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Rosemary Evans examines the success of Rupi Kaur's groundbreaking poetry anthology, Milk and Honey
It would probably be difficult to argue that poetry has much of a place in twenty-first century popular culture. Unlike enthusiasts of music or novels or art, ardent poetry-lovers are hard to come by. You might know a couple, but the chances are you aren't one. Thanks to its association with fustiness, pretention, and heavy, incomprehensible language, poetry isn't seen as holding much appeal for the modern consumer. Which is what makes it so remarkable that the second bestselling book on Amazon in 2017 was in fact a poetry anthology: Millk and Honey, by Rupi Kaur.
Since its self-publication in 2014, Milk and Honey has become a literary sensation, selling 2.5 million copies worldwide and becoming a number one New York Times bestseller. Kaur's second anthology, The Sun and Her Flowers has seen similar success since its publication last year, and at the age of 25, the Indian-Canadian poet has risen from unpublished writer to one of the most influential voices of the young generation, a point illustrated by the fact that as well as in the usual places like Waterstones and Foyles, you can also find her books in Urban Outfitters among the stacks of cactuses and avocado themed stationery.
Kaur is widely regarded as the queen of the 'Instapoets', young, politically-engaged women who are commandeering poetry for the digital age. Sharing their work on mainstream social media sites, these women use the medium of poetry to explore topics like femininity, sexism and body image. In providing bold, creative contributions to the modern feminist movement, the Instapoets are proving hugely popular, and Kaur is no exception.
However, despite her success, Kaur's poetry receives an equal force of criticism. Among other points of controversy, her use of free verse and minimalist, direct poetic style has attracted condemnation for not qualifying as 'proper poetry', as has her use of social media as a platform for her work (Kaur has 2.1 million followers on Instagram). Critics have parodied her formula on Twitter of using brief, fragmented verse while others have dismissed her poetry as trashy, unremarkable tumblr material: when judged beside the work of 'traditional poets', the Shakespeares and the Byrons of the poetical landscape, does her work even qualify as poetry?
Admittedly, Milk and Honey is a far cry from the classical poems of Keats and Byron, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing. The 'traditional poets' are undoubtedly talented writers, fully deserving of their place in the (largely male-dominated) literary hall of fame, but unless you're an English academic, or a very keen and very persistent reader, you will probably have to work quite hard to enjoy their work. All those obscure intertextual references and all the superfluous language that characterises 'proper poetry' (and earns poetry its fusty, pretentious associations) is likely to prove more than a little daunting. Once you've encountered the words 'Lethe-wards' and 'Dryad' in the same stanza (as you will do in Keats' Ode to a Nightingale), you might be tempted to give up. Of course, if you do take the time to decipher the poem's subtext, you may be utterly enchanted by it, but how many of us who aren't doing English degrees have time or the knowledge to do that? Yes, Keats' language is beautiful, but what use is that if you can't grasp what he's actually telling you?
One of the most enjoyable aspects of poetry stems not simply from the language but from a sense of empathy, of being able to read a stanza and say 'that's how I feel', or 'that's what I think' after you'd been convinced it was just you. It is similar to the satisfaction derived from reading Facebook memes, in that it is therapeutic to find evidence of others' similarity to ourselves. Just like it is comforting to learn from Student Problems' posts that you're not the only one who has a major procrastination problem or hasn't had more than five hours sleep for an entire week, so it is reassuring to learn from Alfred Tennyson that you're not the only one who occasionally feels heartbroken. While memes are admittedly less profound than poetry, there is a similarity between the two in that both provide us with a sense of reassurance and cohesion. In fact, the work of Instapoets and their use of social media, as well as politicising poetry, is bringing it closer to the medium of memes, producing verse that is short, sharp and accessible: verse that anyone can read and enjoy. And it is this style of verse that has earned Milk and Honey its status as a best-seller. Rather than invalidating it as poetry, Kaur's style represents a departure from its impression of unpopularity and obscurity, and marks the birth of a new variety of poetry suited to the digital age and accessible to everyone.
Poetry shouldn't be the reserve of literature professors who know the ins and outs of iambic pentameter and the significance of the very niche metaphors in Browning's My Last Duchess or Shelley's Ozymandias. Like memes, poetry should be open to everybody, and Kaur and others like her are making it so. Undeniably, it is the first time we've seen poetry posted on Instagram (or sold in Urban Outfitters), but that isn't a bad thing. If anything, it is evidence of the fact that although the world is moving forward, it is bringing poetry with it.