Live, Laugh, Ugh! Fear and Loathing in the World of Instagram-Poetry

“This is the American Dream in action! We’d be fools not to ride this strange torpedo all the way out to the end.”

I don’t consider myself a poet. I studied poetry in college, I’ve written poems, I’ve even had a few published in some dinky little journal no one’s ever going to read and yet, I don’t consider myself a poet. The title of Poet is like that of Philosopher, it doesn’t sound good coming from your own mouth. We’ve all meet the self-acclaimed Poet or Philosopher at a party and we’ve all rolled our eyes at their turtleneck sweater and Radiohead tattoo. These are titles that need to be given to one, not self-imposed. But today, there are millions of people giving the title of Poet to a handful of highly successful Instagram personalities. 

Like most things one discovers online, I discovered Instagram-poetry by chance. Some of it popped up in my feed one day. A trite expression about love or personal growth, stylized in some romantic manner. I laughed it off and quickly forgot about it. But then I started seeing it pop up more and more. I began following Button Poetry the way masochistic Democrats follow Fox News and I quickly learned that this is more than just a silly online trend. Instagram-poetry has become a very serious business. 

Rupi Kaur is easily the most famous Instagram-poet. Her debut book, milk & honey, has sold 3.5 million copies, making it the best-selling collection of poetry of all time, even out selling The Odyssey! An Atlantic article describes how the life of an Instagram-poet is more like that of an entrepreneur:

Social-media poets, using Instagram as a marketing tool, are not just artists—they’re entrepreneurs. They still primarily earn money through publication and live events, but sharing their work on Instagram is now what opens up the possibility for both. Kaur, the ultimate poet-entrepreneur, said she approaches poetry like “running a business.” A day in the life can consist of all-day writing, touring, or, perhaps unprecedented for a poet, time in the office with her team to oversee operations and manage projects.

The article goes on to discuss the success of other Instagram-poets and their various means of amassing a fortune. For instance, selling merch featuring their poetry and signing deals with top brands such as Gucci and Nike. I can hear Wittman turning in his grave now. 

“The brutish realities of this foul year of Our Lord”–2019

In a scathing article title, “The Cult of the Noble Amateur,” 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.” Watts goes on to describe the decline of the written word and the simultaneous rise of the “cult of personality”:

What good is a flourishing poetry market, if what we read in poetry books renders us more confused, less appreciative of nuance, less able to engage with ideas, more indignant about the things that annoy us, and more resentful of others who appear to be different from us? The ability to draw a crowd, attract an audience or assemble a mob does not itself render a thing intrinsically good: witness Donald Trump. Like the new president, the new poets are products of a cult of personality, which demands from its heroes only that they be ‘honest’ and ‘accessible’, where honesty is defined as the constant expression of what one feels, and accessibility means the complete rejection of complexity, subtlety, eloquence and the aspiration to do anything well.

Watts goes on to eviscerate contemporary poets such as Rupi Kaur, Kate Tempest, and Hollie McNish. Not everyone agrees of course and Watts is smart to anticipate any counterargument that would claim that critics such as her are literary elitists, explaining that, “[…] elitism is not considered an evil in itself. We frankly desire our doctors, hairdressers, plumbers and sportspersons to be the best: to learn from precedent, work hard.” 

Personally, I agree with Watts. Virginia Woolf and Cormac McCarthy are two of my favorite authors and neither was ever in the business of holding the reader’s hand. But this question of, “Should poetry be for everybody, even those who can’t write it?” reminds me of the punk movement of the ‘70s. A time when bands proudly displayed their lack of musicianship and spit in the face of convention. But those bands were consciously rebelling against an establishment (at least until that establishment, the music industry, absorbed them) and, if you listen to their guitar riffs, these bands understood what came before them. In many ways, the punk rock of the ‘70s was a throwback to the simplistic rock n’ roll of the ‘50s (albeit much more intense). The apparent lack of a literary foundation in the scribbles posted on Instagram convince me that this is not a true literary rebellion (like the Beats or the Modernists) but merely a phenomenon of our digital age. 

Many writers claim that this new form of poetry is liberating. That it is more inclusive and less snobbish than the old literary establishment. Through my research for this article I kept coming across the claim that Instagram-poetry is somehow providing a platform for marginalized voices that didn’t exist before, but I simply have not found evidence of that. In fact, Watts makes an interesting statement on this subject, claiming that even when marginalized voices are given a literary platform, it seems to be solely in the name of marketing, “Technical and intellectual accomplishments are as nothing compared with the ‘achievement’ of being considered representative of a group identity that the establishment can fetishise [sic]. This is reflected in headlines such as, ‘Vietnamese refugee Ocean Vuong wins 2017 Forward Prize for Poetry.’” So, even if the world of Instagram-poetry is giving a platform to marginalized voices, is it doing so in a productive manner? Based on the fact that this movement doesn’t even seem to be representing poetry and writing in a productive manner, I would have to say, no.

