'The Milk & Honey of Her Success' / Odessa Blain
‘The Milk & Honey of Her Success’
Short clipped lines are the target and intrigue of this essay – just not the ones written above. The short clipped lines I am interested in do not bend back upon themselves, with clever word play and elusive phrases. The short clipped lines I am interested in are accessible, honest and cathartic. They are posted on social media, and they are written by the current wave of Instapoets. These Instapoets are widely read, they sport celebrity – one was retweeted by the Kardashians – and they promote a certain image, which The New Yorker's Katy Waldman describes as "narcissism, inclusiveness that often manifests as a lack of specificity, affirmation of readers’ emotions, and the thesis (more felt than reasoned through) that damage is beautiful and beauty damaging".
Rupi Kaur is the most famous of these poets. Like many of her contemporaries, Kaur's poetry is crafted for our era of scrolling and sharing. Instagram is her medium: not only can it reach a wide audience, but it also captures the beating core of her appeal. Kaur's verses are placed in neat boxes, we can view one individually, or scroll through the checkerboard of poems and photographs. Her writing could not be further removed from Ondaatje's description of poetry: "The beautiful formed things caught at the wrong moment / so they are shapeless, awkward / moving to the clear". Kaur's poems are neither shapeless nor awkward. Each piece is crafted to fit her aesthetic: muted colours, clean lines, ink drawings. They form a seemingless whole, appeasing our desire for simplicity, containment, neat dividing lines.
I. I Am Interested In Honey
I am not interested in other words for honey.
I am interested in honey.
Two years ago, I was given Rupi Kaur's first collection of poetry, milk and honey. I had heard Kaur's name before, but I did not know her poetry well. I was curious. I read milk and honey in one sitting. Not because I was enraptured, but because her poems seemed vacuous and banal. A set of empty vessels.
I planned to forget about Kaur, to brush her aside as a viral trend. But in the two years that have passed since our first encounter, Kaur has not let me forget her presence. She infiltrates my social media feed, she vaunts herself on bookshelves, and she occasionally makes an appearance in conversation. Many of my friends are also perplexed by her popularity. We often joke about her poems, how they are built upon the clichéd:
like the rainbow
after the rain
joy will reveal itself
The short, scrollable passages, often accompanied with italics to make the already obvious even more clear:
i hear a thousand kind words about me
and it makes no difference
yet i hear one insult
and all confidence shatters
- focusing on the negative
And the trite aphorisms, more akin to a corny self-help book than a collection of poetry:
you do not just wake up and become the butterfly
- growth is a process
Not surprisingly, people often parody Kaur's style online: vapid or generic thought, coupled with enjambment, an absence of capital letters, and signed -rupi kaur.
And yet, Kaur is also wildly popular. She boasts over three million followers on Instagram. milk and honey has sold more than 2.5 million copies, and her second collection of poetry, the sun and her flowers, debuted at number one on the New York Times Bestseller List, and has remained near the top ever since. Kaur travels around the globe, delivering shows, with the London leg of her world tour selling out in less than ten minutes. She boasts a success more akin to that of a pop star than a poet: Kaur has appeared on Jimmy Fallon, been interviewed by Emma Watson, and is followed by celebrities, such as Ariana Grande, on Instagram.
At first, I intended to write a more measured piece on Kaur. However, I saw this time and time again: journalists tempering their criticism of her writing by appealing to broader socio-political aspirations. Some, such as The New York Times' Carl Wilson, dismiss their tastes, labelling them as out-dated and out-of-touch, locked away in that infamous ivory tower:
“Instapoets don’t do much for me ... poems actively resist paraphrase of their meanings, to slip from thought to thought like a dream, like music. These poets, on the other hand, print the paraphrase. But my tastes aren’t the point here. They’re those of a 20th-century leftover who has spent decades reading poems on pages.”
Others, like The Guardian's Priya Khairi-Hanks, deride Kaur's writing – "[it's like] slurred advice you might overhear" – but argue the backlash against her is due to sexist literary elitism: "Kaur is a victim of a toxic mix of snobbery and misogyny". Most common, however, is the assertion that Kaur has defied the odds, and proven that poetry can sell. Kazim Ali, for example, writes that Kaur's verses are "simplistic ... they do not interrogate. They provide moments of recognition ... they do not uncover new moments of perception". But concludes: "they are obviously resonating with a wide and deep audience. And her sales numbers are proof that print’s not dead ... Things go viral for a reason – there was an audience just waiting for verse like Kaur’s."
But this is exactly what I find so troubling about Kaur's writing and its broader socio-political implications: that there is an audience just waiting for verse like Kaur's. I find this troubling on two, interlinked levels. The first of these levels lies in the content of her actual text body. I will further explain this below, arguing that Kaur's gender and racial politics are far from enlightened.
