Very recently, British poet Rebecca Watts wrote an article for the PN Review harshly criticising the work of young poets such as Rupi Kaur, Kate Tempest, and Hollie McNish (link). Her article has created much controversy among the literary world, however the sentiments she conveys (in some instances rather harshly) are nothing new. Here are some examples of poetry from these poets:
Throughout the twenty-first century poetry has been thought of as a dying form. Among the general public, poetry has been viewed as unpopular – even irrelevant. Although, before the likes of Rupi Kaur, there were some other well-received modern poets. However, they were accused of producing substandard and bland work. Mark Edmunson, a professor at the University of Virginia, stated that “the poets who now get the balance of public attention and esteem are casting unambitious spells” (link).
Edmundson’s argument has been blasted out of proportion by the tremendous growth of social media. Watts draws upon the role of social media in encouraging “artless” poetry. I briefly mentioned in one of my previous posts that social media has had an immense impact on our attention spans, and Watts also uses this to discuss “short-form communication” which is apparently what Kaur’s poetry is. In the present day, we have all been conditioned into responding to buzzwords, particularly in politics. This is most prominently seen with Donald Trump and his renowned phrases such as “Make America Great Again”. There is no particular meaning behind these words, no one knows what they really mean, and yet the general sentiment worked in persuading a significant proportion of the American population. Watts mentions that Evan Williams, Twitter co-founder, revealed his disappointment after witnessing Twitter’s aid in securing Trump his victory, and claimed that social media platforms were helping to “dumb the entire world down”. Watts explains that buzzwords such as “honesty” and “accessibility” have been created to promote consumerist poetry such as Kaur’s. She expresses bewilderment at why and when poetry was ever about “honesty”. Throughout the many, many forms of poetry (the elegy, the dramatic monologue, blank verse, epic), “honesty” is never something we have required from the poet. Watts states that Kaur’s work is “consumer-driven content” – written to sell to the masses, not an art form. She states:
What good is a flourishing poetry market, if what we read in poetry books renders us more confused, less appreciative of nuance, less able to engage with ideas, more indignant about the things that annoy us, and more resentful of others who appear to be different from us?
Watts also discusses the work of British poet McNish. McNish has claimed that her poems are ‘scribbled in confused moments’. Perhaps only poetry has undergone this consumerist change because it is easier to call a piece of writing ‘poetry’, regardless of its level of skill and craft. The same way you wouldn’t expect an author to hurriedly type their novel without any editing or rethinking, is the same way a poem should also be treated. If you have studied poetry, reading the work of poets like Rupi Kaur feel like reading a thread of spontaneous melancholy tweets.
Edmundson remarks that:
Many of the poems published in, say, The New Yorker feel just like the linguistic equivalent of a vanilla-scented candle
I agree with some of Watts’ points. I am no fan of Kaur’s work, it seems lazy – both on part of the poet and reader. However, I don’t agree with Watts’ elitist view of poetry. If there is one positive quality of Kaur’s work, it’s that it is accessible to people. Unlike novels or plays, poetry is perceived as a more elite literary form. This is perhaps one preconception which has led to the death of poetry reading in the 21st century. Poetry isn’t something that should be reserved for students and academics, it is a beautiful and complex art form that should be enjoyed by all. Kaur’s work does not do poetry justice. I believe there needs to be a reformation regarding the relationship between skilled poetry and its accessibility. There is no point in Watts complaining about how Kaur’s poetry is a best-seller if she is also encouraging an elite attitude about it (which comes across both in her language and her arguments). It seems counter-intuitive.
Maybe I’ve tried to tackle too many points in this post! It was certainly challenging to try and decipher what exactly I thought of this discussion, and I’m sure I still have a vast amount to add to my opinion of it.
Nonetheless, I hope you found this interesting and have some thoughts of your own, let me know what you think! Are you a fan of Kaur’s work? Do you disagree with Watts? Do you disagree with me?
Thanks for reading,