Part two of A Critical Examination of 21st Century Poetry.
Oscar Wilde once famously stated that, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.” If we take this to be true then our analysis of Kaur proves her body of work is quite inartistic and therefore, by extension, the movement of Insta-poetry as a whole is inartistic. But surely this mass movement of “genuine feeling” didn’t come out of nowhere. The easy explanation for Insta-poetry’s origins would be the high school lit mag. This is the only place I’ve ever read poetry as substantially poor as Kaur’s. But Instagram and Tumblr allowed amateur writers to have a platform with no gatekeepers. This didn’t start with Kaur nor with the short, aphorism-type style beloved by Insta-poets now—Instead, this open-source lit mag started in the late 2000s and early 2010s with writers such as Tao Lin, Steve Roggenbuck, and Megan Boyle.
This geographically disparate community (though many being in New York at one time or another) created a movement of minimalist writing inspired by everyday life but specifically the parts of everyday life that involve our computers and smartphones. This movement is known as alt-lit or alternative literature. The writing is simple and often times employs Internet slang and style. By Internet style I mean that most of the authors eschew punctuality (like Kaur and her followers) or use punctuality inconsistently (as if they’re typing without stopping to edit).
Despite the simplicity of the writing, these writers, unlike the Insta-poetry movement, appear to have a foundation in literature. Richard Yates is often mentioned, as is Bukowski, Kerouac, and others. In the novella, Shoplifting from American Apparel, by Tao Lin, the protagonist’s friend asks, through Gmail chat, whether in five years’ time people will know them as “blogniks” or some other term (27). The movement possessed a clear ambition; these authors longed to be accepted as serious writers and for their work to someday be considered literature. To some extent, we can look at Insta-poetry through the lens of alt-lit and describe it as a dumbing-down of a dumbing-down—A more simplistic take on an earlier simplistic take. To better understand how this shift took place and why it’s significant that a woman, Rupi Kaur, is the best-selling poet of the new style of Insta-poetry, and of poetry as a whole, we must understand what alt-lit was attempting to accomplish and how it fell apart.
While Tao Lin might be the most famous and best received by critics of the alt-lit writers, he probably least epitomizes the movement. While his early novella, Shoplifting at American Apparel has the same dry, vernacular delivery of alt-lit writers such as Megan Boyle and Jordan Castro, Lin’s poetry appears to make a more honest effort at being poetic. Take the poem, “hamsters are heads with little characteristics on the head, part one”:
in florida a giant hamster lays in bed worrying about its future
the hamster has bad eyesight
and many other problems
later that night the hamster drives its car around
listening to sad music; the master lightly drums its paws on the steering wheel
the hamster is alone
but not for long: at home three waffle friends wait
cooling inside a countertop oven in the kitchen (Lin)
There are some elements indicative of alt-lit at work here. There is a lack of punctuation and a lack of capitalization but interestingly enough, and this is part of what makes Lin’s work standout, he includes a semicolon and a colon for effect. Where a line break would function, Lin replaces it with punctuation (particularly, what I’m tempted to refer to as “extreme punctuation”) and adds weight to these lines by differentiating the pause that is created from the pauses or spaces created by the line breaks.
The other indicative element here is the childish weirdness. This weird-for-the-sake-of-weird aesthetic is a common Internet humor trope and so it makes sense that a literary movement that identifies itself as a product of the Internet would embrace this aesthetic. What’s not indicative of the alt-lit movement in this poem is its purposeful use of punctuation, line breaks, and the use of rhythm and imagery: “cooling on a counter top oven in the kitchen,” can’t help but remind one of William Carlos Williams’ lines, “glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens” (56)—Though I am in no way suggesting that Lin’s poetry is on par with the genius of Williams.
More indicative of the genre, perhaps most indicative, is Steve Roggenbuck. Roggenbuck found alt-lit fame primarily through YouTube, where he posted videos of himself, often in fields, reciting his poetry. He didn’t write these poems, instead he would improvise and then edit the video, keeping the things he liked and ditching the things he didn’t. It’s an interesting process but the results are difficult to dignify with the label of poetry.
Despite the apparent editing, the monologues are directionless, rambling from topic to topic, often times with the intent of getting a laugh but the humor typically falls flat. Roggenbuck’s humor is both esoteric and dated as he would constantly reference things only people in his Internet circle would recognize, such as the phrase, “boost,” which means something along the lines of supporting someone or something else (i.e. To boost your friend’s new book). Other than being an interesting time capsule of the Internet at the dawn of the decade, Roggenbuck’s videos possess little to no literary value, as they simply appear to be the fetishization of Robbin William’s character in the film, Dead Poets Society.
In The New Yorker, of all places, these incoherent video-poems received glowing praise in an article titled, “If Walt Whitman Vlogged.” It’s true that Roggenbuck was inspired by Whitman, he mentions it often in interviews and in his videos, but his use of this influence leaves much to be desired. Roggenbuck has no literary or poetic insight.
