Poetry holds many connotations in people’s minds, but popularity with the youth of society is unlikely to be one of them. While there are those who find great comfort and inspiration from this literary style, there seems to be a general consensus among the rest of us that poetry is something you need an English degree to understand, and that leaves you with a confused look on your face, not to mention an inferiority complex when you just don’t “get it”.
And yet contrary to these assumptions, it is young people that seem to be surfing the new wave of poetry’s popularity both in terms of creating poetry and being an audience. The Nielsen Bookscan research group found that in 2018 poetry sales grew by just over 12 per cent in the UK with two-thirds of buyers being younger than 34 . This trend is being reported to be in part thanks to the social media platform Instagram and the development of Instapoetry, a new trend being cultivated on the site.
For those who have managed to avoid this trend, Instapoetry sees poetry focusing on subjects such as love, loss, identity and discrimination being essentially self-published by writers on the site. Short enough to fit in to a single photo or post, Instapoets are no longer just finding success on the app, but are breaking out into traditional publication methods too. Rupi Kaur, Amanda Lovelace, Atticus and Charly Cox are among the names who have all used this platform to get their work out there.
This phenomenon has been a feature of the poetry scene for around three years now, but it is more recently that these poets have been able to graduate from no longer simply posting photos of their work on the site, but to publishing extremely well-received physical anthologies. With three of the top ten poetry books on last year’s New York Times best-sellers list being written by Instapoets, these creators are proving themselves to be not only immensely popular but also respected names in the field.
Yet despite its popularity as a genre of poetry, this new trend is causing heated debate within the field, much of which focuses on the legitimacy of Instapoetry and questioning whether it is in fact “proper poetry” at all. With some claiming the style has become formulaic and contrived, questions are being raised as to whether any cliché about love that’s stripped of its punctuation and has a few arbitrary line breaks thrown at it can now be called poetry. Traditional poets and academics claim that poetry is not simply about the uncontrolled expression of emotions but about crafting those feelings in to a work of art. While Instapoetry’s success cannot be denied in terms of numbers, with famed Instapoet Rupi Kaur, for example, currently holding 1.3 million followers to her name, these criticisms do lead to a questioning of whether a platform designed to monopolise on the science of instant reactions, where the regularity of posting is key to success and the overall aim is to reach as many people as quickly as possible is really an appropriate environment for curating a piece of literature.
Instead of arguing whether Instapoetry counts as “proper poetry” or not (what really defines poetry anyway) perhaps we should be considering what constitutes quality Instapoetry in its own right.
Instapoetry counts ease of consumption as one of its strengths. The idea that while mindlessly scrolling through your feed, you may be blessed with a profound moment where the meaning of life or love is neatly summed up on the screen before you, all in the time it took for you to pay for your coffee. Yet, does this moment’s convenience really strengthen it? Or does that poem’s effect on you become as short-lived and indeed disposable as the soon-to-be binned cardboard cup in your hand?
Alongside this accessibility of being literally at our fingertips, Instapoetry is also heralded for the accessibility of its content as it concerns themes that young people can personally relate to. Yet, while some claim the poetry provides a much-needed level of serenity, honesty and raw emotion that cuts through the often-purported falseness of the Instagram community, others argue instapoetry manages to romanticise its difficult topics in the same way Instagram acts to rose-tint everything. With the focus consistently being placed on content as “relatable," through being shared on this platform, poetry is forced to adopt the same values as market forces.
Ultimately things need to be relatable on Instagram so that more people will engage with them: more likes, more comments, more shares, more money, as cynical as that may seem. Is relatability therefore always a good thing? Finding a piece of literature that says something to you as an individual, that relates to your experiences and makes you feel something must surely be a more personal process. This heart-on-their-sleeve narrative of insta-poets sharing their rawest emotions with you (and their other millions of followers) begins to feel more like a money-in-their pocket narrative.
When poetry becomes a trend, when these same words supposedly speak to all of us, when before we’ve had time to understand anything another “meaningful” post is being churned out: is relatability still a good thing or has relatable simply become a synonym for the generic?
There are many aspects of Instapoetry that should be applauded. For example, it is doing wonders in terms of diversity in the art scene. Through bypassing the traditional publication process, instapoetry is allowing so many voices from groups that are too often drowned out or marginalised in art to come to the fore, which will always be a warmly welcomed success. Some also claim that it is a form of “gateway poetry” ridding the art form of its stigma for young people and allowing more people to expand their attitudes from those formed in the English lessons of their youth.
And yet, despite these obvious advantages, the idea that through being shared on this platform, values of social media are gradually sinking in to poetry and this is truly concern-ing. In this instance: are the aims of accessibility and relatability really encouraging quality artwork, or the creation of artwork that is designed to reach and appeal to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible?
If the aim of a poet is to get their work to be seen by as many people as they can then I’d argue that Instagram is the perfect platform to attempt this. But if their aim comes from a deeper place of wanting to truly impact people with their work no matter how few people that may be, then an environment where followers, likes and comments are paramount and regular uploads are essential is not ideal. Perhaps when something is so easy to consume, it becomes equally as easy to be disposed of.
Image Credit: Baljit Singh