This week we learned that Rupi Kaur backlash is a thing. This may not mean anything to you if you don’t know who she is, but you do. Remember this? “So how dare you mock your mother when she opens her mouth and broken English spills out / Her accent is thick like honey, hold it with your life / It’s the only thing she has left from home.” Jog your memory a bit more to recall an artfully rumpled Instagram #bed, a girl with her back to the camera in clothes stained with period blood.
That’s Rupi Kaur, who, over the last three years, has acquired glittering social media fame and produced a book of poetry that stormed into the New York Times bestseller list. It now seems she’s also created an ecosystem of annoyance over her intensely sentimental blank-verse poems, which she publishes on Instagram with doodles in the margins (alternating with artfully posed pictures of her beautiful brown face, thick brows, careless plait and all). The phrase “the Punjabi-Canadian Gigi Hadid of poetry,” give or take about 34 million followers, comes to mind.
Poet, Meet Kettle
But admiration for Kaur (“Rupi Kaur saved my life when I was at my lowest”; “Rupi Kaur’s new book is being released a day after my birthday and that’s all I want for it”) is steadily giving way to skepticism. On Twitter, a cottage industry of anyone-can-do-it parodies of the Rupi Kaur style is springing up as we speak. We admit we laughed at this one:
I was rooting for you,
we were all
rooting for you. how dare you. - rupi kaur
Meanwhile, a months-old accusation of plagiarism by another young woman poet is gaining credence. While the mysterious African-American poet Nayyirah Waheed posted (and then deleted) a public statement about being “utterly blindsided” by “issues of plagiarism. paraphrasing. and hyper similarity.” (sic) -- which Waheed claims Kaur ignored when she brought it up with the latter. This may be difficult to establish: Waheed’s book of poetry, Salt. came out before Kaur’s Milk and Honey, and both share formal and thematic concerns (an abhorrence for capital letters and a love of tear-jerking material), but there appears to be little evidence of more specific imitation.
Looking through Kaur’s Instagram makes us feel like we’re looking at the iconography of a girl idol, performing a look, a voice and a story.
Salt, Milk, Honey & Home
Kaur, Waheed and Beyoncé’s fave Warsan Shire - also a young woman of colour whose poetry is considered an inspiration - may have touched more young hearts than any English poetry has since perhaps the advent of rap music. (Spoken word poetry owes much to its roots in African-American culture; we look forward to some of Kaur’s fans rediscovering the amazing Nikki Giovanni, for one.)
But this is by and large nakedly feminine poetry, drowning in feelings and bodily fluids. It’s articulated stream-of-consciousness, short on punctuation and ironically brief. It’s intensely sentimental — as you’d perhaps expect from poetry whose fans say it “gives them life.” To readers for whom poetry, and more broadly literature, is all about the shock of representation — the sense that someone has expressed a thought or feeling or experience of your own — it is pure pleasure.
We hesitate to say that all this makes the Kaur oeuvre any good. Certainly, you’d be hard-pressed to find poetry critics who enjoy it. But it’s effective in the way that pop music is; looking through Kaur’s Instagram makes us feel like we’re looking at the iconography of a girl idol, performing a look, a voice and a story. This is not the effect of Gwendolyn Brooks or Kamala Das or Louise Gluck. Instead, to think of Kaur as an incipient brown Madonna or Britney may perhaps help solve the riddle of why critics are now coming out in droves — to tear down a young, financially successful girl loved by other girls is one of the pre-eminent pastimes of our age.
Rather than participate in the newest episode of this unflattering drama, we propose that readers #LeaveRupiAlone if her work seems boring or flat to them. With a second book due in October, Kaur’s work is only going to be more widely read and thought about than ever. It deserves to be examined with rigour and patience, sure. But to criticise it for a lack of polish and sophistication, or worse, for its subjects and moods, will shrink only the hearts of its haters.
Getting there: See Rupi Kaur’s Instagram account here.
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