We millennials like our poetry typed out in neat fonts on rustic pastel backgrounds, centred in a tiny square on a small screen. We read short, simple, and relatable poems which may strike a chord with us for a second before we scroll on to the next Timothée Chalamet appreciation post or #brunch pic.
I’m talking, of course, about poetry native to Instagram. A budding genre scoffed by the literary community but loved by millions of young readers.
This Insta-friendly verse, with its distinct tone and aesthetic, is serving sincerity and feeling in the place we need it the most: the ever ironic, cynical internet. It’s this vulnerability on a platform that’s more-often-than-not replete with inauthenticity and polished veneers that makes it so striking.
Roll your eyes all you like, but Instagram poets are defining the genre for the millennial generation with a radical democratisation and push for diversity in the poetry world. Their work is accessible in more than one sense of the word, and while the critics may not always like it, their work is now being celebrated as “gateway poetry” — and that can only be a good thing.
Household names in the Instagram poetry realm are now also recognised names in bookstores and the literary world in general. The most famous poet of Instagram is 25-year-old Rupi Kaur, whose poetry has — apart from securing seven-figure sales numbers — reached the level of popularity and recognisability where it is now a (frankly hilarious) meme. R.M. Drake, or Robert Macias, is perhaps best known for being reposted by the Kardashians, but he is also the author of several bestsellers. British poets Charly Cox (read her poem about kale) and queer poet Yrsa Daley Ward are making strides in Europe. Not to mention Nayyirah Waheed (read up on her plagiarism dispute with Kaur for real-life Insta poet drama), Tyler Knott Gregson, Amanda Lovelace, and Lang Leav.
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This is a diverse group of poets, many of whom have long since graduated from Instagram to print poetry, causing some to argue that the term”Instagram poet” is a lazy one, that their medium is the least interesting thing about them. But these poets do have more in common than their platform of choice, poetry experts say. The Instagram poets have given birth to a genre of their own.
“What the poets of Instagram tend to have in common is what I would call emotional relatability or accessibility, and a tone and vocabulary that is reminiscent of the self-help or self-improvement movement — many read like motivational quotes,” says Dr Eleanor Spencer-Regan, digital director of the Institute of Poetry and Poetics at Durham University.
“It is not really about complex language, it is more about easily translatable universal emotions.”
It is precisely this relatability that makes Instagram poetry so resonant among millennials. Rather than alienating a young audience with convoluted language or complicated form, the ultimate goal of the Insta poets is always to connect directly with their audience.
Judith Palmer, Director of the Poetry Society, says that one of the defining characteristics of Instagram poetry is that it’s less about flexing your linguistic muscles and more about gaining instant understanding from readers. “The language isn’t often being pushed and I don’t see a complex vocabulary,” says Palmer. “It is not really about complex language, it is more about easily translatable universal emotions.”
While short form diary-style writing has been an internet culture staple pretty much since the days of LiveJournal, Insta poets are breaking new ground by insisting that their writing is poetry and demanding it be viewed and respected as such.
According to Martha Sprackland, Associate Editor at Poetry London, that’s one of the things that sets high profile Insta poets apart from your average inspirational quote account.
“There has long been light verse, slogans, inspirational quotes, whatever else; what’s more recent is their determination to be included in the bounds of ‘poetry,'” Sprackland tells Mashable. Per Sprackland, their dedication to belonging in the poetry genre is part of what has helped them gather an eager young audience around poetry. “I know that the rise of Instagram poetry has changed the perception of ‘poetry’ as a whole for large numbers of young people,” says Sprackland.
While Instagram poets have achieved great mainstream commercial success, literary critics have unsparingly criticised them and their supposedly “amateur” writing. With their style and medium of choice, they are leading a commercialisation of the poetry genre and diluting the quality of poetry, a once high-brow literary genre.
Poet Rebecca Watts argues in the poetry journal PN Review that Instagram poets are ruining poetry as an art form. “In the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened, writes Watts. “The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords,” Watts writes in the piece entitled ‘The Cult of the Noble Amateur.’
Watts wants the literary community to “stop celebrating amateurism and ignorance in our poetry, ” and insists that the size of one’s following says nothing of the quality of the writing (Watts even goes as far as to make a comparison to Donald Trump).
There is of course some truth to the point that a massive following does not ensure quality, as one trickster poet attempted to prove when he obtained thousands of followers writing four word poems on Instagram.
But, according to the poetry experts, we’re looking at emerging poetry the wrong way. The exposure that Instagram has brought to the genre is a good thing, despite the fact that they’re taking the genre in a direction that the critics might not like.
“What are those critics doing over there?” Sprackland asks. “It’s not for them. It’s a different genre, and it’s daft to try and approach it bristling with all the usual tools of the ‘contemporary page poetry’ critic,” Sprackland says. “It’s not a case of merit, but of misfiling, of mislabelling, and then a wilful refusal to admit that mislabelling for fear of either causing offence or appearing snobbish.”
But, this critical snobbery to newcomers to a genre isn’t exactly a new thing. Spencer-Regan points out that frowning upon art in a new more accessible medium it is “definitely not a new response.”
“The emergence of this new kind of poetry can really make us question what poetry is and what makes it good. But these poets do reach large audiences, and their work clearly resonates with a lot of people — though it may not be to the personal taste of many academics and literary critics,” says Spencer-Regan.
“It’s giving opportunities to many women, people of colour, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and people who publicly disclose mental illnesses.”
Spencer-Regan argues that the Instagram poets have, in fact, succeeded at securing more diversity in a genre traditionally perceived to be dominated by white, straight people (both when it comes to both readers and writers). Spencer-Regan argues that these poets and their strategic use of social platforms have in fact reinvigorated and democratised the poetry world.
“This is a radically democratic method of publishing that is giving opportunities to many women, people of colour, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and people who publicly disclose mental illnesses,” says Spencer-Regan. “These people are rejecting the old rules of a literary world that they feel may have rejected them.”
According to Palmer of The Poetry Society, the Insta poets have successfully managed to bring poetry into people’s everyday life. Many poems deal with topics found in all sorts of Instagram content, such as body image, sexuality and gender.
“What we’re seeing is contemporary life reflected and that is the big appeal. People have for too long had this idea that poetry is a small world, and that poetry is one thing. This is an unnecessary narrowing,” says Palmer.
And, like it or not, Instagram poetry has introduced young people to a genre that, in the recent years, hasn’t had much of a hold on them.
The poetry of Instagram may not be to the critics’ likings, or the likings of some adult readers, but that shouldn’t make us write it off as meaningless, trivial diary scribbles.
“Poetry will no longer be something remote or intimidating, but an art form that these young readers feel they can claim as their own.”
“You could argue that some of the poetry is trite, clichéd, bland or derivative. But we’re coming to it as more mature, more sophisticated readers,” says Spencer-Regan. “I can imagine being 14 and then finding these pages — they would speak to me in a whole other way, giving voice to feelings and experiences that I perhaps couldn’t have articulated for myself at that age.”
Spencer-Regan sees Instagram poetry as a harnessing of the power of social media to get young people excited about verse.
“We talk about Harry Potter as a ‘gateway’ book, and I suspect that these poems can work in the same way — to make young people curious about poe,” Spencer-Regan says. “Poetry will no longer be something remote or intimidating, but an art form that these young readers feel they can claim as their own.”
Whether you like or dislike the poetry in your feed, or you relate to the minimalist relatability of the Insta poets, their influence must be acknowledged. After all, if you have haters, you must be doing something right.