His book, IF U DONT LOVE THE MOON YOUR AN ASS HOLE, actually spelled that way, reads is as if you were to binge-read someone’s Tumblr or Twitter. The pieces appear to have been written in one quick shot, with no forethought and no editing, much like the popular writing exercise known as “morning pages,” where you write 750 words without stopping. These, of course, are never supposed to be read; they’re simply an exercise, but Roggenbuck seems to place some sort of value on this off-the-cuff sincerity.
The reason this method fails is because it renders itself redundant after about three lines. These lines might function within the randomness and variety found in a social media feed but when surrounded by similar content, the work fails to possess any function or meaning. The pleasure of viewing a social media feed is the variety of content. Some of Roggenbuck’s work might be pleasurable simply for the novelty that exists when the piece is presented within a social media feed. It is only in this relational aspect that such a work functions; perpetual novelty is what makes a social media feed interesting.
Take this passage for example, “dang i hate turtle neck’s they have put my son out of business my son makes giraffe neck’s (Roggenbuck 15).” Now, this might be amusing if it popped up amongst photos of your friends’ kids and ads for Amazon—It would possess a certain novelty and an element of surprise that might garner a chuckle or two. But when read in a block of text with several other lines that are attempting the same randomness, whatever function it potentially serves is lost. For a better understanding of Roggenbuck, let’s look at a full piece:
in spain they love football so much they even call soccer football. im becoming aware of the fact that boredom and laziness are social norms, that ive felt pressured to supress my excitement and set lazier goals. I TRAINED MY SON TO EAT OUT OF MY HAND SINCE HE WAS A TODDLER. IT’S RLY STARTING TO FUCK WITH HIM NOW HE’S 15. if i dont get verified soon on twiter im gona have an identity crisis about whether or not i am actually me. i’ll sleep when im IRL. is “charlie” short for charizard, or charmander? i am falling asleep to emo songs on a litle sofa in montreal. i dont feel proud of myself in terms of talent or even hard work but i am proud that i havent given up. i want youre life to be better because im in it (9)
Clearly, this possesses none of the poetic elements we explored in Part One but this piece does possess nearly every alt-lit trope that exists. As discussed above, there is the weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird trope and the purposeful eschewing of punctuation and proper capitalization trope. For easy reference here is a list of the major alt-lit tropes that I have discovered after surveying the canon, all of which appear in the piece above:
- Purposeful eschewing of punctuation and proper capitalization.
- All-caps for emphasis.
- References to social media.
- Purposeful misspellings.
- The naming of a commercial brand or entity.
- The slightly more complex, “I want to…” trope
Tropes 1-5 are obviously derived from Internet speak or Internet culture and do not require lengthy analysis. Tropes 6 and 7 are more complex and deserve to be explored further.
The Naming of a Commercial Brand or Entity Trope
The naming of a commercial brand or entity in alt-lit is a curious phenomenon considering how widespread it is throughout the canon. In the Roggenbuck piece above, he references characters from Pokémon; but more often, this trope is used to specify a food or beverage:
“Kaitlyn had a “Synergy” brand kombucha in her jacket pocket” (Lin 36).
“`I long for a Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich,` said Sam” (Lin 72).
“I will eat four almonds/I want to touch every person in the world at least once/I bought a sandwich and threw it away/I want to snort ambien” (Gonzalez 50).
“While she was going through her spam inbox, trying to figure out how to get off all of these subscription lists (Macy’s, PETA, Sierra Club, ModCloth, Urban Outfitters) that she thought were a good idea to sign up for at the time” (Bess 57).
“I hold the large, pale orange/that we shoplifted from Whole Foods/earlier that day” (Bess 52).
“Sarah and I mimic their poses and eat black pepper kettle chips” (Bess 47).
“my mom is going to watch ‘american idol’/my mom is going to heat up jenny craig food” (Boyle 48).
“today i ate: odwalla ‘food bar,’ orange, handful pistachios, five triscuits with hummus, four almonds” (Boyle 239).
We could analyze this fixation on consumption as a commentary, as something akin to Warhol’s obsession with popular advertising, but the issue is that the writing doesn’t function as such. Instead, it’s just a recording of what is happening around them, to them, or by them. It’s an attempt at realism that fails because it lacks a purpose—It fails to make a comment on what it is recording.
The “I want to…” trope.
This is the most complex and interesting of all the alt-lit tropes because it communicates an unresolved longing for stimulation and expression; two things ironically lacking in the works themselves. These writers often frame themselves as pseudo-prisoners in a boring and trite world, which is typical of young adults in general to the point of being cliché. Alt-lit’s reaction to this suffocating boredom is to purpose a series of absurd activities that never make any sense nor function as symbolic or allegorical in any way. They are an aspect of their Internet culture’s affinity for the humor-of-the-random. This has been taken to surrealist limits with today’s meme culture but we see the germ of this humor in the canon of alt-lit:
“I WANT TO PEE FOR AN HOUR AND A HALF AND THEN DIE” (Roggenbuck 18).
