Oh, Instapoetry.

I guess I would be thrown into this class of writers who throw their verses onto little digital squares for the world to see. I’ve been posting my writing and poetry on Instagram for over a year. I have a memoir being published in April 2021 and a poetry collection being published in 2022. I have a degree in English literature. So I know a thing or two about poetry, but I am no means the expert and this post is not to degrade anyone’s work. 

I think Instagram, and other social media platforms, are fantastic for artists to share their work with a massive audience who may have never discovered their work otherwise. 

On the other hand, I don’t necessarily think it’s fair that artists are forced to be marketers and can often be judged off their follower count as opposed to the quality of their work. But I digress…

The rise of the Instagram poet 

Before we had Instagram poets, we had Tumblr poets. I distinctly remember posting angsty poems to my Tumblr blog in the hopes that some stranger somewhere would reblog my 14-year-old poetic mastery(praying I deleted those at some point). 

Tumblr has long been a haven to share poetry, artwork, and circulate other original works like fan fiction and has driven some authors from mere blogging to selling thousands of print copies of their work in the span of a few years. 

Then came Rupi Kuar. If you’ve walked into a bookstore in the past couple of years chances are you have seen Rupi Kuar’s Milk and Honey. Kuar rose to fame for her visual poetry that she posted to a growing Instagram following. Published in 2014, her first collection that revolves around themes of self-growth, femininity, love, loss, and family has sold over five million copies. Kuar’s poems are iconic for being paired with some sort of minimalist illustration that embellishes the mostly scant words in most of her poems. 

But Kuar does 3 things right, all of which have become key characteristics of the Instapoets:

  1. They’re quotable

If you can embroider it on a pillow, it will make for good Instagram poetry. I think many of these so-called poets are just really good quote writers. Their lines are easily productized and turned into phone cases, T-shirts, home decor, planners, and more. The verses are inspirational and witty with an element of poetry, but are they poetry? Debatable.

These Instapoets aren’t just writers, they’re master marketers, entrepreneurs, and influencers…which is fine. It’s difficult to make money as any sort of artist, but do we have to degrade the art in the process? I think the best comparison I can make is how many see modern art (think: banana taped to a wall) as simple and effortless compared to detailed paintings that require intricacy and immense talent. But not everyone wants to sit and look at paintings all day and not everyone wants to read poems that they feel they have to decipher everyday. So is there a happy medium? Maybe.

Many people like to simply call the work of the Instapoets cliche and while that may be true in some cases, they are often tackling many of the same themes that traditional poets breach, but….

2. They’re extremely relatable 

Life is filled with painful and beautiful things that are often so overwhelming they are difficult to put into words. Think about the most painful moment you have ever experienced and try to convey the magnitude of it in five to ten words. It’s an incredibly difficult task.

In his essay, “The Poet” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “For all men live by truth and stand in need of expression. In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.”

Expression is definitive of our culture. If we can’t express ourselves, we rely on someone else to do it. We find solace in a song, a poem, a piece of art, a movie. 

The Instapoet takes the thing you are struggling with (a breakup, a betrayal, grief, hopelessness) and puts it into something incredibly digestible. Your overwhelming problem is suddenly less than 15 words and makes complete sense, and for a little while you may feel better, like you are understood by this person who penned these words. Not only that; when the Instapoet isn’t posting relatable quotes they are taking snapshots of themselves living life, doing things that you do. They make sense to you and you may even feel like you are a part of their lives in some way. 

But for a second, think about a time when you read a poem or heard a lyric and it may have not made complete sense to you the first time around, but something stuck out to you so you went back and read or listened to it again, and again, and something about it touched a corner deep inside of you. I feel like true poetry isn’t for the everyman or woman, rather it feels so beautifully or heartbreakingly intricate that it only touches you. 

3. They’re easy to understand

I was once having my work featured on a rather prominent poetry page and the owner told me to pick something simple, as his readership responded well to pieces at about a 7th or 8th grade level. I was angered and saddened by this. Why should I have to blanch my work down to be seen? 

In that vein, let’s discuss another popular instagram poet: Atticus

Atticus is a popular instagram poet with over 1.5 million followers. He is everything I have already mentioned and more. He has a bustling online shop with merch that has his most popular poem “love her but leave her wild” on any medium you could like. His writing is dreamy and the kind of thing hopeless romantics pray to hear…and oh, does he deliver to hoards of them. 

Here are some recent Atticus posts:

Now I feel like this type of poetry panders very much to the “I’m not like other girls’ kind of crowd. Atticus is more than happy to be their leader and make money off their tattoos, t-shirts, bracelets, hats, and other collectibles with his vomit inducing quotes on them. 

This isn’t to just attack Atticus, there are many like him. But I think is work is such a shining example of how we have taken poetry and reduced an intricate art form into a single line of lazy prose. 

We can and should do better. 

With all of that said, poets, authors, and artists in general on and off Instagram are breaching topics that can and should be talked about like trauma, sexuality, race, and other cultural debates….and if you want to read what critics would consider authentic contemporary poetry—it most definitely exists! If you’re looking to build your poetry reading list this year, here are some contemporary poets I recommend:

Warsan Shire

Brian Blanchfield

Amanda Gorman

Sherman Alexie

Seamus Heaney

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