Rupi Kaur, arguably the world’s most popular Instapoet, sold 3.5 million copies of her first poetry collection, milk & honey. It outsold even The Odyssey. It’s even been said that Rupi Kaur has saved poetry. It’s hard to dismiss this kind of popularity— but much like anything that breaks into the mainstream and seals a position in pop culture, the genre of poetry it gave rise to hasn’t come without its criticism. But how much of this is on the poet themselves? Or does the structure of the social media platform its published on contribute to the problem? Or our internet culture in general? And what is its value?
The roots of Instapoetry
Before Instapoetry, there was an alt-lit movement growing on Tumblr. There are similarities between the two, and you can easily trace many of the roots of Instapoetry to Alt-lit.
Alt-lit was an offshoot of autofiction that grew out of the internet culture of the 00’s and eschewked the traditionally romanticised and instead focused on the mundane of a writer’s life. It emphasised a kind of montononous hedonism, an unaffected detachment. Stylistically, it used an almost purposeful lack of grammar and punctuation that truly reflected a kind of ‘I live online’ aesthetic, a shirking of analog writerly tradition in favour of embracing millennial digital upbringings. Most of all, it emphasised total sincerity and honesty.
While Instapoetry vastly differs in content and tone, the hangovers of the alt-lit movement are present in the lack of grammar and punctuation and a commitment to thorough honesty. It’s in this way that alt-lit writing influenced Instapoetry. I could even see an argument for Instapoetry being a reaction to the unsentimental cynicism of alt-lit.
Instapoetry, in content and tone, reflects today’s focus on new age holitistic wellbeing, emphasising personal growth, love, self-care and feminism. It’s often wistful about romantic love, slants to the positive and idealistic. It’s read to be encouraging and comforting to the reader. This gives it a very shareable quality because Instapoetry can be consumed as both art in its own right and as relatable or inspirational advice.
The technical aspects of Instapoetry are often discussed. Instapoets often eschew the poetic techniques that make poetry enjoyable and respected and instead opt for expression of a single idea or statement. Techniques like rhythm, imagery, symmetry, allusion, metaphor and alliteration are secondary to simply saying something that people will relate to and want to share.
In Youtuber Rachel Oates’ criticism on Instapoet Atticus’s work, she analyses a fantastic example of this in Atticus’ poem, published in his book, The Truth About Magic.
The poem is a fantastic example of Instapoetry in that it’s essentially an aphorism. It expresses a single idea (despite the idea being a little unclear) and expresses a generic moment that most people on the planet have experienced. This makes it highly shareable and highly relatable.
However, as Rachel Oates discusses, the poem doesn’t have a viewpoint on the idea, it doesn’t describe a scene or a feeling, it doesn’t have a recognisable style, technique, rhythm or shape. In this way, it’s as if any one of us could be the author. It reads like a derivative of a quote you’d see on Weheartit in 2007 that’s likely been screenshot, filtered, reposted and wrongly attributed to death, like a kind of wistful deep-fried meme that will one day crop up screenprinted on a suburban mum’s decorative pillow.
Aphorisms are often parts of larger works, or what larger works, well, work towards. When you distill the idea or feeling down to its essence, it becomes simply a nicely-put statement. Instapoetry express general truths on topics most are familiar with: heartbreak, love, pain, trauma. However, there’s an interesting paradox happening. The ideas or statements expressed in Instapoetry are generic, which is both its inherent appeal and its problem.
The genre of Instapoetry
Instapoetry is a genre or form of poetry that originated with the rise of Instagram. It has almost no relation to the way genres typically shape– it has nothing to do with language, location or form– the only thing they seemingly have in common is that all the works originate from Instagram. In this way, it doesn’t need to rely on gaining merit from the typical gatekeepers of literature. It just needs to be available on the platform.
This, in itself, is interesting because it means that all Instapoetry contains three elements that are unique to its form: text, images, and hashtags. And when Instagram is the only thing they have in common, our attention must turn to the social media platform itself.
How Instagram creates Instapoetry
Instagram confines your posted images to either a 4×5 or 1×1 size tile, with the ability to add a caption limited to 2,200 characters including hashtags. These affordances lend itself to images, perfect for photographers or influencers of the world. But to get someone to stop scrolling and read, the words need to grab attention, be consumed quickly, and be relatable in some way to encourage any kind of engagement.
It’s because of this that successful Instapoets use short, succinct sentiments that are as relatable to a wider audience as possible, and it’s why the poems tend to pithy aphorisms.
Another criticism is Instapoetry’s arbitrary use of line breaks, which I would argue often aren’t employed for the purpose of rhythm, but to give the words more breathing room on the 4×5 or 1×1 canvas its created on, to increase its readability.
The language, too, is practical and everyday. Writers strip a message down to its core meaning and express it incredibly succinctly. While this isn’t a demonstration of fantastic use of poetic language and techniques, it means that Instapoetry is highly accessible, and maybe that’s a reason to celebrate.
Social media shapes the writer?
I couldn’t say if Instapoets write with the set intention to post the work on Instagram and that the writing is shaped entirely by the platform’s affordances. Perhaps the form would differ or the ideas would be expressed differently if Instagram had different affordances, or if the poems were intended for print or another platform. However, I would argue that Instapoetry is a reflection of the hyperconnected nature of the internet and the quick, fastpaced nature of social media consumption. It’s the poet’s version of a TikTok or meme. Because Instagram is image-based, visuals or illustrations that emphasise or elaborate on the writing’s general sentiment only add to its shareability. These factors make instapoetry perfectly digestible and relatable and therefore highly successful.
It’s not just the poetry itself that makes these poets successful—it’s the space it creates. The comments section is another affordance setup by Instagram that creates the ability for creator and audience to have back and forth conversations, and for the fans of the creator to talk amongst themselves. It’s often the space where people, especially women, are able to express themselves (somewhat) freely (never mind the arbitrary double standards of Instagram’s community guidelines). Instapoetry is successful, also, because of the community it creates.
It’s in this way that Instagram has shaped a whole genre of poetry, and arguably, is a demonstration of the way in which social media shapes art.
So what do we think?
Instapoetry is highly accessible and it’s because of this that Instapoetry spreads beyond readers. Because it’s simple, shareable, and pays attention to visual elements. While the artistic value of Instapoetry is still up for debate, the online space it creates for people, particularly women, to tell their stories, express themselves and connect is valuable. And that’s the point of art, after all.