#PoetsofInstagram: Tired Clichés or a New Lease of Life for Poetry?

Among the cats and sunsets and carefully curated cappuccino shots, Instagram finds itself home to a new literary phenomenon: Instagram poetry. Search #poetsofinstagram and you’ll find over 7 million posts: short poems, typically in American Typewriter font, with a sepia filter for — one imagines — added writerly authenticity. The platform’s biggest successes, such as Rupi Kaur (3.4 million followers) and Atticus (1 million), have landed major book deals with reputable publishing houses. Kaur’s debut poetry collection, “milk and honey” (2014) has sold more than 3 million copies and spent over 100 consecutive weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list. This kind of commercial success is practically unheard of for poetry.

The subject matter of Instagram poetry is as multiple and varied as the platform’s 1 billion users, although poems about love and its accompanying disillusions seem to do well with Instagram’s youthful demographic. The results are, unsurprisingly, mixed. There are a good number of rehashed platitudes (of the “fall in love with your solitude” variety — one of Rupi Kaur’s less brilliant poems), as well as an abundance of unfathomable metaphors whose obscurity lends the poem the illusion of some concealed depth. Add to this trite inspirational quotes, where the words are scattered haphazardly across the page, and we are left wondering whether anything can be poetry if it bears the hashtag #poemoftheday. Unknowingly, these Instapoets return us to the longstanding “if you call it art, is it then art?” debate, and raise the broader question: What, after all, is poetry? One major clothing retailer appeared to have the answer when they posted an image with the caption “Be A Poem” to their Instagram account, along with the SEO-optimized #inspiration and #quoteoftheday. A poem, we can infer, is everything that their clients aspire to be… Beautiful? Enigmatic? Elegantly turned-out?  

Where social media leads, brands follow, so unsurprisingly many retailers have jumped on the Instapoetry bandwagon, posting quotations by famous writers in among their publicity shots. A more optimistic interpretation might applaud the dissemination of these authors’ work. A more cynical one might wonder whether an Apollinaire poem loses some of its original force when it is being used to sell shoes. In their desire to convince clients they are buying into a lifestyle — of which art and literature are an integral part — brands risk fetishizing poetry: packaging it up like a commodity for consumption or a badge of cultural belonging. This takes us quite far from much of what poetry sets out to do. And of course, these brands are not known for their generous financing of the arts or their support of living writers. 

So far so gloomy, but this is only half the picture. The best social media poets turn the constraints of their medium to their advantage, using Twitter’s 140 characters or Instagram’s seven or eight lines to deliver a powerful message in an original and concise way. The extent of social media’s demographic reach means that these poets are able to address readers that might never otherwise have bought a poetry book. The instantaneity of these platforms — where poems can be uploaded and read straightaway — resolves the time lag of traditional publishing processes. Poems can thus respond immediately to unfolding news events, and some of the most shared poems of recent years have addressed themes such as Trump’s election, the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the refugee crisis, and Brexit. Indeed, an identifiable trend in social-media poetry is its increasingly politicized nature. This is particularly true of slam poetry, where politically engaged, emotionally charged performances are broadcast in 4-minute YouTube videos. Button Poetry, an organization set up in 2011 with the explicit purpose of disseminating performance poetry to a wider online audience, has over a million YouTube followers. Some of their most popular videos — many of which have tens of millions of views — address themes such as mental health and social injustice, as well as issues related to gender, race, and sexuality. 

The rise in social-media poetry has had a knock-on impact on the traditional publishing industry, and has no doubt played a role in the recent increase in sales of poetry books. In January, Nielsen BookScan released statistics showing that, in 2018, poetry sales were up by 12% in the UK and were attracting an increasingly younger audience. The same is true on the other side of the Atlantic: according to the NPD Group, sales have increased by 21% since 2015, making poetry the fastest growing category in the US publishing market. These statistics reflect the arrival of new poets originating on social media, as well as a revived interest in longer standing poets, whose work can now be shared at the click of a button. To the delight of William Carlos Williams enthusiasts everywhere, Twitter was recently awash with references to plums and red wheelbarrows. This dynamism is also reflected in a growing trend for major publishing houses to release books of lyrics by famous musicians (Leonard Cohen and Kate Bush for example). Crowned by Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, we appear to be witnessing a blurring of the traditional boundaries between different artistic media.

Long relegated to the confines of fusty institutions and the school classroom, poetry is now being restored to its status as a democratic genre that everyone can participate in. And with this revived interest, there is a resounding message that poetry is not just for the initiated but can appeal to everyone. While Instagram’s lyrical offerings might be a mixed bag, anything that ushers in a new platform for poetry — a space for new voices to reach new audiences — cannot be bad. 

Article published in Modern Painters magazine (Summer 2019).