For decades, poetry was seen as the dustiest art form going. A pursuit so highbrow, even the kids from Dead Poets Society had to meet in a cave to talk about it, in case they were expelled for being too dry. In recent years, that perception has changed dramatically. A new wave of poets have reached the mainstream, and social media is to thank – or blame – for it all.
Gone are the 15,000-line epics, in are pithy quotes and quick-fire couplets. The poems that seem to work best are those that can be read, understood and liked in the time it takes to scroll past them on Instagram.
Rupi Kaur in particular is thriving thanks to this format. Her musings – largely grammarless verses and accompanying doodles – have seen her amass over 3.7 million followers on Instagram. You’ve probably seen her debut collection milk and honey on the best-sellers list, or surrounded by cacti in Urban Outfitters. But not everyone's so impressed with her success.
Last year, poet and critic Rebecca Watts called out Kaur and her fellow Insta-poets for the "rejection of craft that characterises their work" in a polemic titled "The Cult of the Noble Amateur". Watts really went in, describing the new fad of Insta-poetry as the "complete rejection of complexity, subtlety and eloquence".
So what's going on here? Are Kaur and her cohorts really making meaningful points in a quick, simple way, and deservedly picking up followers off the back of it? Or is their stuff just a load of easily digestible, marketable noise?
To find out, I dived headfirst into the world of Instagram poetry – not as a reader, but as a contender, aiming to write the worst stuff possible. I'm no poet, but that was perfect for my plan: I would pack my page with the most sickeningly trite, cliché and flowery words I could muster. Would I be spotted for the talentless hack I am? Or would I become next best-seller and prove quality doesn't matter when it comes to Insta-poetry?
Every poet needs a name, and if you're an anonymous internet poet like me, you need something brooding and enigmatic. Something that says fierce but vulnerable, open but shut, wise but naïve, hopeless yet hopeful. You know, all that kind of stuff that sounds complex but actually means absolutely nothing.
I looked out the window and saw a pigeon sitting in a tree. This wasn't exactly the inspiration I needed, so I did what the best Instagrammers do – I rejected reality, inserted something cooler and became: "Raven". Unfortunately, this name was already taken by about 40 people. So, in the end, I became: @RavenStaresPoetry. I set my profile photo as a raven, obnoxiously quoted myself in my own bio, and began.
Writing the poems was easier than I expected. It was liberating to have absolutely zero standards. As long as it was shit, it got the green light.
"A cigarette glimpse, I claim the air, this nicotine mist, will draw you near, my dear" – Raven S.
I used a free typewriter app to get that budget-Bukowski vibe, and drew some Rupi Kaur style doodles using Instagram's story feature. A quick screenshot and crop, and it was ready for the main feed. I used a few hashtags (not too many; I have integrity), like #PoemsPorn, #PoemsAboutLove, #Poet and of course #Raven.
By the end of the first week I'd written 40 awful poems. I was averaging about 50 likes on each post, and my account – which had only been active for seven days – had already amassed 281 followers, which is fucking absurd.
It was incredibly easy to churn these poems out. There were no standards, aside from the deliberate lack of any. I set myself small challenges, like, "What's the worst thing I can write before this kettle boils?" or "What's the worst doodle I can get away with?" (the answer: a rare gem that looked more like an onion) and I was spurred on by the constantly positive reaction.
Each day I woke up to a fresh batch of likes, comments and followers. At the end of week two I had an audience of 350. Raven was making his mark on the internet poetry scene.
There's a big poetry community on Instagram, and I wondered if that was the reason for my relative success. I was following a few hundred people and I suspected they were just following me back for the same reason: mutual promotion. But that didn't explain the intense DMs I started receiving.
One girl reached out to say her boyfriend had just broken up with her, but she had spent all night reading my poems and that was helping her get through it. Someone else messaged to declare her soul and mine were entwined. Another message encouraged me to publish my poems. People started sharing my posts on their Instagram stories and sending me heart emojis.
I was extremely confused. 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; I wrote stuff like this:
"They may be sly as a fox, but you can take it – You're as strong as an ox" – Raven S.
The kind of drivel that would get you kicked out of Year Five for not trying hard enough. But it was somehow connecting with people on a genuine level. What was going on?
I had slowed down in week three, put off by the sincere reactions to my insincere poetry, but I picked up the pace to finish the project.
I wanted a legit endorsement quote for my inevitable published collection, so I commented on a post by @AtticusPoetry, an Insta-poet with 1.2 million followers and a best-selling collection of his own, and asked what he thought of my stuff.
He used the word "amazing", which'll do me.
By my 100th and final post I had amassed 646 followers in just four weeks, which was more than I had on my real Instagram account. I did some quick maths and realised I could get 8,000 followers within one year if I kept it up. Not bad for zero talent, hollow words and surface-level sentiments.
Rebecca Watts had a point when she accused Instagram poetry of rejecting complexity, but I think that's precisely why it's so successful. People don't have time to regularly dissect Wordsworth or Byron, but a flash of poetry on their feed can make them feel like they've connected with something. It's true a lot of people are masquerading as talented – it turns out this stuff is easy to fake – but that doesn't mean the reaction of the readers isn't real and valid. And as a wise poet once said:
"That's the thing about feelings, you have to FEEL them." – Raven S.