“i want to own a warehouse that stores all the empty dolphin tanks and cigarette butts of the world” (Boyle 83).
“i want to hang a piñata full of emotionally damaged lobsters between a high school and a pond” (Boyle 83).
“I want to gather a crowd of strangers to smash and break objects with their hands” (Bess 83).
“I want someone to forcibly hug me/I want to jump-kick them and run away” (Gonzalez 7).
This trope might be the most important aspect of alt-lit in regards to the genre functioning as the “voice” of a particular generation. These absurd longings, when taken alongside the mundanity of these authors’ lives and coupled with the fixation on consumption, can be argued to illustrate the complete lack of meaning these authors, and perhaps by extension their entire generation, possess. Even in Roggenbuck’s ramblings of carpe diem!—one finds this same emptiness and lack of meaning. Roggenbuck might love the moon with all the religious fervor of a zealot of God, but the moon doesn’t love him back. The moon doesn’t prescribe for him a way to live, doesn’t forgive him his sins, and doesn’t welcome him in the afterlife. These absurd longings are a longing to embrace the meaninglessness of their lives and to live without consequence. They write these longings because they do not possess the will or vigor to actually live in such a manner.
Although such an analysis of alt-lit is probably giving this genre too much credit, it’s difficult to ignore the tapestry weaved by these various parts, which only comes into focus when we look at the canon as a whole. Close up, these works are little more than the blog posts from which they are derived—Boyle’s book is even titled, selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee, while Gonzalez and Lin put together a collection titled, Selected Tweets. The issue with alt-lit is that it attempts to be something it’s not; namely, literature. Roggenbuck’s If U DON’T LIKE THE MOON… is the prime example of this; sprawling, random, and interspersed with selfies. This is not something you read, it is a souvenir one might purchase after viewing his videos or following him on Twitter. As individual works, much of the alt-lit canon merely serves the function of an Internet time capsule—A print recording of an Internet culture, valuable only because of its physicality.
The Fall of Alt-Lit
While the women of alt-lit typically attempted a more sophisticated approach to their writing, they were largely over shadowed by men like Lin who, in 2014, was outed for his illegal relationship with a 16-year-old girl, much of which was apparently the material that made up his novel Richard Yates, as well as receiving rape and abuse allegations (Ryan). A prominent alt-lit editor, Stephen Tully Dierks, has two rape allegations (Jones). In 2018, years after alt-lit was popular, Roggenbuck, who described himself as a feminist, was outed for sending explicitly sexual messages to a 16-year-old when he was 24 (Isk, Mara, et al.).
These allegations were a huge blow to a community that prided itself on being open, honest, and different from other literary circles. Most of the writing you will find on the alt-lit movement is about these issues and the fact that the alt-lit community/industry functioned within the same sexists constructs of so many other creative industries: music, film, television, etc. Women writers often looked up to the male writers of alt-lit, such as Lin and Roggenbuck who were the movement’s biggest stars. This, as in so many industries, creates an unhealthy power dynamic that can easily be abused by the men in power. Because of the extensive literature on this topic, I will not cover it in any further detail. The reason I raise this issue is because the implosion of alt-lit, and all that it stood for, served as the catalyst for the positive, self-love, feminist Insta-poetry that exists today.
Feminism in Alt-Lit and Beyond
The prominent women writers of alt-lit were Mira Gonzalez, Megan Boyle, and Gabby Bess. Although they played with the same tropes as all alt-lit writers, these three women often attempted to implement these tropes into a uniquely feminist perspective. One of the most famous alt-lit pieces is title, “everyone i’ve had sex with,” by Megan Boyle (published both in her book, selected unpublished blog… and individually online in Thought Catalog). At the time, I suppose this would have been a brave and outrageous thing for a woman to print in a book, let alone post on the Internet. It’s a detailed, not graphic, account of everyone Boyle has ever slept with. It’s strikingly honest, particularly in the confusion she expresses when attempting to label her few encounters with women as sex or as something else.
But, as explored throughout this paper, honesty does not necessarily make for good writing. Of course, there is the voyeuristic atmosphere that so much of alt-lit indulges in and that many find enjoyable, but this is a shallow form of enjoyment; one akin to celebrity tabloids or reality TV. There is no real form in “everyone i’ve had sex with,” it is laid out like a blog or diary entry, which ends with a breakdown of how many penetrative partners, how many male partners, how many female partners, how many oral encounters, etc. It’s delivered so dryly and with such a flat affect that it’s almost disturbing; and it begs the question of, why would anyone require such a list? Is this a celebration of sexual liberation, a flaunting of her independence as a woman? Or is this some sort of confession? Either way, it’s not art. It’s not interesting. It’s simply a statement of her sexual history.
