Generation 'Insta Poet': Rupi Kaur, Lang Leav and Warsan Shire

June 21, 2018



'Insta Poets' a term that has been in use for a few years now, a term that bore the sensation that is Rupi Kaur and a popularity that led me to find the work of Lang Leav.


These women are known as 'insta poets' due to their popularity across the social media app; not a day goes by where an inspirational collection of prose appears on my timeline written by one of these women. They are posted mostly by girls, like me, as a representation of how they are feeling. Maybe they will hint at a new relationship, or even hint at a lost one, sometimes they symbolise a feeling of empowerment, of freedom, and of unity.


"my heart aches for sisters more than anything

it aches for women helping women

like flowers ache for spring" [milk and honey, Rupi Kaur, p. 187]


Readers of poetry have always sought recognition when they read, so it goes without saying how Rupi Kaur has become so popular and recognisable across social media. Rupi Kaur is a symbol of femininity and feminism, she writes, what us less lyrically inclined people are less able to write, so we repost, telling the world how we are feeling with her words. This need that I have as a reader to identify with a poet's words is how I discovered the work of Lang Leav earlier this month:


"Love a girl who writes

and live her many lives;

you have yet to find her,

beneath her words of guise.


Kiss her blue-inked fingers,

forgive the pens they marked.

The stain of your lips upon her --

the one she can't discard.


Forget her tattered memories,

or the pages others took;

you are her ever after --

the hero of her book." ['Her Words', Lullabies, Lang Leav, p. 3]


I read this poem in the early days of a new relationship, it tells the story of that old fashioned fairytale/romcom romance that I am such a sucker for. I saw myself in the poem, my 'many lives', 'blue-inked fingers', 'tattered memories' and 'the pages others took', all these words fuelled the way I constantly identify myself as a flawed character with a lot of damage from my past. When I read this poem, I still very much believed that the answer to all my problems in life would be to find someone to make me happy, and not find myself to make me happy (tah dah theres that feminist epiphany). The poem romanticises the idea of the 'sad girl' being saved, something I loved when I first read it, because I recognised myself in that, but now, I believe it could be potentially problematic. My problem with this poem and a great majority of the poems in Lang's anthology is not the portrayal of a woman being saved by a man, but the romanticisation of sadness. The ongoing theme in the anthology is love and the loss of love, poems that portray the grief that you feel after a break up, and whilst this can be a source of help for other people reading her work, its the consistent portrayal of the 'sad girl' as beautiful, because of her sadness, that I have an issue with, something that annoyed me even further when I found out another of Lang Leav's books is called Sad Girls.


I read the anthology in two sittings, a month between those two sessions. The first half of the book, as I said, I read in the early days of a new relationship. I was full of that excitement you get when you meet someone new, full of optimism for what was going to come with that lovey dove notion that falling in love really is one big fairytale. I was touched by the stories of romance and heartbreak, identifying with the heroine who feels fragile and loved at the same time, feeding into my own romanticisation of my own love story.


Fast forward a month and thats pretty much all over. I read the latter half of the book with a more realistic view on things, that life really isn't like the fairytales you read or the rom coms you watch, even if they are incredibly real (500 Days of Summer is my favourite film of ALL TIME). The final few poems I read were tainted with this mood, instead of being moved by Leav's romantic words, I was repulsed by them (bitter lol), and I also began to recognise the problems in the way she portrays this 'fragile' woman. Though the poems are not linked and do not tell a longer story, the heroine is constantly portrayed as the 'sad girl', and she lives in her sadness, and though this may be a very realistic view of grief and relationships, the romanticisation of depression is one that happens far too often in our culture.


Since the eruption of Rupi Kaur, there has been a lot of debate in the literary world around the validation of 'insta poetry', is it poetry, or does it just look and sound nice when written down on a page? This isn't a new debate, modern poetry has been rejecting the linguistic rules of metre and scheme for hundreds of years, and it is actually quite infuriating that women like Kaur and Leav have come on the negative side of it due to using social media as a platform for their work. Like everything on social media, there are pros and cons: a pro of these women using the platform to share their work is obviously the growth they receive as an artist, whilst also engaging with a wide audience of people who would not be interested in poetry otherwise, so why should this discredit them as poets?


A friend of mine once criticised Kaur, claiming that she has been slandered online for plagiarising posts from Tumblr; I haven't read anything on this subject myself, it could be true, and it only contributes to my argument that these poets are potentially influencing a culture that views depression as a romantic quality - Tumblr has become infamous over the years for its content that promotes self harm, and other mental health disorders such as anorexia. I'm not suggesting that either of these poets are knowingly contributing to this culture or promoting these ideas, but I do find the fact that Lang Leav titled an anthology 'Sad Girls' really not okay. There is the argument that the anthology may offer girls with depression a sense of belonging, and maybe even the content offers a journey to recovery, but I fear instead it promotes an exclusivity of belonging to a club that you have to be sad to get into. 


Maybe I'm just a little bitter because I got dumped, maybe I am reading into it a little bit too much, but thats what poetry is about. 


There is a constant debate around how much responsibility does a person in the public eye have to take for their influence, and I am not quite sure where I sit with that one yet, but I do wish these incredibly talented women wouldn't sell out 'for the likes'. Don't get me wrong, I love Rupi Kaur's anecdotes, but does ' accept yourself as you were designed' [milk and honey, p. 172] really require a whole page dedicated to itself? My favourite part of both of Kaur's books (milk and honey and the sun and her flowers) are the poems about her mother and her homeland. As a first generation Canadian, Kaur writes about her Indian heritage, exploring how her attitude and experiences with sex are altered by her identity. Like many girls, I got roped into Kaur's world of words through her stories of heartbreak and empowerment, but I stayed around for her humanity, she makes poetry about colonisation and cultural identity accessible to people who wouldn't have had access to it before.


"my god 

it not waiting inside a church

or sitting above the temple's steps

my god

is the refugee's breath as she's running 

is living in the starving child's belly

is the heartbeat of the protest

my god 

does not rest between the pages 

written by holy men

my god

lives between the sweaty thighs 

of women's bodies sold for money

was last seen washing the homeless man's feet

my god

is not as unreachable as

they'd like you to think

my god is beating inside us infinitely" [the sun and her flowers, Rupi Kaur, p. 132


Through my love of Rupi Kaur, I have discovered Lang Leav, who I am quite happy to leave behind, but, I have also discovered the most amazing London born Somali poet Warsan Shire. Shire writes the most beautiful and heartbreaking stories about war, sexual abuse and life in a muslim household.


"No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark." [ 'Conversations about home', Teaching my mother how to give birth, Warsan Shire, [p. 24-25]

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