Keats, Heaney, Angelou, Owen, Poe, Shakespeare, Lorca, Hughes, Chaucer, Dickinson, Whitman; just a handful of names synonymous with the Western poetic canon. You might recognise all the names, maybe only some, they may take you back to your initial discovery of poetry at school, the tediousness of a GCSE English class or of curling up with a book on the sofa. For this generation of young people however, their association with poetry could have been sparked via a less traditional route: social media.
The influence of social media is immeasurable and self-promotion through its channels has become on par with the social element. Businesses use it to advertise, public figures create and develop their online “brand”, politicians campaign via its networks (to devastating results in some cases…), fitness fanatics gain legions of followers, and artists put their work out to larger audiences. Instagram has proven especially powerful in this way. Its format gives artists the opportunity to showcase their images, photographers share their work and musicians can share video recordings. You would think though, that the focus on images may detract poets and writers from the site, but the opposite has proven popular.
The photo-sharing platform has given poetry a much-welcomed fresh feel. The dusty, dated school books poetry is often associated with is totally separate from the stylised presentation of verse created by “Instapoets”. The poems are bite-sized, they fit within the square Instagram frame; their font is carefully selected, an aesthetic extension of their work. And, when done well, the platform has skyrocketed amateur writers to the literary mainstream – the standout example being Rupi Kaur.
Her stratospheric rise to currently having two collections at the top of Amazon’s poetry bestselling list began humbly from the confines of her bedroom and with an Instagram post. Kaur’s subjects range from the comforting words of love and relationships to serious explorations of substance abuse, racism and sexual assault. She speaks as a voice of female empowerment to her legions of fans, which stood at 1.7m on Instagram at the time of going to print. Her work is also influenced by her dual status, as she moved to Canada from India at the age of four. The ideas she explores can be complex and difficult, but her style is far from it. She fits the medium expertly, using only lower case lettering, short lines of single thoughts, and plainly expressing herself, accompanying some verse with doodles and drawings, giving the collections a personal diary feel. There is little hidden meaning in her work, everything is simply put, out in the open – an outpouring of emotions in a contrastingly succinct style. As such, the verse requires almost none of the interpretation and nit picking the likes of epics and archaic canonical works do. Her readers connect with her because of it, with postings of poems from both of her collections, Milk and Honey and The Sun and her Flowers gaining thousands of likes. Even posting the preview of the cover of her second book drew over 180,000 likes. The poems can be as simple as these three lines: “if you are not enough for yourself/you will never be enough/for someone else”, and it is this which has often drawn critique from traditionalists. The uncomplicated verse is seen as defying the painstaking poetic process that has often defined the genre.
Yet, Kaur’s contemporaries are all following a similar path and style, and their popularity speaks for themselves. Fellow “Instapoet”, Tyler Knott Gregson has 330,000 followers and connects with them through a number of poetic collections about love, all echoing some traditional poetic element, but altering it to fit the medium. His “Typewriter Series” mimics the font and ink stains of typewriting, as if to create a sense of validity often denied by critics to “#instapoetry”. His style, however, is much like Kaur’s; unpretentious language within short lines. He also shares a daily Haiku, again subverting the modern, digital medium through using traditional Japanese poetic form, which dates back centuries. The 17-syllable, three-line poems are sound bites, often non-rhyming descriptions of love and relationships scrawled handwritten on scraps of paper photographed by the writer. The juxtaposition of the old form versus the medium in which he chooses to promote it almost counteracts the critique from snooty literary critics.
And something is surely working, as poetry sales are up 13% in the UK, with over one million poetry books and collections sold in the last year according to Nielson Book Research figures. The results suggest that the social media poet has sparked an interest in the formerly untapped audience of young, social media obsessed readers. Surely, this spike in readership can only be regarded as positive, making a formerly elite type of literature accessible on an entirely new platform, beyond the classroom and the often limiting nature of the Western canon.
