Stars and stanzas: Can celebrities make poetry cool again?


Camila Hernandez explores the growing world of celebrity poetry.

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Image by Simon and Schuster, 2020

By Camila Hernandez

With over 54 million posts on Instagram, you’ve likely crossed paths with at least one ‘Instapoet’ in your explore tab. And it seems like the Rupi Kaur-disease is infecting young, ambitious, self-made writers who are taking to the gram to pave the way for a new era of literature. That said, a significant number of the poets amplifying their voices through the media are women or people of colour. Evidently, this functions to unsettle the patriarchal conception of poetry as being only exclusive to a specific academic club of Western, white and male writers.

Kaur, the 27-year-old Canadian-Punjabi poet with over 3 million followers on the platform, was responsible for almost £1m worth of poetry book sales in 2018. Her poetry similarly inverts the canonical standard for what constitutes an impactful poet. Taking no notes from Browning nor Dickinson for their synthesised imagery and meter, Kaur’s Milk and Honey consists of short, enjambed poems which recall personal experiences shaped by sexual trauma, womanhood, and heartbreak. Many of them are written in the second-person voice of a pop song – to a You whose identity goes without saying – and are further accompanied by intricate line drawings by Kaur herself.

But this rise in fame and international reach inevitably came with baggage for Kaur. What this incredibly large number fails to tell us at face value, is how this monumental surge in popularity only served to hold Kaur’s work up to the scrutiny of everyone who held her collection in their hands. Perhaps an all-time-low in her career as an Instapoet could be identified as the notorious Twitter punchline of ‘Kaur-ifying’ random conversations, format them in lowercase, insert artsy line breaks, and finish it off by putting her trademark “rupi kaur”.

We could speculate (if you’re anything like the over-analytical English student that I am), that Kaur’s popularity as a minority writer stems, not only from her lyrical transparency,  but also in the fact that her poetic form holds an accessibility to it which does not intimidate the reader.But what happens when someone who is already in the public eye, can create tantrum-throwing, apologetic and drama-stirring Instagram captions, and has regularly appeared on Ellen (so has no more secrets to reveal), begins to write poetry?

I am talking, of course, about celebrities.

By this point, there have been plenty of publications where, like many YouTubers, celebrities have slapped their name on a polished, hardback front cover in order to add more to themselves than simply relying on their acting credits.

So, I decided to investigate and put some celebrities’ literary potential to the test so you didn’t have to. Here was the outcome.

Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass – Lana Del Rey

This collection documents Del Rey’s experimentation with automatic writing, and features a handful of haikus which social media received in a sneak peek before the physical book release. Anyone who is familiar with Del Rey’s sultry, melancholic lyricism, can spot this mirrored ‘branding’ in her prose – yet somehow, in written form, it seems all the more impactful. Though music and poetry carry very similar structures, not every musician can be a poet. Yet, Del Rey seems to be a powerful hybrid of both.

In effect, Violet is presented as an extension of Del Rey’s established, marketed voice. Poems such as Sports Cruiser come off as over-indulgent – as in, lasting for four full pages – to the point where the meaning becomes convoluted and lost. On the other hand, Del Rey’s poetic speaker has a mesmerising technicality of syntax and imagery, and her musical background allows her to handle language masterfully.

Overall, (though I sort of hate to say it) a very pleasant surprise.

Mixed Feelings – Avan Jogia

Who? I can hear you asking. Think of Beck from Nickelodeon’s Victorious – ring a bell?

What struck me about this collection was its jarring beauty, unapologetic rawness and introspective approach to its themes. Mixed Feelings claws deep into the recesses of what it means to be of mixed heritage, urging readers to consider how labels (such as race, faith, culture) are externally applied, and how this ultimately creates a fractured worldview shared by many perspectives and voices. The topics which Jogia interrogates were not chosen with the comfort of the reader in mind at all, but once you take the leap and open up the first page, you’ll be glad you stood up to the challenge. You’ll have to read it to believe it.

Straight James/Gay James – James Franco

One mention of Franco’s name was once met with fanning and swooning, but as the actor-director’s resume has become more diverse and elaborated, an eye-roll seems just as likely. It may appear that Franco’s “queer public persona”, as he deems it in his poetry chapbook, is another stale addition to his performative agenda. The poems don’t necessarily read as if they were written by a man with an MFA in poetry, rather, they at times slip into parody. Take Mask, for instance: “This mask is the face / Of Gucci, officially. // Because this mask / Has been branded”.

He doesn’t seem to be doing the LGBTQ community justice whatsoever, but this chapbook does allow us to gaze into the internality of his own questioning, offering a take on the fragile position of heterosexual masculinity today. Kinda.

I Would Leave Me If I Could – Halsey

I felt that Halsey’s collection does carry a few symptoms of the ‘instapoetry’ phenomenon – very stunning, atmospheric imagery in conjunction with several backhanded clichés. The poems are introspective and moody, like Halsey. Like her, too, they have something indie and offbeat about them, something still unformed.

Halsey similarly ties in rhythm and musicality in her prose – particularly in Fun Girl – but, again, there are poems which are much longer than they need to be, making no space for nuance as Halsey seems to be directing how a reader processes the writing and the conclusions they come to. The sheer honesty of her work is striking, though at times the ‘woe-is-me-human-condition’ spiel gets slightly repetitive, but there is no doubt that Halsey wrote these pieces for herself.

There is definitely potential here, but at times it did lose me. Or maybe I was suffering the aftermath of reading an overload of celebrity poetry at this point.

The act of sharing art is a brave one. Whether you’ve whacked out hit-singles,or if you have a heavily aestheticized Insta feed, sharing strips you of your outermost layers. It is an act of courage. Yet, whether this act would make Keats twitch in his grave is another hot topic in itself. But what all these celebs hold in common is their art. What Keats’ meditation on the significance of emotional outpour serves to remind us is that, though it may seem like the contrary, celebrities have souls too – “Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”.

Nevertheless, these self-proclaimed poets should not blindly assume their status without consulting the innerworkings and literary weight of the medium itself. Keats also once wrote: “If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.”

Or was that Del Rey? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.