Thomas W. Hodgkinson

The banality of Instapoetry

The Spectator, November 2019

Poetry is on a hot streak. Last year, sales in the UK topped £12 million for the first time — a rise of more than 10 per cent for the second year running. According to Parisa Ebrahimi, the poetry editor at Chatto & Windus, one reason for the trend is that poetry is no longer the domain of the white male. This may be true, but how has it happened? Part of the answer is Instagram.

Designed as a social network for sharing photos, recently the app has been adopted and adapted by writers — few of them white, many of them women — who, rather than selfies and sunsets, post snippets of verse known as ‘Instapoetry’. And a handful of these Instapoets have become hugely successful. The Indian-born Canadian Rupi Kaur boasts nearly four million followers on Instagram. Her nearest rival, the Colombian-American R.M. Drake, has two million; the next, R.H. Sin, has 1.6 million. And so on.

For a sign that this translates into book sales, drop into the largest bookshop in Europe. The hefty poetry section in Waterstones Piccadilly is divided into seven alphabetised bays. In each, one of the ‘face-outs’ — i.e. books presented cover-forward to snag the eye of the browser — is by an Instapoet. This impression from the stacks is backed up by the stats. Here, last year, 1/12th of poetry sales came courtesy of Kaur. In the States, the year before, 12 of the 20 bestselling poets were Instapoets.

And now I should make a confession. When I came to Instapoetry, it was in a spirit of mockery. A couple of friends and I began to follow the big beasts of the form, and deliberately look out for their worst work, at which point we would screenshot and share it by text, along with giggles and snarky comments.

Because the truth is, the vast majority of Instapoetry is terrible. Another thing Ebrahimi told me is that you shouldn’t really describe writing as ‘bad’, because that’s subjective. You should just say it’s ‘not really for you’. But I have to say, the more Instapoetry I read, the harder I’m finding it to agree.

Consider this sample by Christopher Poindexter (360,000 followers):

“my god, little precious creatures, we, yes we, you and i and he and she, have so many things wrong”

Clichéd, banal, derivative, portentous, repetitive and manipulative. I’m not talking about Poindexter’s poem, in whose second line I take a perverse delight. I’m talking about Instapoetry in general. Is this subjective? Yes, of course. But that’s all we have.

To seem fairer, let me hand over to the poet Harry Man, who told me, with characteristic tact, that what troubles him about Instapoets is their ‘lack of formal choices’. Man was right. Their posts often seem like passing thoughts, hastily expressed, then cut up at random to resemble our conventional idea of poetry.

Consider this from R.M. Drake: ‘Sometimes having a conversation in a parked car for hours can heal you in ways you never thought possible.’ Or this, from the Lebanese-born Najwa Zebian (one million followers): ‘It is not love that / you fall / into. / It is love / that falls / into you.’ It’s not clear why Zebian places the line breaks where she does; or what this poem means, or what it is meant to mean.

Yet despite the nonsense, and amid the mockery, I’ve found myself growing increasingly fascinated by Instapoetry. Why is it so bad? Why is it so popular? What exactly is going on? So I renewed my immersion, reaching out to Insta-fans for guidance, and poring over the printed works of the most popular Instapoets to see if the effect was different from that of the feeds.

Monica, 42, told me that she looks forward to the posts of J. Iron Word (603,000 followers) every day, because they express ‘what we all feel’, and after reading them, she doesn’t ‘feel so alone’. Juhii, 25, explained that she likes Zebian because she talks openly about pain and ‘we can only move on… when we accept our pain’.

Of all the fans I spoke to, none mentioned the style of writing. The focus was all on how the content made them feel. This is key to the appeal. Not all Instapoetry is aimed at women, but a lot is; not all Instapoetry is designed to tell the reader the thing they’d most like to hear, but a lot is. And it turns out that what a lot of women want to hear is that they’re ‘wild’, and could fittingly be compared to ‘fire’. ‘Some women / fear the fire,’ Sin tells us in one of his posts, ‘some women / Simply become it.’ (The uppercasing of the first letter of ‘Simply’ is random, because, you know, who cares about stuff like that?) ‘Love her,’ Atticus (1.3 million followers) exhorts us, ‘but leave her wild.’

Now I’m back, ragged and ravaged by my research in the Insta-field, and bearing this tattered scrap of a conclusion: at least half of what passes for Instapoetry is motivational. It’s designed to tell readers that they are precious; that the pain will pass; that there is somebody out there for everyone. It’s designed, in other words, to make you feel better.

Yet it didn’t make me feel better when I read Atticus’s latest book, The Truth About Magic. It made me feel nauseous. I had vaguely enjoyed Atticus’s teen-romantic Insta-squibs, but when I tried him in book form, I quickly became queasy at crimes ranging from the clichéd (‘The art of travelling / is uncovering the hidden treasures’) to the untrue (‘No good lust goes unpunished’) to the icky (‘The sex was a bonus / to the great and wondrous privilege / of being in close proximity / to her jokes’).

I’m not the first to have called out the Instapoets. Early last year, an article by the poet Rebecca Watts in the PN Review attacked the ‘rejection of craft’ of these ‘noble amateurs’. I don’t know if she was right to call them noble, but I find myself disagreeing, rather to my surprise, with some of her criticisms of Kaur, the 27-year-old queen of Instapoetry.

‘She was music,’ runs one of Kaur’s posts, ‘but he had his ears cut off’. I know: that’s a bad one. Yet when it came to reading Kaur’s 2014 volume, Milk and Honey, which is the biggest- selling book of poetry of our time, I had the opposite experience to the one I had had with Atticus. I hadn’t admired Kaur on Instagram. Let’s just say the Parthian shots at ex-lovers, self-aggrandisement and focus on issues of abuse and inequality ‘weren’t really for me’. Yet in accumulative form, her poems seemed to have a rare honesty.

Can I name one I like? Well, there’s this excerpt from Broken English, from her latest collection: ‘She split through countries to be here / so you wouldn’t have to cross a shoreline. / Her accent is thick like honey / hold it with your life / It’s the only thing she has left of home.’

As an appeal to any second-generation immigrant who feels ashamed of a parent’s accent, that’s a pretty powerful strike.

And call me superficial, but I find the degree of Kaur’s success incredibly exciting. Yes, because she’s a woman; and yes, because she’s young and of Asian descent. But mainly because she’s a poet with the following of a rock star.

There are now three kinds of poetry: printed poetry, performance poetry, and Instapoetry. The third of these is in its infancy, to say the least. Instagram isn’t yet ten years old. It doesn’t have a driving licence. It can’t get married. It may not yet buy alcohol. One thing, though, is clear, and that’s that it shouldn’t be judged by the same criteria as its older relatives.

It’s still too early to say if Instapoetry will fulfil its potential. What potential is that? Its room, its mission: to emerge as a lighter, clearer form, with the fleeting perfection of a pop song.     We, yes we, you and I and he and she… will just have to keep our fingers crossed.