II. Not Our Battlegrounds?
Kaur's statements on feminism are simplistic at best:
More troubling, is her depiction of female dependence. Kaur paints a well-worn portrait of mothers – selfless and self-sacrificing beings, whose existence is entirely entwined with that of their child:
i struggle so deeply
how someone can
pour their entire soul
blood and energy
-i will have to wait till i'm a mother.
Kaur's poem is a regression from much female confessional poetry of the 1950s and '60s, which shed new light on a woman's sometimes uneasy relationship with motherhood. A woman's struggle to accept the mould, which Kaur now perpetuates. Just look at Plath's 'Morning Song', written after the birth of her daughter. The sense of estrangement, the fear of dependence:
Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.
I'm no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind's hand.
Kaur's poetry has no place for such complex emotions. It relies upon caricatures, the expected, a comforting mirage of simplicity. And yet, Kaur's writing also contains a troubling contradiction. She promotes women as strong and independent:
But, she is so often lamenting (you took the sun with you / when you left) or exulting ("what am i to you he asks / i put my hands in his lap / and whisper you / are every hope / i've ever had / in human form") the man in her life.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that women cannot be feminists if they write about the men in their lives. This contradiction – between being a woman proud of her independence but brought to her knees by love – is an incredibly rich and interesting source of subject material. Just look at Elizabeth Smart's prose poem, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, described by one reviewer as "Madame Bovary blasted by lightning". By Grand Central is inspired by Smart's intense love affair with poet George Barker: "but can I see the light of a match while burning in the arms of the sun?". Barker and Smart have four children together, but Barker leaves her (he had fifteen children with four women and numerous affairs). And yet, Smart is still tormented by their love – she cannot let him go: "The parchment philosopher has no traffic with the night, and no conception with the price of love. With smoky circle of thought he tries to combat the fog, and with anagrams to defeat anatomy". Why is such an intelligent woman unable to see the hypocrisy and sexism of this man? A man who is not only pathetic – he abandoned his family in a French hotel room when he was unable to pay the bill – but also, at times, abusive. These questions haunt Smart's work. Indeed, Angela Carter, a friend of Smart, recently revealed that this book was fundamental to her founding of the feminist press Virago: after finishing By Grand Central, Carter was so fired up by "the desire that no daughter of mine should ever be in the position to write By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, exquisite prose though it might contain. By Grand Central Station I Tore Off His Balls would be more like it, I should hope".
Kaur's poems are not designed to examine, or even present, such contradictions. They are designed so we can pick and choose, share and post individual pieces on the basis of our emotional whims. And despite asserting "you are / your own / soul mate", Kaur's newest collection is crafted around a relationship. the sun and her flowers is comprised of five sections (their metaphorical implications are obvious): wilting, falling, rooting, rising, blooming. The 'rising' of Kaur's spirits occurs when she meets a man: "on the first day of love / you wrapped me in the word special". More troubling, however, is the poem (placed in the middle of 'rising'), which this collection takes its title from:
what is it with you and sunflowers he asks
i point to the field of yellow outside
sunflowers worship the sun i tell him
only when it arrives do they rise
when the sun leaves
they bow their heads in mourning
this is what the sun does to those flowers
it is what you do to me
- the sun and her flowers
According to Kaur, the man is the sun and women are the flowers. The flowers – traditional symbols of femininity – depend upon the almighty sun. And yet, my problem with Kaur's text body does not just lie in her regressive gender politics. For Kaur also attempts to capture a universal South Asian female experience through her poetry. This experience extends well beyond her own lifetime, with Kaur writing on her website:
“our trauma escapes the confines of our own times. we're not just healing from what's been inflicted onto us as children. my experiences have happened to my mother and her mother and her mother before that. it is generations of pain embedded into our souls.”
In an article, Chiara Giovanni questions Kaur's evocation of trauma. Giovanni's main focus is Kaur's blurring of individual and collective suffering in her depiction of South Asian womanhood:
“Kaur indeed seems to note little difference between her educated, Western, Indian-Canadian self and her ancestors, or even modern South Asian women of a similar age in rural Punjab. She suggests that the way all South Asian women move through life is universal, uniting herself with them by insistently returning focus to the South Asian female body as a locus of "shame and oppression" ... There is no shame in acknowledging the many differences between Kaur’s experience of the world in 2017 and that of a woman living directly under colonial rule in the early 20th century. For example: neither is any more "authentically" South Asian. But it is disingenuous to collect a variety of traumatic narratives and present them to the West as a kind of feminist ethnography under the mantle of confession, while only vaguely acknowledging those whose stories inspired the poetry.”
