Instapoet Rupi Kaur's 'writer of the decade' honour rekindles debate on her work, genre

A U.S. article proclaiming Toronto-based poet Rupi Kaur as 'writer of the decade' has inflamed old arguments about whether 'Instapoets' are the way of the future, or just a flash in the pan.

'The next generation of writers ... that's going to be how they write,' says New Republic critic Rumaan Alam

Toronto-based poet Rupi Kaur exploded onto the poetry scene in 2015, soon becoming one of the world's most famous 'Instapoets.' A recent article dubbing her writer of the decade has rekindled debate about whether her style of writing is the way of the future or not serious poetry. (Nabil Shash)

Canadian superstar "Instapoet" Rupi Kaur may have only burst onto the scene midway through the 2010s, but that didn't stop The New Republic from recognizing her influence on the era.

A recent article by the U.S. publication named Kaur writer of the decade, and quickly went viral as fans and detractors rehashed this week an argument even older than her first published poem.

Is her style of poetry actually any good? 

Instagram poetry, which is made for and on Instagram with a focus on esthetics and brevity, has been attacked for years and — following The New Republic article — many of the critiques have resurfaced. The genre has often been called simple or shallow — with critics mocking Kaur's straightforward writing style — while the debate surrounding it got so serious even NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh felt he had to weigh in.

CBC News covered this debate back in 2018, while also making note of supporters of her and Instagram poetry in general; Kaur's first book, Milk and Honey became a New York Times bestseller, selling over three million copies and translated into 35 languages, while numerous young poets cited her as the reason they started to write and publish at all.

At the same time, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that the amount of adults reading poetry grew by 76 per cent between 2012 and 2017, which the Washington Post partially linked to the popularity of poets like Kaur. 

Kaur, left, poses with fashion designer Aurora James on the 2019 CAFA red carpet. (Jackson Weaver/CBC)

Still, that popularity hasn't been universally celebrated. While Kaur has been accused of plagiarism — most notably by fellow online poet Nayyirah Waheed, which Kaur has denied — the majority of the criticism directed toward her in light of the writer of the decade article has focused on how she writes and what she writes about. 

One of the most-widely shared reactions compared Kaur's poetry to that of a child's, while others simply mocked her writing style by composing Kaur-influenced works of their own.

Rumaan Alam, the author and critic who wrote The New Republic piece, argued that that fundamentally misses the point. He doesn't argue her writing is good; in fact, he often feels the opposite. Instead, what makes Kaur the writer of the decade, Alam said, is how she stands as a window into the future of poetry.

"She's made a huge success with work that is really attuned to the surface of the screen," Alam told CBC News. Kaur's work, which he said is made to be read and scrolled on social media, is simplistic by design, and a blueprint for what's to come.

"She is predicting a way of thinking about screen surface.… She was one of the first writers to do that, but ultimately a lot of readers are going to think about that."

Even the reaction to his piece, he said, signals a change in the way people discuss poetry as an art form as it changes irrevocably. While it may seem discomfiting or weird to writers and readers in their '50s and '60s, he said, "the next generation of writers who are in their teens ... that's going to be how they write — that's going to be the level of their attention."

He believes that some of the resistance to her work also comes from scepticism of the intersection between technology and art. As poetry moves from academic arenas into online ones, people familiar with the classical sense of poetry resist that change. Kaur represents that change, Alam said, and that's why there is routinely such a huge reaction to her being recognized.

"It feels suspect because we're still hostage to this romantic ideal of a poet with a scroll and a quill in the cold attic somewhere, and that's not how it is anymore."

That's a view shared by Ryerson poetry professor Dale Smith. Though he said he will challenge his students to read more classical forms, the resistance and critique that frequently erupts around Kaur's influence come from a resistance to inevitable change and a misunderstanding of what poetry is meant to be. 

Smith explained that there's a basic misunderstanding around poetry — that it's supposed to be a rarified complex art that always has "universal statements about the world and one's experience in it or something."

"The fact is," Smith said, "we're not all Sappho and Shakespeare."

If those are the models people expect to find in poetry, Smith said, they will be perpetually let down and upset, "because that's just not how people talk or think or feel or express any of that stuff anymore." 

'No Rupi Kaur on the shelves' of poetry bookstores

While unlike Alam, he doesn't expect screen-focused, online style of writing will fully take over the next generation of poetry, it's huge popularity does speak to the fact that — for many people — that's what they want to read. Kaur's multi-million run of books far eclipses most poetry publications, Smith pointed out, where a run of a few hundred is generally thought of as impressive.

Still, both Alam and Smith believe that most of the vitriol surrounding Kaur's popularity and accolades come from people outside of the poetry community. While writers are happy to see others getting invested in poetry, Smith said, there's no strong reaction to, or discussion about, Kaur's work among most Canadian poets.

Smith described Knife Fork Book, Canada's only all-poetry bookstore, as an example. That store is full of Canadian poetry publications, "but there's no Rupi Kaur on the shelves there," Smith said.

"If you wanna read Rupi Kaur, she's on the shelves at Indigo, not at the poetry bookstore. It's not out of strong feelings or anything. It's just the conversation is not there among the poets working, right now."