In an unsurprising series of events, the internet is here with Rupi Kaur memes once again. On March 22, Indo-Canadian poet Rupi Kaur posted a TikTok video of her reading poems from her debut collection of poetry, milk and honey. “You must’ve known you were wrong,” she begins, “when your fingers were dipped inside me, searching for honey, that would not come for you.” Kaur’s dramatic reading of her poem immediately went viral on Twitter, and it didn’t take long for the memes to emerge.
Kaur climbed to fame with her unique and largely grammarless verses with line breaks, and doodles on the side—all of which can be read, understood and liked/despised in the amount of time it takes to scroll past an Instagram post. She’s been called the “Queen of Instapoets”, is a New York Times bestselling author, and was named “Writer of the Decade” by The New Republic. More recently, she released her third book of poems titled home body. Her work has sprung debates, spoofs, parodies, and memes.
Kaur came into the limelight with her project on menstruation in 2015 when she posted a picture of her in pyjamas with a period bloodstain. The picture was removed from Instagram twice for violating guidelines but was later reinstated. Around the same time, her book of poems, milk and honey, became both, a cult favourite and a brutally memed piece of work, amongst art and poetry circles on Tumblr and Instagram. In 2017, milk and honey became a New York Times bestseller.
But among the long list of bad authors and poets out there, Kaur seems to invite a special kind of hate and condescension. Kaur’s style has always been simple; she does not use complex metaphors and figures of speech that can bore you to death. But critics have also called her work “too simplistic” and criticised her for appropriating the trauma of South Asian women. Famous parodies of her work include a Facebook page called “Not Rupi Kaur”, which has amassed 200,000 likes since its creation in March 2019. Out here, short and banal sentences, often ending with an anticlimax, are similarly broken down into lowercase lines.
“I started the page on a whim one stoned night,” the anonymous woman running the page tells VICE from Montreal, Canada. “I am a poet too. I was messing around with Instagram poetry one night and thought it would be fun to share with the world.” In a week, her page had 20,000 fans. Since then, the page is also being used as a platform to advocate for mental health, social and racial justice, and feminist issues. “But always in line break format.”
Kaur’s style has been made fun of, or at the very least, parodied, for so long that it’s hard to see any actual critique come through. But it’s not uncommon to see memes and parodies on Rupi Kaur with misogynistic undertones—with some saying she would not have faced this if she were a white man. Twitter user @kanyewestluvr who goes by “no name” online noticed men leaving creepy remarks on her viral tweet on Kaur. “It was almost incel-like, you could see their misogyny clearly,” she says.” I don’t like her poetry myself, but I don’t use that to be misogynistic against her.”
A piece in Society19 described Kaur’s work as “Rupi Kaur completely shits on the core foundation that constitutes literature as a whole, and thus her work isn’t poetry no matter how much popularity she may gain.” It goes on to say, “It goes without saying that her work is complete garbage, and lackluster at best.” Another piece in Arts at Michigan, University of Michigan’s blog, says, “Kaur has mastered the art of making her poems seem profound, especially by capitalizing on the lazy technique of lines breaks.”
Another thing Rupi Kaur critics often point out is her history of controversy; Kaur has been accused of plagiarism which she has denied. “Plagiarism is such a heavy, loaded word,” she said in an interview with VICE in 2018. “It can also silence people. People who would not be writing otherwise. Me using a couple of words that the other person also uses doesn’t equal plagiarism.”
Kaur’s work has also been criticised for exoticising the South Asian immigrant experience. “Rupi’s poetry is tailored for the white gaze,” says no name. “I don’t like how she generalises the South Asian immigrant experience to intergenerational trauma, it’s harmful to people like me who come from refugee communities.”
Have Rupi Kaur memes turned into a subculture?
Memes on Kaur often follow a similar pattern: making fun of her style, her work, and often, just ridiculing her. But what makes people so driven by hate towards Kaur? “Her work is bland and shallow, it’s not surprising that her work has been reduced to memes and jokes,” says Mark, a literature student in the U.K. who views Kaur’s poetry as a “dumpster fire”. Mark himself made tons of memes on Kaur through the lockdown, which is how I spotted and contacted him, though he insists on staying anonymous. “Making memes on her was a fun thing my friends and I did during the lockdown, and it helped us bond better. At this point, the memes are acting as free PR for her. She’s also getting a lot of attention for being a bad poet, but good poets always end up being sidelined.”
