading a poem feel like the act of writing a poem. (114)
If Kaur’s writings are in fact poems, they’re not very good poems. From both a critical examination of the work and a more casual critique of the experience of reading it (via Harold Bloom’s criteria), Kaur’s writing fails to hold up as poetry. The final argument then is that Kaur’s writings are not poems but something else.
I mention above that Kaur considers her work to be “design poetry.” The problem with making up your own genre is that no one else has a basis for judging it. The closest thing we have to “design poetry” is ekphrasis, which poetryfoundation.org describes as, “‘Description’ in Greek. [. . .] a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the ‘action’ of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning” (“Ekphrasis”). A paper by Lili Pâquet titled, “Selfie-Help: The Multimodal Appeal of Instagram Poetry” explores how this relates to Kaur’s style, and Instagram poetry as a whole, at length. While ekphrasis might serve as a decent description of what Kaur is attempting to accomplish in her work, I don’t believe it tells the whole story, as it’s basically just a more formal expression of Kaur’s made-up genre of “design poetry” and one that only partially applies, as it could be argued that it is not Kaur’s words that amplify and expand the meaning of her illustrations but the other way around—It is her illustrations that attempt to amplify and expand the meaning of her words.
We see this in the poem “i have been both,” in which the illustration of a hand flipping a coin heightens the meaning of the poem, which reads, “the abused/and the/abuser” (Kaur 111). The illustration informs the reader that being an abuser and being abused are two sides of the same coin. The illustration introduces a metaphor, albeit a cliché, into the piece that does not exist in the words alone.
By referring to her work as “design poetry,” Kaur makes a point to distinguish her work from belonging to the genre that is simply poetry. But, it seems she at least considers it to be connected to poetry. Another genre of writing connected to poetry is that of the aphorism. A lot of Kaur’s writing is essentially a single sentence and almost all of her writing attempts to convey some sort of wisdom or philosophy. This makes it a good contender for the genre of aphorisms. Take this famous aphorism, “Actions speak louder than words.” If you insert a line-ending and add a little illustration you would essentially have a Kaur poem. Classifying something as an aphorism though is a bit tricky. Maybe it’s more of an epigram or a proverb, maybe it’s a platitude—To make things easier, writer James Geary came up with what he calls the 5 laws of the aphorism. They are:
1 It must be brief.
2 It must be personal.
3 It must be definitive.
4 It must be philosophical.
5 It must have a twist.
Geary says that an aphorism being personal is what distinguishes it from a proverb and it being philosophical is what distinguishes it from a platitude. Let’s analyze the aphorism, “Actions speak louder than words” using Geary’s laws.
1. Yes, it’s brief. Only five words long.
2. This is a bit ambiguous. If you look at Oscar Wilde’s aphorisms, he doesn’t talk about himself explicitly, but like the aphorism above, they might function as personal advice or a personal observation. For instance, “He who stands most remote from his world is he who mirrors it best.” Not personal in the sense that Wilde is opening himself up to us but it’s still personal as it speaks to Wilde’s personal experiences and observations. Geary says that a proverb is an aphorism that’s been used so frequently that its creator has been forgotten so, it’s more about the fact that the reader knows who is saying it. So, that too contributes to what makes it personal.
3. Yes, it’s a complete, definitive thought.
4. This is a bit ambiguous but yes, it’s philosophical. It’s essentially presenting a rule to live by and much of philosophy is focused on how one ought to live.
5. The twist is in the use of the word “speak.” This is what makes the phrase interesting. The phrase, “Actions are more meaningful than words” conveys the same message but loses the twist, the play on words. It’s not nearly as interesting to hear and therefore it’s rendered forgettable.
Now, let’s analyze this poem by Kaur from page 156 of Milk and Honey:
if you were born with
the weakness to fall
you were born with
the strength to rise
1. It’s longer than our example but still quite brief. Removing the line-ends, this is a single sentence.
2. Yes, going by the criteria established above this is personal.
3. It’s a complete and definitive thought.
4. I see this as a philosophic thought. If weakness is an inherent part of our being then so is strength.
5. Barely. There is the interplay between fall and rise, it’s not really a twist as much as it’s a chiasmus.
I think this qualifies as an aphorism. It might not be a particularly clever or insightful aphorism but it seems to check off all the boxes. Rupi Kaur’s work, and most Insta-poetry, appear to be attempts at creating aphorisms and then stylizing them as poems. I only analyzed one of Kaur’s poems. Many of her poems do not meet all of Geary’s five laws but it’s obvious they are attempting to, whether or not Kaur is even aware of these laws. Take this one from page 160 for example:
it takes grace
to remain kind
in cruel situations
It’s not clever, it’s not particularly insightful, and it doesn’t have a twist, but it has that authoritative cadence to it that attempts to convince the reader that what they are reading is wise and profound.
It makes sense this style of writing would be so popular today. Most of what we read and listen to is delivered in small packages, Tweets, soundbites, text messages. While this writing may not be particularly interesting or challenging, it’s a representation of our times. And for that reason, Kaur’s work is valuable.
In the next two parts of this series we will further explore the role of technology in 21st Century poetry. We will look at the genre of alt-lit (alternative literature and no, it has nothing to do with the alt-right) as well as the history of technology influencing literature.
Bloom, Harold. The Art of Reading Poetry. Perennial, 2005.
“Ekphrasis” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 2019, www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/ekphrasis.
Kaur Rupi Milk and Honey. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
Kruger, Sasha. “The Technopo(e)Litics of Rupi Kaur: (De)Colonial AestheTics and Spatial Narrations in the DigiFemme Age.” Ada New Media, 22 May 2017, adanewmedia.org/2017/05/issue11-kruger/.
Longenbach, James. The Art of the Poetic Line. Graywolf, 2008.
Waterstones, director. James Geary's Five Laws of the Aphorism. Fora TV, Dailymotion, 1 Feb. 2012, www.dailymotion.com/video/xgl7mn.
Watts, Rebecca. “The Cult of the Noble Amateur .” PN Review Print and Online Poetry Magazine - The Cult of the Noble Amateur - Rebecca Watts - PN Review 239, Jan. 2018, www.pnreview.co.uk/cgi-bin/scribe?item_id=10090.
*Note—Much of the opening paragraph is originally published in the article “Live Laugh Ugh: Fear and Loathing in the World of Instagram-Poetry” by Ada Wofford. Published in The Blue Nib.