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"Shall I compare thee to a #Summer'sDay?" Instagram's poetry revolution

Writing: Reuben Fox McClure

Illustration: Abigail Featherstone

Keats — how many followers does he have? Dickinson — is she verified? Poetry greats, yes. Poetically relevant? Perhaps not anymore. The internet age has revolutionised the landscape of the arts, from music to film, and poetry has not been spared. Put down the dusty anthology - poetry lives on Instagram now.

Welcome to centre stage the ‘instapoets’, the sonneteers, rhymesters and elegists so dubbed for primarily or exclusively publishing their works via Instagram. A quick search of the ‘#Instapoetry’ will yield the work of thousands of aspiring writers, a cultural movement spearheaded by a handful of individuals whose popularity, easily quantified by followers, continues to boom. The work of these ‘instapoets’ is distinctive, both visually and linguistically. Skinny stanzas and stumpy lines, typed up in a typewriter font, maybe even by a real typewriter, set against a pastel backdrop. Visual adornments such as pressed flowers or stubbed cigarettes are common. Subject-wise, expect abstract angst, nameless romances and reflective musings suspiciously reminiscent of wallmounted inspirational quotes.

Instapoetry is snappy, quickly relating moods and emotions to an attentionstrapped generation. It’s not surprising that poetry has found a home in Instagram, a realm that revolves around capturing those moments in life through the power of the picture. Philosophies, lifestyles and emotions are already expressed through a snap of a meal, holiday or situation; doing the same through words is a natural transition.

Twenty-six year old Canadian-Punjabi poet Rupi Kaur is the poster girl of instapoetry. Sitting atop an ever-increasing following of 3.4 million, her online work is immediately recognisable. Her poems are typically formatted in lowercase, unpunctuated Times New Roman, of a detached and abstract tone, and often accompanied by a hand-drawn illustration. Visuals and words are in tandem. There’s no question that Kaur is a genuine poet, with poems such as ‘immigrant’ exploring the ultimate subjectivity of becoming “the bridge between two countries”: a charged subject matter expressed with the linguistic command traditionally associated with the poetic form.

The jury is out on Kaur and the movement she’s apart of. Critics condemn the radical departure from the poetic fundamentals of deliberated eloquence and substantive, developed meaning. Critics assert that the success of Instapoetry is akin to that of a fortune cookie - looks nice, sounds deep, and is entirely consumable. A lot of, if not most amateur poetry posted on Instagram is… not great. Indeed, even some of Kaur’s own work can strike the reader as pithy and dull (“let it go / let it leave / let it happen / nothing / in this world / was promised / or belonged to you / anyway”), but is filled with mantric obscurity that is simultaneously relatable to everyone and no one. Poetry, critics say, is being devalued, though this valuation of poetry is certainly conservative.

Part of the appeal of instapoetry is precisely this anti-traditional form. The platform democratises poetry for both readers and writers. It breaks down antiquated publishing processes and allows voices previously marginalised by elite literary circles, particularly women and people of colour, to flourish on the scene and garner a new readership of similar demographics. Even if at times the artistic element of the medium is left slightly by the wayside, it’s completely refreshing and even exciting, for artistic expression to be embraced by those for whom it was previously inaccessible.

For this reason, Instagram’s revolution of poetry lies not within poems themselves, but with its entire cultural landscape. The instapoets are singlehandedly reviving the form, with online success translating directly to the sale of physical copies and new audiences. Kaur’s first published collection ‘milk and honey’ has sold millions of copies across numerous translations, and she’s not alone in this success. Others such as Charly Cox, Atticus and Christopher Poindexter have found similar commercial success. Between 2016 and 2017, poetry sales in the US doubled, and of the top twenty poets of the same year, twelve were Instapoets. For this reason, there are calls for the ‘Insta’ to be dropped from the ‘poet’, arguing that Instagram is merely a medium, not a genre. Given the physical success of their physical publications, that is hard to deny.

As with all art, the diamonds are found amongst the rough. Instagram has certainly introduced a new breed of poetry into the cultural sphere which may not be to everyone’s taste, be comparable to the classics, or able to withstand inscrutable literary analysis. It does, however, serve a purpose previously unfulfilled by the conventional cultural form. As always, those who complain that something ‘isn’t real art’ are usually the first to be left behind.

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