Read It and Weep: How Milk and Honey rebranded poetry

The resurgence of poetry seemed to happen all at once. A few years ago, I could only find poetry in classroom settings or in small online communities like Tumblr and Wattpad. However, within the past year or so, poetry books successfully broke the mainstream barrier and flew off bookstore shelves across the country.

The National Endowment of Arts reported that, in the past five years, the percentage of young adults reading poetry in the U.S. has more than doubled from 8.2 percent in 2012 to 17.5 percent in 2017. Personally, I believe this is largely attributed to the 2014 publication of Rupi Kaur’s debut poetry collection Milk and Honey.

Through Milk and Honey, Kaur laid the foundation for an entirely new genre of poetry, characterized by its minimalistic style. Concise and clear, this shortened version of free verse poetry fits perfectly in the mold for social media virality. Often referred to as “Instapoetry,” this genre caught the readership of millennials and Generation Z, a feat the publishing industry rarely accomplishes in modern day.

After its publication, verses from Milk and Honey quickly became unavoidable on my Instagram and Tumblr feeds. Kaur’s book remained on the New York Times Best-Seller list for over a year, selling 2.5 million copies from publication to current day.

Despite its popularity, I wouldn’t consider myself a fan of Kaur’s poetry. After sitting down and reading both Milk and Honey and The Sun and Her Flowers, I decided Kaur’s poems were too minimalistic to captivate me and, at times, I found them unbearably cliché.

When I try to evaluate what I find lacking in Kaur’s poetry, I often return to its extreme conciseness. The entirety of one poem from Milk and Honey read a mere nine words: “you have sadness / living in places / sadness shouldn’t live.” To fans of Kaur, this excerpt may feel expressive in an understated way. To me, it just seems lazy. In poetry, I expect deeper meaning and more artistic word choice than that poem contains. This problem recurs throughout Instapoetry. Free verse poetry has no “rules” by which the author must abide, but should that mean any sentence can be considered poetry?

I’m not alone in my dislike for Kaur’s poetry. Kaur’s more playful critics have turned her poems into memes circulating Twitter and Facebook that mock her formulaic writing style. A parody book, Milk and Vine, by Adam Gasiewski and Emily Beck makes similar commentary, swapping Kaur’s verses for famous quotes from the social networking app Vine. Milk and Vine received its own internet virality and at one point charted as the No. 1 best seller worldwide on Amazon after its release.

For the most part, art is subjective—we don’t all have to enjoy the same works. Even though I’m not a fan of Kaur, it’s only fair to give credit where credit is due. As an appreciator of poetry, I’m grateful for the attention Kaur’s books bring to the genre. Perhaps Kaur isn’t the poetic mastermind of our generation, but her books get young people to read, and that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Poetry collections using the simplistic “Instapoetry” style popularized by Kaur include Pillow Thoughts by Courtney Peppernell, I Hope This Reaches Her in Time by R. H. Sin,The Princess Saves Herself in This One by Amanda Lovelace, and Flux by Orion Carloto. All of these books experience high readership from young adults and focus on topics such as romance, mental health, and social justice.

This rebirth of free verse changed my view of what poetry is and can be. Previously, when I thought of famous poems, the first to come to mind were classic works written by poets like Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and Edgar Allan Poe. I realize now that poetry isn’t a dying art only readable to traditionalists and English professors—poetry that attracts the masses can be anything it wants.

 

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