Shi: On Rupi’s Relatability
The relatability of “Milk and Honey” comes at a price.
Rupi Kaur is an Instagram and Tumblr poet you’ve likely read. Of the hundreds of thousands of young poets who share their work on the internet, the 25-year-old Punjabi-Canadian has been the most successful by far. Her first book of poetry, “Milk and Honey,” was self-published in 2014 and republished a year later by Andrews McMeel Publishing. It quickly topped The New York Times Bestsellers List and, in 2016, outsold the next best-selling work of poetry, “The Odyssey,” by a factor of 10.
Kaur epitomizes the medium she uses — her Instagram feed, for example, is a carefully curated reel of poetry, typography and aesthetic photography — and her triumph is polarizing. While she has legions of devoted fans, made tangible by her 1.7 million Instagram and 166,000 Twitter followers, she also has her detractors. Her brief and aphoristic writing is parodied by meme culture; people often insert line breaks into sentences and add her signature at the end, ridiculing the brevity of her poetry.
Kaur eschews complex, lengthy verse. Her poems are concise and neatly minimalistic yet extremely relatable. She acts as the voice for young women and for women of color. Her work most often deals with love, femininity, the immigrant experience and sexual violence; her poems come off as raw and deeply personal.
But the overwhelming popularity and astonishing financial success of her poetry is not because she provides anything substantially insightful; rather, it’s the opposite. Kaur’s poetry operates on clichéd truths and relies heavily on implications. What makes “Milk and Honey” so appealing is not just the universality of its themes but its ambiguity — readers relate to many of her poems, but there isn’t much to distinguish her writing style from those of other internet poets. She alludes to her personal life but does not go beyond that, allowing readers to project themselves onto her poetry. They fill in the gaps that Kaur leaves with their own experiences, their own first loves and heartbreaks and traumas.
When I first read “Milk and Honey,” I was underwhelmed. Kaur is not a bad poet at all. I found a few of her poems relatable, and some of them were brilliant, either in their lyricism or in the messages they conveyed about female empowerment and survival. With most of them, however, I felt as though I’d already read them somewhere else before, and the text felt strangely flat and lacking in depth.
Kaur’s supporters may argue that critics are, unconsciously or not, sexist and elitist. They note that she was able to write and publish work that resonated with a huge number of young women and that she achieved financial success with her work despite its origins on Tumblr and Instagram. They may be right, but their logic ignores the nuances of the problem with “Milk and Honey.”
The collection is strangely impersonal, which is at odds with its intimate themes and the fact that poetry is an inherently personal genre. Kaur detaches her identity from the majority of her poems; if you blurred out her signature, her work could have been written by any young female poet. Instead of exploring the topic of survival, as the overview of “Milk and Honey” claims to do, Kaur largely plays it safe and writes about what she finds familiar. This would be fine, but she has this enormous platform that she can potentially use to explore and advocate for the issues she cares about, and she isn’t doing enough with it.
Kaur is one of the few women of color who has managed to earn mainstream recognition in a literary world that is still predominantly white. She has an extremely large audience which gives her the power to raise and pursue topics, such as awareness of sexual violence and intersectional feminism, that would otherwise not be discussed. She shouldn’t be treated as the single voice of all young South Asian women, of course, but she can represent one of many voices, which is incredibly important.
In “Milk and Honey,” she does try to maintain this political edge in her poetry, but she doesn’t push it far enough. She sacrifices complexity for the sake of connecting to a wider audience. Because of this, Kaur is unable to contribute anything new to the genre of poetry — while she incorporates salient themes, her style of poetry isn’t original; her ideas, which consist of pithy truths, are indistinguishable from those of her contemporaries. Her poetry, a reductive combination of slam and confessional, is merely a paradigm of relatability.
In that light, is her meteoric rise to fame so surprising? These days, our culture, especially as shaped by the internet, is centered on relatability. The most popular posts we share and the memes we laugh at are understood by everyone. It’s no wonder, then, that her poetry is targeted by meme culture; the satirization of her work acknowledges the power of its relatability. Maybe her seemingly trite poetry symbolizes another evolution of the genre. In the 1950s, we saw the winding, nonsensical rants of the Beatniks; nowadays, we are surrounded by the brief and easily accessible poems that can be retweeted and reposted in a blink of an eye. Kaur and her peers write to fit the confines of the internet, whether it’s Twitter’s character count or Instagram’s square frames.
Last year, Kaur signed an advanced two-book deal with Andrews McMeel Publishing and Simon & Schuster Canada. The first of these is her second book of poetry, “The Sun and Her Flowers,” which was released earlier this month and now joins “Milk and Honey” as two of the top-selling poetry collections on Amazon. The subject and form of the third book are still unknown. I hope that Kaur takes advantage of her current position of privilege and freedom to develop the themes she introduced in “Milk and Honey” in future projects. She no longer needs to be relatable in order to attract an audience; there are already millions of people listening.