Beyond the tropes listed above, alt-lit is obsessed with sex, drugs, and alcohol. A lot of literature is obsessed with these topics, they’re not unique to alt-lit, but their overwhelming presence is significant, especially in light of the widespread sexism and abuse that took place within the movement. So, although Boyle’s list may not be art, it may still be useful to young women readers who might feel as if they have no means of discussing or expressing their relationship with their own sexuality and sexual history. Like Kaur’s cheap-and-easy feminism, the lack of quality of the work itself does not necessarily prove it ineffective. While the work may be lacking in any aesthetic quality, it may transcend its undeserved distinction of poetry and instead, serve as a beacon for young women in need of sympathy and support.
In the wake of alt-lit’s downfall, women writers quickly took the initiative to form their own scene; the article, “Alt Lit is Dead and Its Women Writers Are Creating Their Own Scene,” by Allie Jones, documents the articles and Tweets that surfaced quickly after the downfall. Although there has not been a new scene that has gained the prominence of alt-lit, we see the familiar tropes with a feminist spin in the world of Insta-poetry. Though not a scene in the sense of alt-lit, Insta-poetry is based online and has its handful of star writers, some of whom are men. The main difference is that Instagram’s format requires incredibly short pieces, while many of the pieces in the realm of alt-lit take up several pages.
Insta-poetry foregoes the weirdness indicative of alt-lit, as well as the tropes of naming brands and wanting to do X. Instead, as seen in Kaur’s work in Part One, Insta-poems attempt to impart some form of wisdom or advice for wellbeing—This too is a reaction to the often-self-destructive behavior displayed, if not celebrated, in much of alt-lit. Gone are the bouts of sex, drugs, and alcohol; instead, replaced by naïve romanticism, self-love, and feminism—albeit in poorly conceived, bite-size chunks. It has been a progress of perspective only, trading what little aesthetic achievement that existed in alt-lit for a more positive message.
Alt-lit possessed ambition. The writers of this movement had some literary background and wanted to push past it or against it in some manner but ultimately failed due to a lack of vision. While Tao Lin appears to be the most visionary of the alt-lit community, his writing is minimalist to the point of dull; and it is meaningless to the point of superfluous. Coupled with his sexist and abusive behavior, which he then used as fodder for his writing, his work is not to be admired or read, as it is quite impossible in this situation to separate the artist from the individual.
While the women of alt-lit have created a body of work that epitomizes the genre without possessing any of the genre’s now ruined reputation, the majority of this work serves little purpose other than that of a time capsule; a snapshot of the early 2010s, when social media truly found its legs and started running. In an interview on Charlie Rose in 2000, Harold Bloom said that the generation growing up alongside the Internet didn’t have the means to navigate what they read; they didn’t have the skills to distinguish between good writing and poor writing. While the canon of alt-lit and Insta-poetry might very well prove Bloom’s point, this body of work might also be the result of a generation attempting to understand that very distinction.
Bess, Gabby. Alone With Other People. CCM, 2013.
Boyle, Megan. selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee. Muumuu House, 2013.
Gonzalez, Mira. i will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together. Sorry House, 2013.
“Harold Bloom Interview on Harry Potter, the Internet and More (2000).” Performance by Harold Bloom, and Charlie Rose, YouTube, YouTube, 6 Sept. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVWiwd0P0c0.
Isk, Mara, et al. “Grooming Style.” The New Inquiry, 19 Mar. 2019, https://thenewinquiry.com/grooming-style/.
Jones, Allie. “Alt Lit Is Dead and Its Women Writers Are Creating Their Own Scene.” Gawker, http://gawker.com/alt-lit-is-dead-and-its-women-writers-are-creating-thei-1642110662. Accessed 9 Nov. 2019.
Lin, Tao. “hamsters are heads with little characteristics on the head, part one.” Poetry Foundation, 9 Nov. 2019, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/141814/hamsters are-heads-with-little-characteristics-on-the-head-part-one.
Lin, Tao. Shoplifting from American Apparel. Melville House, 2009.
Roggenbuck, Steve. IF U DONT LOVE THE MOON YOUR AN ASS HOLE. Printed by Author, 2012.
Ryan, Erin Gloria. “Alt-Lit Icon Tao Lin Accused of Statutory Rape and Abuse [Updated].” Jezebel, https://jezebel.com/alt-lit-icon-tao-lin-accused-of-horrific-rape-and-abuse 1641641060. Accessed 13 Nov. 2019.
Williams, William Carlos. William Carlos Williams: Selected Poems. Edited by Charles Tomlinson, New Directions, 1985.