The Instagram-poetry world is a commercial industry. The Atlantic piece mentioned above is exclusively about the financial success of these poets and how they manage their brand. There isn’t a single excerpt of poetry in the entire piece. If our contemporary literary journalism is more focused on the branding and financial success of poets than their actual work, then I believe it is time to panic. 

The Real Poetry of the 21st Century

“Riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave”

Two things really bug me about the entire Instagram poetry discussion. 1) Instagram-poetry is not poetry. An Instagram poem is typically little more than a poorly written sentence merged with graphic designed to evoke a Romantic atmosphere of old books, typewriters, and writing by moonlight (or something else equally ridiculous). 2) There is a wealth of brilliant poetry being released (largely by marginalize voices, I should add) every day in the form of hip-hop.

Below I’m going to compare some popular Instagram “poetry” with some of my favorite hip-hop lyrics of the 21st century. Lyrics I consider to be true poetry. I’m going to display the actual Instagram posts because I think it’s important that the reader get the full aesthetic of the industry. My comments are italicized. 

—What does this even mean? What the hell is soul energy?!

Now, compare this with some of RZA’s lines from the track, “Books of War.” 

Bonded in stainless steel, stripped of their language

Still survived the anguish of slavery but still remained nameless

Separated to portions and tricked by John Haughty Hawkins

And sold on the auction, taught birth control and abortion

Rulers of the first part became slaves of the worst part

The devils cursed God and reversed God

And turned God into dog and made people search hard

No relief came to the prophet of W.D. Feraud

To a trauma, dropped our mommas off in Bahamas and Barbados

Tobagos, separated us from slave boats

Made our own brothers hate us

—The language here is so complex but flows effortlessly. This is beautiful writing. 

—Where is the context? Whose heart? When was it less brave? Why does it need to be brave?

Compare this to an excerpt from Zach de la Rocha’s track “Digging for Windows.”

Now they ride their portfolios

Like rodeos

Rise every time my cherry glows

On the end of my cig as

The smoke blows through the bars

And the CO’s laugh fades

As he strolls away

Says I gotta pay

Off that roll away

Or its fuck your visitation days

And I pop off so in solitaire

I dream of offing these Fred Astaires

And the skin off my fingers tear

We digging for windows here

Where the days are all night

—There’s imagery, metaphor, rhythm, more than seven words, and it doesn’t need a cartoon flower in order to catch your attention. The final line appears at the end of the previous stanzas as well. Repetition makes for good poetry. There’s no room for meaningful repetition in an Instagram post.  

—I picked this one because it’s almost all graphic. It’s a prime example of how Instagram poetry is more about visual aesthetic than actual writing. Also, what kind of feminist affirmation is this supposed to be exactly? As a feminist, I’m confused and annoyed. 

Lastly, compare that graphic-with-text, somehow deemed poetry by 17,506 people, to this excerpt from the fantastic Aesop Rock. From the track “9-5ers Anthem.”

It’s the year of the silkworm

Everything I built burned yesterday

Let’s display the purpose that these stilts serve

Elevate the spreading of the silk germ

Trying to weave a web but all that I believe in is dead

Nah brother, it’s the year of the jackal

Saddle up on high horse

My torch forced Polaris embarrassed

Shackle up the hassle by the dooming legend marriage 

I bought some new sneakers

I just hope my legacy matches

—This is beautifully complex poetry. The shuffling of rhymes and alliteration makes each line exciting and powerful. These words jump out at you. You can’t read them without falling into a satisfying rhythm. 

Watts’ closes her article with this statement, “If we are to foster the kind of intelligent critical culture required to combat the effects of populism in politics, we must stop celebrating amateurism and ignorance in our poetry.” I believe this sentiment can and should be extended to all forms of art but I also believe that while amateurism and ignorance might be celebrated in some of our poetry, the excerpts of hip-hop lyrics I shared above prove that there is still strong poetry being produced today. These poems might not be consumed via chap books and anthologies, but nevertheless, these poems are proof that there is inventive, well-crafted, socially conscious poetry being created and celebrated in the 21st century. 

*The quotes in the headings are all taken from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. 

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