Instapoetry: Redefining genre for millennials, or art form going from bad to verse?

Despite what critics might say, there's no denying that Instapoets are defining the poetry for Gen Ys

14 March 2021 - 00:02 By Jessica Brodie
It's perhaps precisely this relatability that makes Instapoetry so resonant among millennials, argues the writer.
It's perhaps precisely this relatability that makes Instapoetry so resonant among millennials, argues the writer.
Image: 123RF/prykhodov

Let's be frank, there are not many upsides to social media. We are well aware that the social media we consume is tantamount to mental junk food. Yet, while we mourn the loss of culture as we know it, one archaic art form is fighting back. Poetry is booming.

There are a host of young poets whose work has found a home on Instagram, and this is translating to a resurgence in poetry's popularity beyond the social media platform. Two years ago, Instagram poet Rupi Kaur's book Milk and Honey became the biggest selling poetry book of all time, with 3.5-million sales, replacing Homer's The Iliad.

In the literary world, Instapoets get a bad rap. In the poetry journal PR Review, poet Rebecca Watts wrote a scathing indictment of Instagram poetry, titled The Cult of the Noble Amateur. In it, Watts ripped into the genre, describing Instapoetry as the "complete rejection of complexity, subtlety and eloquence.

The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the instant gratification this affords." She argues that the number of followers a writer has does not attest to the quality of the work, but rather to the author's ability to create accessible content. She went on to say that the literary community should "stop celebrating amateurism and ignorance".

It's not hard to argue with the hit and miss quality of Instapoetry, and there have been a host of social experiments conducted to illustrate how easy it is to amass followers without any real substantive content. Thom Young, a high school English teacher who amassed 50,000 followers on Instagram, did so by writing intentionally trite four-word "poems".

Similarly, Andrew Lloyd, a contributor to Vice magazine, parodied Instapoetry, amassing 1,000 followers in a month by writing the worst poetry he could. "I did everything I could to make these poems as bad as possible, and they were bad. It's not like I'm some poetry prodigy who can't help writing beautiful verses," said Lloyd.

But despite what critics might say, there's no denying that Instapoets are defining the genre for the millennial generation. Being able to self-publish means that the poetry emerging through this space is remarkably more democratic, bringing a level of diversity to the poetry world that it's never had before. Their work is accessible in more than one sense of the word, and while critics may look down on it, the work of these young poets is being termed "gateway poetry".

Research has shown a 21% annual growth rate in sales of poetry books in the US and a 12% annual increase in the UK, making it one of the fastest-growing categories in publishing. While sales of traditional poetry books are up, almost half the sales of poetry books are of those by Instapoets.

"What the poets of Instagram tend to have in common is what I'd call emotional relatability or accessibility, and a tone and vocabulary that's reminiscent of the self-help or self-improvement movement - many read like motivational quotes," said Dr Eleanor Spencer-Regan, digital director of the Institute of Poetry and Poetics at Durham University.

It's perhaps precisely this relatability that makes Instapoetry so resonant among millennials. While they may lack the time and attention to dissect long-form poetry and convoluted language, the ultimate goal of the Instapoets is to connect directly with their audience, something they're proving to be doing exceptionally well.

Follow the biggest names in Instagram poetry, and see if they resonate with you.

RUPI KAUR

4.2-million followers

Kaur, 27, is the premier Instagram poetess. She was born in India and moved to Canada when she was four. Her skilful sketches illustrate her Instapoems, which are raw and personal.

RM DRAKE

2.4-million followers

Colombian-American poet, novelist and visual artist Robert Macias, who specialises in relationship advice in the form of blocks of text.

YSRA DALEY WARD

198,000 followers

Daley-Ward is a queer writer and poet of Jamaican and Nigerian descent. The former model has been hailed as a major literary talent for her poetry collection Bone and experimental memoir The Terrible. She currently has a collaboration with H&M, available worldwide.

LANG LEAV

545,000 followers

A veteran Instapoet, Leav was born in Thailand, brought up in Australia and lives in New Zealand. She began by publishing her poetry on Tumblr, before moving to print media.


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