Why Instagram means poetry is going from bad to verse

The Sunday Times, October 2019

Poetry is blooming. In book form its sales are booming. Readings sell out in seconds. Performance poetry is hot. And it’s partly thanks to the rise of the Instapoet.

Last year, total UK poetry sales hit £12m for the first time: a rise of 12% for the second year running. There’s probably more than one cause of this — in dark times, some suggest, we’re drawn to clear, concise messages — but it’s no coincidence that the past decade has witnessed the arrival of poetry on Instagram: snippets of verse posted daily by authors intent on gathering hordes of followers on the social media site.

The best-known example, the Canadian Instapoet and activist Rupi Kaur, was single-handedly responsible for one-twelfth of all UK poetry sales in 2018. All of which is fine in theory, but in practice there’s a problem with Instapoetry. It’s largely terrible.

If I were an Instapoet, I might write a poem about this — but actually, no, I wouldn’t, because Instapoets have a narrow range of subject matter. They write about love. Self-love, mostly, and the importance of having it.

There’s also something disturbing about the fact that Instapoetry at its most popular is Instapoetry at its worst: non-rhyming, non-scanning self-help truisms delivered in randomly broken-up lines to resemble our conventional idea of poetry. Something dismaying, too, in the disconnect between the authors’ claims to soulfulness and attempts to empty your pockets of all you’ve got. As well as printed poems, they purvey T-shirts for the tasteless, mugs for mugs, painful tattoos and so on.

It’s interesting that a lot of these poets have a background in design or advertising. Presentation is paramount. When you view them on your laptop or your tablet, Instaverses tend to be written lower-case, which looks, you know, real. Little attention is paid to punctuation, because that would be elitist.

The way the words appear is the way Insta-users have become used to seeing quotes on the site: in retro typewriter font against a pale background. There might be a cigarette or glass of whisky in view. Or a rose. Or a shot of waves crashing on a shore. Always with a straight-faced signature. This is Insta-wisdom, designed to persuade you what you’re reading is an insta-classic. The words are always insta- simple. They deliver up their value in a second.

Like performance poetry, Instapoetry isn’t meant for scrutiny. It’s meant to give you a hit. It’s just a shame it often feels like a sucker punch.

THE BIGGEST INSTAPOETS

1. RUPI KAUR

3.8m followers

Kaur (pronounced ‘core’) is the godmother of Instapoetry. Now 27, she was born in India, moved to Canada when she was four and, because she couldn’t talk to anyone, took refuge in writing and drawing. Her skilful sketches illustrate her Instapoems, which are very raw and personal, and not always printable in a family newspaper.

Sample:“She was music / but he had his ears cut off”

2. RM DRAKE

2.1m followers

A Colombian-American writer who used to work in marketing and advertising for a media company, his posts, which specialise in shoot-from-the-hip, tell-it-like-it-is love-wisdom, are usually accompanied by a plea to buy his latest book. There are many books. Eight are subtitled Poetry & Prose to Heal the Human Soul. His Instaverses aren’t line-broken, just blocks of text.

Sample: “Sometimes having a conversation in a parked car for hours can heal you in ways you never thought possible”

3. RH SIN & SAMANTHA KING HOLMES

1.6m and 442k followers

I’m taking this married couple together, because they support each other, but Sin is the bigger beast, a former marketeer who promoted products through social media. His verses exhort women to move on from no-good men who have hurt them. They’re interspersed with his sepia, brown-is-beautiful photos of New York street scenes, cups of coffee and himself.

Sample: “Some women / fear the fire / some women / Simply become it”

4. ATTICUS

1.3m followers

The masterstroke of the poet known as Atticus was to create a mystery around his identity by wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. At one reading, he told his breathless audience he would remove it. He did … to reveal an identical mask underneath. He pens swoony, Before Sunrise-style fragments, interspersed with black-and-white photos of beautiful people.

Sample:“Swimming pools were invented / to kiss girls in the rain / and if they weren’t / they should have been”

5. NAJWA ZEBIAN

1m followers

This young, Lebanese-born Instapoet’s name means “divine talk”, which, she says, provides “a constant reminder of what I stand for”. She specialises in empowering relationship advice, interspersed with images of herself that often showcase her terrific figure. Some are downright bizarre. One recent clip presents Zebian in conversation on a bench, until a squirrel leaps up and, to her understandable dismay, grabs her bottom.

Sample:“It is not love that / you fall / into. / It is love / that falls / into you”

6. J IRON WORD

607k followers

“J Iron Word” is presumably not J Iron Word’s real name, but there’s little info about him online, apart from the slogan on his website, which reads “I don’t claim to be anything, but human”. Such modesty can’t do anything, but impress. The Amazon blurb for his debut collection of empowering love-wisdom poetry calls it “a labour of love, emerging from the unfiltered mind of poet J Iron Word”. Surely filtering is the job of any writer?

Sample:“She owned her curves / the way a tiger owns / the jungle, / wildly”

7. NIKITA GILL

552k followers

Gill, who studied design at university in Delhi, was rejected by 137 publishers on her journey to success. But she says “being vulnerable is a writer’s job”. She tends to post excerpts rather than whole poems. Her work is feminist and, yes, empowering, with an emphasis on the desirability of the “wild” and the visceral truth of “bone”.

Sample:“Listen to me, girl, / You have castles inside your bones”

8. LANG LEAV

530k followers

A veteran Instapoet, Leav was born in Thailand, brought up in Australia and lives in New Zealand. She built a following on the microblogging site Tumblr, before self-publishing her first collection in 2012. It was a bestseller within a week. The sample below is from Sorry. It’s strangely affecting to find someone apologising — and apologising, here, for the quality of their poetry.

Sample:“To the poem I put / into a book / before it was ready / I’m sorry I didn’t wait / a few lines longer”

9. YUNG PUEBLO & CLEO WADE

547k and 539k followers

More nakedly than other Instapoets, these two are essentially self-help gurus. Wade grew up in New Orleans, the daughter of a white mother and a black father; she fell in love with poetry at the age of six when she did a summer course. She presents her verse in a range of styles, including hand-written in capitals, with the Os and Ds coloured in.

Sample:“YOU ARE PRECIOUS / LET NO ONE / TREAT YOU / LESS THAN / GOLD”

10. CHRISTOPHER POINDEXTER

363k followers

The Florida-based Poindexter sports a broad-brimmed hat as he hammers out his verse on a typewriter. He’s closer to conventional poetry than the self-help poets, but he too has a Christlike identification with his audience. As he says in one poem: “The world doesn’t understand your pain / but I do.” A motto for the whole Instapoetry movement. Sample:“my god, little precious creatures, / we, yes we, you and i and he and she, / have so many / things wrong”