Poetry is an art form built on nuance. In the past, people thought of it as the kind of thing with hidden depths, meanings, subtext – something that appreciative readers felt touched them deeply. You never really understood a poem at first glance. Maybe that was the beauty of it.
But over the decades, something changed. Today, much of the verse we see – especially on social media – feels simple; downright simplistic, even. Goodbye nuance; farewell re-reading and reflection. Hello, shitty maudlin poems that scan like Live Laugh Love for the TikTok generation.
Now bad poetry is everywhere: overlaid across Day in the Life videos, in godawful “affirmation” Instagram posts and decorating framed Etsy prints and twee bookmarks – they’re even in bank commercials and Coke ads.
Call it the Rupi Kaur effect: The 30 year old Indian-Canadian’s poetry started gaining traction after 2014, when she exploded onto the literary scene with her self-published poetry collection milk and honey. It became a New York Times bestseller in 2017 and has been a staple there ever since.
Though Kaur’s work was critiqued by many from the get-go, it was, at one point in the 2010s, impossible to escape Instagram or Snapchat stories featuring her poetry – its artfully placed but basic lines easily parsed by the average English language-reader, slotting easily between Instagram posts of wellness smoothies and influencers channeling Goop-y Gwyneth Paltrow-ness. Best of all, they’re short: Each poem in milk and honey averages around three to five lines.
“I believe we’ve seen a shift toward oversimplification in poetry because of our increasingly limited attention spans,” says Dominique Middleton, author and associate strategist at the content firm Codeword Agency. “If the whole poem can’t fit in a 1x1 Instagram frame, a tweet or within a 30-second TikTok, it likely will miss fame. I think it’s a full-on culture shift to which poetry has also acclimated.”
Minimalism, often referenced but rarely understood, might be part of the reason why people are drawn to these short poems. Their brevity is equated with minimalist chicness – the poetic equivalent of the clean girl aesthetic – though few of these basic verses have much to do with the artistic abstraction that’s key to minimalism.
“The over-simplification corresponds directly with the fact that poetry can now be instantly produced and shared in front of a ready audience,” says Naima Rashid, author, poet and brand strategist. “Since numbers are all that matter here, the minute you have anyone, whether discerning or not, consuming it and considering it poetry, you have a following. In this cycle of ease and access, the barrier to entry is lowered. Any form of quality check is naturally thrown out of the equation.”
Before the advent of social media, it was relatively difficult for up and coming poets to access publishers and gain success. Now, thousands of people share their work on TikTok under #PoetryCommunity and #PoetryIsNotDead. Suddenly anyone can post their creations online and call themselves a poet.
This seeming democratisation of the poetry world has, however, led to the rise of some pretty terrible poetry — especially on TikTok. New-gen poets like Aliza Grace have grown increasingly popular while simultaneously being accused of plagiarism. And this reductive style of poetry is bleeding into other parts of pop culture – not least in the seemingly endless streams of spoken word, slam poetry-infused advertisements.
Many new-gen social media poets follow the formats used so successfully by Kaur: breaking up basic sentences into digestible phrases, spacing them oddly on the page (or screen) and using italics and bold type to suggest intricacy and thoughtfulness.
“I think bad poetry gets further [today] and seems more prevalent because of the ease of internet self-publishing and independent publishing options,” says Leah Nicole Bailey, a secondary school teacher and poet. “But I can’t see it as a ‘bad’ thing since this same ease means we hear disadvantaged, marginalised or otherwise unknown voices I never would have had the chance to otherwise. Art, in any form, is always going to be subjective.”
“The issue isn't that young poets are sharing their writing online, it's that their work is shared in a vacuum,” explains Yasmin Belkhyr, a writer, literary editor and founder of literary magazine Winter Tangerine. “I'd say that the majority of poetry being written and shared on social media today exists outside of the context of living literary tradition – which doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to be terrible but rather, that these poets have no guidance, no inspiration, and no nuance.”
Compact and emotionally simplistic poems are nothing new – haikus have been around since the 17th century and are still some of the simplest forms of poetry to this day. The problem with the cringe poetry being pumped out online is that the work is un-specific and has absolutely nothing unique to say – bland to a point where anyone could find it relatable. Relatability isn’t a bad thing in itself, but if it comes at the cost of a poem actually saying anything, then what’s the point?
“Poetry is appealing because it's a medium for unadulterated self-expression, but these poems aren't emotionally vulnerable at all,” says Belkhyr. “They're not saying anything. There's nothing at stake. There's no emotional vulnerability.”
“This is not to say that people need to rip their hearts out for their art or share all the personal elements of their lives, but unspecific poems offer nothing to the reader,” she adds. “Everyone has felt sad, but when you're writing a poem about sadness, you should be answering what sadness feels like to you. Saying ‘I was sad once’ doesn't tell the reader anything and doesn't offer any new angles or interpretations or understandings of sadness.”
Belkhyr stresses that there's absolutely nothing wrong with writing bad poetry – that it takes time to perfect, just like any other art form. The problem occurs when emotionally lazy, simplistic poetry becomes not just the standard, but the only kind of poetry gaining attention – when it becomes nothing more than just adding line breaks to vaguely emotive sentences.
It’s not just social media platforms pumping out endless reams of emotionally vacant poetry. Industry gatekeepers have dollar signs in their eyes, too: “Media literacy is in the toilet and it appears the publishing industry as a whole is in a race to the bottom in their misguided attempts to raise profits by appealing to the broadest possible demographic possible,” says Belkhyr. “This means that not only is bland, uninteresting poetry being shared endlessly across social media, it's also being relentlessly peddled to the masses by publishing execs with dollar signs in their eyes.”
Still, poets like Rashid are not too worried about this change, even if they’re happy to call out the “bastardisation of the craft”. It simply means poets have more avenues to express themselves in. “This is a natural evolution of things and literary genres become more popular, taking on the everyman flavour,” she shrugs. “Simply put, there are many quality lanes now, from ‘cringeworthy’ to mediocre to excellent. There are more options and more practitioners now. You just have to pick your lane and your people.”