Vanessa N. Wolosz analyses the trend of minimalist poetry and constructs a convincing defense of “Instapoetry”.
Over the course of my (admittedly relatively short) lifetime, I’ve witnessed several literary trends staunchly latched onto by young adult audiences. These include the influx of YA magical realism titles like Twilight and The Mortal Instruments as well as the almost bizarre popularity of science-fiction dystopian novels that seemed to result from the success of The Hunger Games franchise. Over the past few years, a new literary trend has risen: minimalist poetry. Anyone with an Instagram account would be able to recognise it on sight– characterised by short lines of free verse sans most punctuation, usually organised into one stanza, and almost always rendered in one of the eighty typewriter fonts available to download onto Microsoft Word. It’s been dubbed “Instapoetry”, that name itself more witless than the trend.
There are a few major players in this literary trend. I’m most familiar with R. H. Sin, Atticus, and the queen herself: Rupi Kaur. In all fairness, the popularity of these writers must be due in part to their social media presence and the ubiquity of a pristine aesthetic across Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr. However, if I see another post featuring Kaur’s debut poetry collection, Milk and Honey, next to a mug of tea and/or a plate with a croissant on it, I’m going to lose my mind. That being said, this kind of “pop” poetry both looks cool and addresses a relatable subject matter for young adults. Flipping through any of the most popular poetry books since 2015, you’ll probably stumble upon something undoubtedly clout-worthy. It’s pretty accessible, too, when compared to some of the most well-regarded poetry by scholars today (read: “The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot). The appeal of poetry is, therefore, well understood. It’s nice to look at, it’s engaging, and it’s fairly comprehensible. But is it good?
Okay, so, pop poetry is perhaps not the best material I’ve ever read. But, it does possess some entertainment value and I think a lot of it is pretty, too. Not everyone wants to count iambic feet or evaluate the implications of Petrarchan versus Elizabethan sonnets when they’re trying to enjoy whatever collection they’re reading. Whilst public fascination with poetry often lies in deciphering how figurative devices and form contribute to overall meaning, a poem doesn’t need to be overly convoluted to be interesting. Indeed, that specific genre of elaborate poetry is probably to blame for causing its own reputation for being elitist; it’s more trouble than it’s worth for anyone who doesn’t have the time for the conventions of frivolous academia. That isn’t to say that the likes of Allen Ginsberg, John Donne, and Maya Angelou aren’t worth the read either (my personal favourite poet will always be Edna St Vincent Millay), but the literary community certainly has enough room for pop poetry. It’s still possible to analyse the structure and composition of pop poetry as well as to appreciate it, even though it might not look how renowned poetry is apparently supposed to.
Moreover, the rise of contemporary minimalist poetry actually has a lot in common with most past literary movements in that it is being evaluated based only on a small number of poets. Just because this genre of poetry seems fairly centralised at the moment, it would be extremely unfair of me to assess every new age poet on the same level, just to assign the trend itself an appraisal. Writers who are a part of the same movement are not necessarily interchangeable with one another. In my personal opinion, R. H. Sin is a trash poet whose works simultaneously read as contrived, patronising, and lacking any discernable vision whatsoever. He published four books in 2017 alone, and I really wonder how much quality work is actually being produced after, maybe, book two. By contrast, I do like Rupi Kaur. Her work is honest and clean-cut, her two collections scattered with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fragments of wisdom. Recently, she’s begun to break out of the newly developed mold of minimalist poetry she helped develop herself, proving her capability to evolve as a writer. Her stuff is fun to read, so I’m going to continue reading it. Although Sin and Kaur use similar styles and social media marketing techniques, their works are incomparable.
In determining the worth of minimalist poetry, it must be noted that whilst it’s recently become almost inescapable as a medium, minimalism as a poetic style has definitely existed for quite some time. Like, guys, what do you think haikus are? Likewise, one of the most noteworthy minimalist poems I’ve had the chance to read was written in 1962 by William Carlos Williams. It’s titled “The Red Wheelbarrow” and here it is, quoted in full:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
That’s it. That’s the poem. Today, contemporary minimalist poets receive disparagement because, to be honest, their poetry doesn’t read as being all that complicated or thought-provoking. If this were actually the case, then Mr. Williams would be out of luck (and not just because he died like 50 years ago). What I’m trying to say is this: there is no point in denouncing the contemporary minimalist poetry movement for certain attributes if we aren’t going to hold works that are better established in literary tradition to similar standards.
Correspondingly, our cultural tendency to condemn any new phenomenon the youth flocks to is terribly boring, and the hate that young poets receive is unreasonable. Young people have been influenced by the internet to do dumber things than buy poetry books. In fact, I’d argue that this is one of the best products of our aesthetic driven internet today: a new appreciation for books and literature and creating art in unorthodox ways. During the former part of the 2000’s, reading poetry wasn’t exactly the coolest way to spend your free time. Now, we’re re-inventing poetry as a literary genre on our own terms, as something synergetic to the presentation of our online identities and consequently of our real ones.