Local actress, Alex Menez, started posting her poetry online after taking a spoken word class during her final year of her degree in drama: “I realised that everything I felt emotionally and that wracked my brain, I could write about and feel a little better afterwards”. The budding “Instapoet” said she is equally tired of the traditional confines presented to young people when it comes to poetry. “I liked the idea of making people aware that there are different forms of poetry, that it’s not all about what you read when you’re at school, which doesn’t necessarily have any meaning [to you]”. And this is something I’ve become especially aware of. As an English literature graduate, I do appreciate the excitement that can be found in personal interpretation of a poem or passage and the sense of achievement in piecing together that interpretation, wading through all of the complexity of the language. But I can also say that some of my most frustrating moments in my academic experience were spent being told that no one knows what James Joyce really meant throughout his epic novel Ulysses, and that Sappho’s fragmented poetry could never truly be worked out because it is not complete. Millennials want information that’s easy to read, while still retaining a poignancy and (#deep) meaning within a shareable platform. The simple solution offered by the “Instapoets”, expressing difficult ideas and emotions in a format that is both relatable and recognisable to social media users, gives them an inimitable connection with the predominantly 18-35 year old Instagram audience. And I’ve seen it first hand, with friends who rarely showed an interest in literature suddenly buying Rupi Kaur’s poetry collection, or sharing anonymous “Instapoet” Atticus – named by Teen Vogue as “the #1 person to follow” – Love Her Wild collection on their own Instagram profiles, raving about their new interest to anyone who will listen. Kaur’s followers leave endless streams of comments on her postings, with one user calling it “magic!!!” and others thanking her profusely for putting into words their own most inner thoughts. Fans go even further other times, with some tattooing the words of Atticus’s epigrams and poems on their bodies. Our millennial instincts to engage with trends via online platforms has found a worthwhile entertainment beyond the selfie and deciding which filter will get you the most likes – should that movement not be celebrated and revered?
The movement spans beyond the realms of social media apps though, and people are also engaging with poetry away from their screens. Many of the most followed poets on Instagram have signed book deals, with Kaur featuring on the New York Times Bestsellers list the biggest example of success. Even more interesting is the demand for the poets to tour and perform their work at events across not only their native country but often internationally. Atticus has a tour and speaking dates planned across America, Gregson had his tour earlier this year, and Kaur has taken her tour across continents, spanning Australasia, Europe and America. The spoken word element to her poetry is how I personally found her online. Her viral Ted Talk, where she recited the poem, “I’m taking my body back”, gained over 500,000 Youtube views, and explored an experience of sexual assault and the mental reclaiming of said violated body. Her captivating recital of the work unsurprisingly attracted huge attention, and her current world tour has been a huge success: her London performance sold out within ten minutes.
Spoken word has found a platform in Gibraltar too; The Kasbar, a local vegan café and bar launched their regular poetry slam fixture earlier this year. Low-lighting, low seating, candles and signature cocktails; the setting could not be more fitting for the artsy crowd it attracts. Owner Ronnie Alecio explained the inspiration behind the creative evenings: “In Gibraltar, these poetry nights didn’t happen, and if they did, they were always spontaneous at the end of a night out. People would gather in a circle and someone would start rapping, and then someone recite a poem and it was really funny; some people would just have a crack at it. I would think, ‘There should be a place we can have this with a little more structure but with freedom and no pressure.’”
Starting these creative spoken word nights became a way to give not only established writers an opportunity to showcase their work and gage reaction, but also to encourage others to get up and recite poetry for the first time. Alecio finds the organic setting and relationship between audience and artist creates energy where “real poetry is born”. On the subject of Instagram, he agrees that it is a great platform for artists to put their work on display, and it’s even more promising if the engagement has pushed the interest in the classics too. He says he is still undecided on the positive/negative balance social media can play in the literary world, but undoubtedly sees value through his uncertainty. “The poet is writing and giving of themselves, and so when I, as a reader, receive it, it starts to belong to me, becoming personal to me. Whether I’m reading it from a book or reading it on Instagram, it doesn’t matter.”
And maybe this is the exact point being made by “Instapoets”, and their shakeup of an ancient genre through the most current of mediums might have just given it the cultural relevance and more varied representation it needed. Their work doesn’t discount the canon, or those who find comfort and joy in the more traditional works. It merely outlines an innovative progression to reaching the scrolling millennial who perhaps never had an impassioned English teacher to translate and truly open their eyes to the inherent simplicity and understanding hidden beneath the flowery imagery and complex metaphor of a classic. Or maybe it’s offering relief to the former English literature student who had almost lost faith in the genre through the tedious study of it. Whichever it is, the numbers suggest it’s working like a charm.