In Defence Of Rupi Kaur...

The Washington Post
The Washington Post

Rupi Kaur is a shit poet. When you make it to the front page of the internet based almost entirely on the back of a dedicated hate-parade, is it fair to say you’ve made it? The keyword for me here is almost. Before you start drafting your riled up responses for the comments section, hear me out.

Since the release of her latest book, the sun and her flowers, my newsfeed has been flooded with the same memes that have flooded yours, no doubt. Parodies of the Indian-born Canadian poet’s craft, amidst perfect spacing and hilarious sign-offs, are spot on in mockery—they may even exceed her work in imagination. Following a brilliant and ruthless profile of Kaur published last month in The Cut, critiquers, bloggers, and internet junkies have flocked to dismantle the pedestal Rupi Kaur has so aesthetically built for herself in recent years—and fairly so. Molly Fischer’s article exposes Kaur as a shallow dilettante who can’t even get through reading a good book let alone write one. It’s the kind of inevitable downfall reserved only for those who reach a particularly dizzying height of celebrity. There’s nothing cult about her fan base and with Instagram followers like Ariana Grande and Miley Cyrus, this pop-poet’s success is almost inconceivable for a 21st century writer. That’s exactly why I can attempt this defense of Kaur. Rupi Kaur may be a literary layman, but is it really fair to put her fans in the same category?

There is something commendable about the depth with which Kaur’s work is consumed—something sweet about the softness it fosters in unexpected places. Her aesthetic is much more than fragmented lines and minimalistic illustrations: it’s an entire concept of weaving intimacy into everyday lives, conversations, and over-polluted newsfeeds. Kaur’s work shouldn’t be evaluated as an isolated entity, but rather as the collective of experiences surrounding it. I fear that in our haste to denounce her, Rupi Kaur will be sent down in literary history as a joke and take with her everything she represents. Unfortunately for us, that means closing a gateway to poetry for too many young women who resist all the others.

In the same reddit thread that seeks to dethrone her, one user captures just this sentiment beautifully. “I don’t want to get shit on for saying this but I volunteer at a Women’s Centre and I could give them Sylvia Plath all day and most of the time they say they didn’t enjoy it. I give them a copy of Milk and Honey and for the first time, a lot of them are able to have their emotions articulated and they can finally reflect in a simple way,” writes Holdmeclserponydanza. “I know she isn’t the best but I really commend her for creating something that stirs feeling and thought with a lot of women. Even if it’s instagram quotes. She’s become a gateway to a lot of great things that before women of all ages and background at my Centre weren’t willing to read.”

Kaur echoed this same defense in an interview with NPR. “I think there’s no problem with my poetry being too accessible. Art should be accessible to the masses and when we start to tailor it to a way that keeps people out, there’s an issue in that. Who are we creating art for? I think about who I was creating art for, from the beginning it was for myself and for people who didn’t have access to certain types of english language. I couldn’t speak english until I was way into elementary school. My choice of diction, all the accessible choices that I make it’s to make sure that it’s tailored to the person that I was when I was growing up.” Granted, the validity of this statement has been contested, but whether you think of this quote as an explication or an excuse, you have to admit that she’s followed through—she’s conquered the feat of democratizing art. You can argue about her lack of poetic merit or banal sentences, but you cannot deny her work’s ability to be easily consumed and understood. She is a true child of the internet with the unique knack of making every one of her readers believe she is writing directly to them. Kind of like horoscopes, her poems are consumed self-servingly in in hopeful hunger. If you’d rather label her a marketing genius than a poet, so be it, but there’s no doubt Kaur has her pen on the pulse of the kind of poetry people (the masses) want to consume.

For those who know Kaur’s trajectory better, however, you’d know that her poems did not emerge in isolation. Her poetry among likes of other artists in her generation, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Warsan Shire, and Nayyirah Waheed, marked only the beginning of the burgeoning spoken word scene that exists today. Their work began in niche spaces on Tumblr and Instagram but soon caught the eye of publishers who bound their words into books like salt, bone, and milk and honey. On the spines of these women’s paperbacks, the spoken word industry has now become a female-dominated space where meditations on race, feminism, love, trauma and sexuality are declared in liberated expression.