To further illustrate Giovanni's argument, let's take the following poem of Kaur's:
Now, let's compare this poem to two others written by contemporary female poets. First, 'Cousins' by Ellen van Neerven, a young Australian of Mununjali Yugambeh and Dutch heritage. In this poem, Neervan delivers a personal reflection on race. Neerven does not shy away from complexity – 'Cousins' shimmers with yearning, it explores the porous line that separates estrangement from connection, isolation from belonging:
Taking a break from my usual weekend warfare I drive with my mother through the shifting rain
into Mununjali country
a roo bounds across the road
we meet at the pub and I order an
egg sandwich, orange muffin and a newspaper
on the last ten years of your life
We are cousins
though we grew up on different sides of the axis
different sides of the moon
got to remember
We don't share memories
You recall a football game against boys
you fell down and
I turned on the fella who did it
This violence sounds
not like me at all
I remember you came to live with us
when your house burnt down
you were amazed at how many socks I had
and you asked me if you went to my school would
you be the only dark girl in your class
This was the first time I realised that
others could see us differently
We drive up to Nana's resting place
in front of Mt Barney
You take the wheel where I am a passenger
My uncle says you'll teach me in a paddock
He seems to know all them old stories
while my mother is quiet
Got to remember
Used to all the flies now I sit under a gum
This land heals all my city blues
I haven't the language for that
You read me after all this time
I haven't the language for that
Contrasting Neervan, Tracy K. Smith, the Poet Laureate of the United States, delves back in history. Her poem, 'I Will Tell You the Truth about This, I Will Tell You All about It', is composed entirely of letters and statements written by African Americans during the Civil War. In her notes, Smith writes: "Once I began reading these texts, it became clear to me that the voices in question should command all of the space within my poem". In 'I Will Tell You', Smith allows each voice to sing. They remain distinct, different variations on a theme, shades of similar emotions: frustration, anger, bewilderment, mistrust, sorrow. These voices are not condensed into a unity, they build upon one another; not number upon number, but cry upon cry:
Take, for example, one woman writing to the President:
Mr abarham lincon
I wont to knw sir if you please
whether I can have my son relest
from the arm he is all the support
I have now
Or, an African-American soldier writing to his wife, while he is away fighting in the Civil War:
I want to See you and the Children very bad
I can get a house at any time I will Say the word
So you need not fear as to that So come
wright on just as Soon as you get this
I want you to tell me the name of the baby
that was born Since I left
I am your affectionate Husband untill Death
Or, these two lines, waiting for us at the end of a poem:
(i shall hav to send this with out a stamp
for I haint money enought to buy a stamp)
III. As There Are Hearts
... if there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.
Not surprisingly, many of Kaur's defenders laud her as a much needed voice of diversity in an overwhelmingly white literary scene. This is true. There is a desperate need for female poets of colour in a literary world dominated by white males. Kaur herself is more than clear about this. Her Instagram and website are saturated with references to her heritage. She describes her personal trajectory as "the story of a young brown woman", and states that she writes in lower cases to pay homage to Punjabi: "as a diasporic punjabi sikh woman. it is less about breaking the rules of english ... but more about tying in my own history and heritage within my work". However, in a January 2015 interview, Kaur gives her love of "visual experience" as the reason for her punctuation, with no mention of her heritage. She also only writes about her race at the end of milk and honey, on page 170 of a 204-page collection. This is not to say that Kaur, who immigrated to Canada at age three, has to write about her experience as a woman of colour. Rather, there is something troubling about her selective use of race as a marketing tool – at times stressing her marginality, at times crafting her image to appeal to a Western audience.
This use of selective marketing is key to my second, broader critique of Kaur and her contemporaries. Kaur's quasi-progressive aphorisms, her cheap exterior of empowering others, conceal an aim of self-advancement. In our neoliberal times, the individual is a form of investment, a form of social capital. As such, successful Instapoets understand the importance of constructing a certain identity, and the intrinsic connection this identity has to their value.