But here’s the thing: This might not even be about Kaur being a good poet or a bad poet. This might simply have to do with her having made a cult-like following. “For all the acclaim that celebrities get, we often have ambivalent feelings toward them,” says Leonard S. Newman, an associate professor of psychology at Syracuse University. “We might see them as being overrated; we might suspect that much of their success is just due to luck. Also, because they're constantly under the spotlight, we tend to be aware of their flaws.”
This hate, in a way, is wired into our system itself. It’s what helps us stick in groups, which is what has helped humans to survive and ultimately dominate. But instead of hating on annoying Larry from your gym who only a few of your gym buddies would know of, the internet has opened up the possibility of sharing your hate for a bigger entity with way more people. So the very medium that has spawned Kaur’s fame has also spawned her community of haters—a community akin to a subculture in itself. “But unlike Rupi Kaur, or Andrew Cuomo, there's just not all that many people who know Larry,” says Newman. “Larry-hating is unlikely to develop into a subculture in which you'll get to meet and communicate with lots of like-minded people. In addition, you might become acutely aware of how much pain your mockery is causing Larry, and that can make you feel bad. You're unlikely to worry so much about Vanilla Ice's [or Kaur’s] feelings.”
But why can’t people just move on? If they don’t like Rupi Kaur, they can stop reading her poetry instead of saying mean things on the internet, right? Dr Margaret Cochran, mental health expert thinks this is because people “trap” themselves in “belief prisons” of their own making. “One cannot escape incarceration of this kind without developing compassion for others,” she explains, “and while this may not seem like a difficult thing, when a person has lived in ‘jail’ their whole lives, leaving it and the sense of security, absolute moral authority, and righteousness it provides, and developing empathy for and acceptance of others, can be a very scary thing indeed.”
Social psychologist Gena Cox calls it the “skin in the hate” game. “They can't move on because they’re determined to see it through. They want to win, and each time they see the celebrity going about their business and not shutting up, they get more incensed. It's a vicious cycle.” So every time Kaur, who is prolific in her work, puts out something new, it acts as a trigger for those who not just not appreciate her works but have strong opinions about it.
But again, out of all bad poets and authors to exist—and several of them do of course, like with any creative pursuit—why does Kaur receive so much hate, to the point her work is synonymous with memes and jokes?
A Guardian piece believes that this could have to be with the demographic that Rupi’s fans largely belong to: young women. “[This] makes her ripe for ridicule: like many pop musicians before her, she commits the sin of engaging with a demographic whose taste is often seen as a byword for bad quality. Push criticism of her actual writing aside and Kaur is a victim of a toxic mix of snobbery and misogyny.”
Several Rupi Kaur haters also believe that she doesn’t deserve the praise and recognition she gets. Kaur’s non-traditional route to fame could be the reason behind it. Kaur did not break into the literary world with a publishing giant or a famous literary agent, she self-published milk and honey while she was in college. After her Instagram post with period blood-stained pyjamas went viral, she republished the book with Andrews McMeel Publishing.
“Kaur’s poetry has always packaged the South Asian diasporic experience for the white gaze,” says Areeb Ahmad, a book reviewer based in Patna, India. “Kaur did not enter the publishing space with a famous publisher, but rather she entered it from her social media fame.” But social media fame also opens one up to trolls and haters who not just populate these spaces but can be vocal about their opinions without much backlash. So while constructive criticism on Kaur’s works exists out there, so does vicious trolling. This, in turn means that for many others, the first introduction to Kaur was not her work, but the memes.
In 2015, when her work first started getting attention in poetry communities on Tumblr, and Instagram, the memes and debates around her work grew. Many haters simply think Kaur had the “easy way” to her fame.
Cox points out that these memes can further play a role in desensitising people. “Research shows that prolonged exposure to memes plays a role in psychological desensitisation. This is especially true when the memes are used to create humour about something that was originally serious. As time goes on, the memes get harsher and sharper making the subject a caricature, not a person.”
Furthermore, Kaur’s ethnicity too could be exposing her to more trolls than, say, an equally prolific and talented (or not, depending on where you sit with this debate) cis white male poet could get. “Members of under-represented groups in terms of race, ethnicity, LGBTQ+ status, etc are more likely to be targets of hate than members of groups that have more power or status” says Cox.
So is this collective hate out there not for the creations as much as it’s for the creator themselves? Probably. “Kaur is another victim of the very toxic and misogynist world in which we live,” argues Cochran. “And any woman, especially women of colour, who have the courage and audacity to own their power and use their voices will be maligned.”