In the age of Instagram, it’s hard not to think of Jimmy Gatz. That young man doctored his entire life around the appearance of success because he thought it would give him a leg up towards actual success, towards his actual ambitions. As Gatsby he decided he had come from a rich family, attended the best schools, and stocked a library with books he had never read. Behind the scenes he made a fortune working with mobsters and bootleggers. He emulated success in order to pursue a woman whose needs rested in a society that was foreign to him, and he was buried a lovelorn fraud.
Some seem to see this as an essential American story, that when we run out of chances we will rewrite our entire character to manifest another one, and maybe for some that’s a fine thing to believe in. I don’t think it’s wrong, exactly, for someone to resort to lying when their back’s against the wall, and I think there are a ton of people who aspire to be the kind of person Gatsby aspired to be – rich, affluent, respected. Jimmy Gatz represents a kind of need that sits in a lot of us, that most of us aren’t brave, foolish, or desperate enough to engage with. Instagram, I think, preys on that part of us.
That’s being charitable. The culture salesmen on Instagram don’t aspire to be “The Great Gatsby,” they aspire to be Jimmy Gatz. Rupi Kaur is masquerading as a poet because she wants to be seen as someone who would try to fraudulently manifest herself into a position of social success, she doesn’t even bother to go the extra step and formulate around herself the artifacts or the narrative of that success. Calling her a poet, again, is being charitable. At the beginning of this year, PN Review published an article by actual poet Rebecca Watts pointing this out, but with more of a focus on a “poet” from her native UK. It’s an excellent piece of writing and I recommend reading it in full.
I became aware of both of these writers through an Atlantic article called “How Instagram Saved Poetry: Social media is turning an art form into an industry.” and it would be an understatement to call this article viscerally disgusting. You can’t save an art form by turning it into an industry, the very notion is insulting. You don’t save one of the oldest, most respected forms of human expression by transforming it to appeal to the lowest common denominator. You do not celebrate poetry by sandwiching it between magazine photos as a glorified caption.
As I started to point out the other week, there is a narrative about poetry that its sublimation is found through honesty and simplicity, and that any deeper understanding or metatextual reading is anathema to the form itself. That, at least, is not a new problem for poets to solve. It brings to mind William Carlos Williams, surrounded by the cerebral, studious imagists, writing his small poem about a red wheelbarrow. His focus was on the image itself, theirs was on the music or the exactitude of wording, but in the end this was an argument about how best to show the reader something real.
The problem with an “Instagram Poet” is that the role of Instagram (and salesmanship in general) is to distort reality – to induce, rather than reveal, an image. When the primary draw of poetry is honesty and authenticity, yet it’s produced on social media for a particular market, it becomes the observational comedy of the literary world. It becomes a practiced lie that people tell themselves about other peoples’ lives. Rupi Kaur’s book could not exist, couldn’t even make any sense, without reference to her Instagram personality.
Essentially, the reason it works is because of the aspiration that makes Instagram marketing so effective in our day and age. Young women see Instagram pages that pretend to chronicle a real human life, but they are as fake, as callously designed, and as corporate as a Pepsi commercial. They believe that, with a little bit of coaching, or the right products, they can lead the kind of romantically fulfilling life that Rupi Kaur does. They see her huge, beautiful settings masquerading as a home, they see her beautifully made-up in expensive dresses with professional lighting and they know beyond the shadow of a doubt that they have the potential to live that life, and to finally be satisfied.
Or at least I presume they must believe this, because it’s all Rupi Kaur offers, and she has 3 million followers. Combined with the knowledge that lifestyle brands offer clandestine deals to Instagram taste-makers to showcase their products without full disclosure, this seems like a fair read on this particular peak of the social media landscape. Rupi Kaur’s poems, and trust me I grit my teeth to have to refer to them as that, typically range 1 to 8 lines and describe love and loss. Here is one in its entirety: “you took the sun with you / when you left” Paired with a rather desolate line-drawing that wouldn’t look out of place in a James Kochalka sketch-book.
This is designed to augment the user experience of relating to Rupi Kaur as a personality. It’s placed between images of social perfection and pure aspiration as a reminder that the woman in the pictures is really just like you. The poetry tries to be raw to legitimize the lies that surround it, and to dupe more people into buying into Rupi’s particular Gatsbyisms. The poetry, I mean to say, is an accessory to the Instagram account, and designed to make it more successful. It’s not so much poetry, then, as an advertising tag-line. And that’s the only way it makes sense.
I tried to write about Rupi Kaur comparing her poems to Larkin’s or Rilke’s with similar themes, and realized how patently unfair that was. So I again tried to write about her, comparing her to my friend Emily, who hasn’t been published or made a dime off her own poetry, but whose work outshines Kaur’s in every conceivable way. The truth is it’s distasteful for me to describe Rupi Kaur as a poet because, if you try to analyze her work through the lens of poetry, it’s as baffling as seeing a loved one trampled to death by a car. Yeah, that’s another reference to “The Great Gatsby.”
Do not give Rupi Kaur the benefit of the doubt. Do not read her “poetry,” and don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you it has any importance at all to the world of poetry. It may be that what future generations mean when they speak of poetry is something as meaningless and empty as this, but when that day comes we will, out of necessity, invent a new word to describe actual poetry. More importantly, if you’re thinking about buying any of Rupi Kaur’s products, or supporting her in any way, remember that Gatsby had to make his fortune with mobsters and bootleggers. Don’t let anyone build their success on lies alone.