To some, their works have facilely been categorised as “sad brown girl poetry” and their collective success has become a platform for farce. Especially following the accusations of plagiarism against Kaur which made headlines in July, people have been quick to criticise the genre altogether. It’s important to note that these women, though they may share undeniable similarities in style end elocution, represent very different histories and experiences of diaspora. Belittling this new genre will result in a failure to see the differences in their work altogether and trivialising their poetry will only suffice to water down the nuanced conversations about intersectional feminism that are finally being brought to attention.

To me, their words have always been an oasis of tenderness that echoed my sentiments of identity and belonging. The idea that your body has been treated as a vessel for culture plays out in nearly all of their poems. Their words touch upon this very ingrained yet silenced tone of the immigrant/diasporic experience. It brings all that shame, yearning, and feelings of displacement to the forefront of our newsfeeds in a way that radically addresses the simultaneous sensations of alienation in your own country and your own skin. I was drawn to Kaur in particular because she spoke directly to the female South Asian diasporic experience in a way I had never experienced. Representation alone was alluring enough to fall into her fandom.

Image Credit: the sun and her flowers by Rupi Kaur

At a time when I was navigating my own identity as an Indian woman in the United States, simple turns of phrases like this were enough to make me feel like I belonged— in a country that was not mine, in my own brown skin. Her descriptions of the South Asian experience, diluted as they may be, were a beacon to readers feeling poetically abandoned. I can’t help but wonder if my appreciation for her work is in part nostalgia for the person I was when I first read milk and honey, if my adamance for her craft stems from a deep sense of sentimentality for that initial feeling of recognition. I like to think of her poems as lyrics and realise that I approach her work as I do music. My appreciation for Kaur emanates from remembrance, from the memories associated with that moment in time when I first found her.

Image Credit: milk and honey by Rupi Kaur

I can’t critique her work next to the likes of literature’s greatest poets because to me her poems don’t fit within the same category. I’m not even certain I can label it poetry. Her words were easily digestible tidbits that found their way on my tongue into daily affirmations of self-care. The untitled poem reading “let it go / let it leave” reminds me of a popular Sufjan Stevens lyric, “All things go / all things go” that similarly became a repetitive recitation when I needed it. Against the backdrop of mindless scrolling, Kaur’s words stood out like lines from a song that if you hear enough times become incomparably resonant with your current state of mind.

In retrospect, I realize it was age and circumstance that so drew me to her. Now reading her most recent collection, the sun and her flowers, I see her poems merely as shallow recreations of the words that earlier brought her success. With this collection, Kaur has taken no risks conceptually and her new words lack even her early sense of lyricism. Has Kaur’s depth been exhausted? I’d like to think Rupi Kaur will be a different poet five years from now, but in this moment she does not seem to be on the same learning curve as her readers when it comes to race, identity, pain, and pleasure.

For many of her readers, Kaur’s words still hold immense value to their learning curves. It’s important to reconcile with her work as a gateway and acknowledge that for many people her poems are the first step to opening up. Three years ago the words of milk and honey rung true and loud to people like me with naive notions of love and a soft spot for sadness. Her words, like lyrics, have coloured my experience of growing up and acted as lampposts on my path to self-acceptance. To many young women, it is still three years ago. Kaur has given people the tools for tenderness that are essential to any wholesome understanding of race, identity, and overall mental health. She may be shallow, banal, and a downright dilettante, but we cannot condemn her as the worst thing to happen to poetry. The sheer magnitude with which her work is consumed has undeniably guided more people on the path towards self-awareness. Is it so much then to ask that we cut Rupi Kaur (but more importantly her readers) some slack?

Image Credit: Rupi Kaur

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