One common thread that connects all their various identities is an emphasis on autobiographical honesty. And this emphasis is accompanied by the assumption that a cathartic account of their own emotions – a return to our greedy ego – ensures good poetry. As Kaur writes at the closure of milk and honey: "you split me open / in the most honest / way there is / to split a soul open / and forced me to write". Hollie McNish, another popular Instapoet, affirms this sentiment in an interview with the BBC News Channel's Meet the Author. When asked why audiences like her poems, McNish responds: "they like the honesty in them ... They want poems that don’t seem too artificial or contrived ... With any good poetry there’s nowhere to hide for the poet – I mean, it’s all there, isn’t it?". Really, is that all there is to good poetry? Isn't there something to be said for inhabiting the mind of another, constructing a character, "What a million filaments. / The peanut-crunching crowd / Shoves in to see", dancing with the different personas a poet invents, playing a game of hide and seek, concealing the truth in the unsaid. Rebecca Watts addresses this in an essay. Watts focuses on the rise of Instapoets and the instant gratification they strive to attain. She writes: "When did honesty become a requirement – let alone the main requirement – of poetry? Curiously, the obsession doesn’t apply to all literature; there is no expectation that the output of novelists or playwrights should reflect their personalities". After reading Watts' essay, McNish hit back online: "A clever retort using high-register vocabulary is fine, but really it is simply saying that the author thinks I’m a shit poet and fucking stupid, too, and that Picador should not be publishing shite like mine. So why not just bite the bullet and say that." McNish's comment is an extreme example of the backlash against intellectualism, which often accompanies Instapoets' creative output. Kaur herself even states that she refuses to read while she writes, not having touched a book in the year leading up to the publication of the sun and her flowers.
Let me be clear here: by criticising this anti-intellectualism, I am not saying that poetry should be removed from our emotions. Any poem needs both head and heart, feeling and reflection. And sometimes, simplicity is most powerful. It can shock and disarm us. I remember a phrase by Alice Munro, a writer who thrives on sparse prose, drawn from the every day: "Now she knows what it is to really miss him. Like the air sucked out of the sky". This phrase does not tell me how it always feels to miss. It provides a moment of recognition, a shade of this particular emotion, a blow to the stomach, a thud of the heart.
If it weren't for their politics, Kaur and her contemporaries would elide with the likes of Jordan Peterson and Donald Trump. They aim to affirm, to homogenise; there might be as many minds as there are heads, but there is only one type of love, in spite of all our beating hearts. They use social media to feed off the heart – our frustrations, anger and hopes – riding a wave of popularism and reducing the tide that surges within us to a slogan – an aphorism. I know this is controversial. Ostensibly, Kaur could not seem more removed from the above figures. But it is the force that both lies behind and propels her success which makes Kaur so worrying. It reveals that the socially progressive can be embroiled in the same trap we abhor, and believe only ensnares the likes of Trump supporters. Kaur escapes our criticism because she combines neoliberalism with a social conscience. We assume that the high sales of her poetry are a good thing, we share her posts, we give ourselves a pat on the back for buying her books. We refuse to analyse the troubling force behind her rise to fame. We refuse to cast a critical eye over the messages contained within her poetry. We are blinded by her achievements, by her breaking down of barriers, by the milk and honey of her success.
IV. I Didn't Understand Those Poems
I didn't understand those poems, but they fascinated me ... and I read them again and again with mingled horror and pleasure ... They were secrets to me, strange and private.
When I first started reading poems, I understood little. But certain words, lines, phrases stayed with me. Their meaning was elusive, but this made them all the most special. I loved the sound of words, I carried them around with me. Their sonority held a solemn significance. Now, I find it easier to understand poems. But sometimes, their meaning continues to elude me. And yet, it is still the beauty of the words that draw me in, the placing of the phrases, elusive and tantalising. They ring through my consciousness.
In a lecture, 'Staying Human: Poetry in the Age of Technology', Tracy K. Smith states that for her "a poem is only finished, only fully realized, if it succeeds in alerting me to something I couldn’t have been capable of seeing at the outset, something I couldn’t have known to say were it not for all of the things that the process of writing the poem has led me to say". But the ability to see something new extends beyond the poet, to the reader of the poem as well. As Smith goes on to state:
... poetry awakens our senses, frees us from the tyranny of literal meaning and assures us of the credible reality of emotional truth ... poetry can save me from disappearing into the narrow version of myself I may be tempted to resort to when I feel lazy or defeated, or when my greedy ego takes over.
However, when we assume universality, when we aim to confirm rather than challenge, we undercut the power of poetry, we return to the narrow version of ourselves, we dull our senses, and we enslave emotional truth to the tyranny of literal meaning. This is at the core of my critique of Kaur and her contemporaries.
The role of poetry is not to confirm, it is not to enable us to point to a paragraph and say 'yes, that's me'. This would create an echo chamber, it would curtail the power of empathy, and only further entrap us in ourselves. Poetry draws us away from our egos, but also towards the interior, towards the beating heart. It allows us to witness the plights of others, to cast shades of nuance, to present life in all its complexity. Short, clipped lines do not always stretch out a whim to the length of a passion. With words alone, we can transform the intangible into the visceral; poetry may lie in the realm of imagination, but it has the ability to speak profound truths.