In the last few years, poetry has enjoyed an astonishing re-emergence. According to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the percentage of adults reading poetry between 2012 and 2017 grew by a whopping 76 percent. In fact, roughly 28 million adults reported reading poetry in 2017, with those aged 18-24 increasing by a factor of two.
Much of this increase can be explained by the rise of “Instapoetry,” a form of poetry that is generated and shared on social media platforms, namely, Instagram. While the form has no doubt encouraged people, especially the young, to read poetry beyond the classroom, it isn’t without controversy. Additionally, slam poetry and spoken word are also enjoying popularity because of their performative and interactive appeal.
Upon closer inspection, these “newer” forms of poetry both are and aren’t all that new. Poetry, more broadly understood, may be just as “popular” today as it always has been without our realizing it. Ultimately, poetry is continuing to inspire, enrich, and resonate with many just as it has done throughout human history.
The Rise of Instapoetry
Rupi Kaur, perhaps the most well-known “Instapoet,” has sold over 3.5 million copies of her first poetry collection milk & honey. Kaur shares much of her work on Instagram, for which she currently has 4 million followers. Her first book has been translated into 40 languages and took the top spot from The Odyssey — that well-known and ancient classic of poetry — as the best-selling book in the genre in 2016.
Since Instagram prizes visual engagement and limited text, Instapoetry relies on concise language usually accompanied by a compelling sketch, image, or graphic of some kind. The key potential advantages of the medium over more traditional ones are access and reach. Anyone with a computer, internet connection, and social media account can write a poem and share it. This makes the medium tremendously more accessible than, say, getting a book deal with a New York-based publisher or having work published in a high-profile literary magazine. Plus, since social media offers a vast and seemingly limitless set of eyes, should a poem go “viral” it could be read by millions.
Naturally, as with any new iteration in the aesthetic realm, not everyone is happy about it. Rebecca Watts, an accomplished poet in more traditional avenues, wrote an essay in the PN Review criticizing the emerging passel of Instapoets, who she describes as “a cohort of young female poets who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’ – buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft.” Watts was asked to review a book from Instapoet Hollie McNish but declined to do so because, as she wrote, it would “imply that it deserves to be taken seriously as poetry.”
“we are all born
the greatest tragedy is
being convinced we are not.”
It’s true that there is no shortage of poetry on Instagram that is cliché, bland, and downright awful. And it’s understandable that those who have spent many years honing their craft (often to only modest recognition) would be insulted by what someone threw up on a candied stream of Instagram without serious thought or effort. Still, despite the back-and-forth about the merits of Instapoetry, the general public has spoken by offering that most precious of currencies: attention.
But whether Instapoetry as a whole is “poetry” or not is beside the point. What matters isn’t the medium through which poetry is generated and disseminated (e.g. social media), but the poetry itself. In other words, it may be unfair to condemn a given poem merely because it’s taking advantage of the latest innovation in technology.
This is the opinion of PLNU professor of writing, Katie Manning, Ph.D. As an acclaimed poet and teacher of poetry, she is interested in the artistic expression of language itself, not whether or not someone published on social media.
“I would never be dismissive of an entire form,” Manning said. “I think that any form can be done well or poorly.”
Manning has encountered good poetry on Instagram as well as bad, just like she has when reading “traditional” or longer form poetry. However, she did acknowledge that one potential downside to Instapoetry is that it can take on a somewhat fleeting character. Since the medium prioritizes skimmability and speed, even the most haunting and well-crafted lyrics can be swallowed by a sea of frenzied content.
Manning clarified that Instapoetry is really not all that new in the first place.
“I would never be dismissive of an entire form.”
“I don’t think of poetry on Instagram as being all that different from broadsides, which have been around for a long time and include a visual art background behind a small amount of text,” Manning shared.
Manning also noted that some of the most brilliant poems are quite short and would easily fit on an Instagram post. One example is Ezra Pound’s famous poem “In a Station of the Metro,” which is a mere fourteen words:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
The takeaway: the circumscribed nature of social media doesn’t preclude the possibility of creating great poetry.
Expanding Our Definition of Poetry
Again, this recent rise in the popularity of poetry, backed by the National Endowment for the Arts, certainly points to a change in the public’s engagement with the art form. Yet, by expanding our definition of poetry we may realize that poetry has always enjoyed mass appeal.
“Poetry never went anywhere,” Manning shared. “It’s not popular in the way football is popular, but it’s always been here. It’s ubiquitous and used in just about everything, major events like funerals, weddings, or inaugurations. Poetry is like that kid that everyone likes but is not considered popular even though they actually have more friends than the popular kids. Poetry is wide and broad and ‘contain[s] multitudes’ (thank you, Walt Whitman).”
As a professor, she is committed to helping students admit that they actually already love some form of poetry, even if they don’t initially know it. From spoken word to hip hop to nursery rhymes to Psalms to Dr. Seuss: poetry truly is everywhere. It’s something we are immersed in during our very earliest years.
“Poetry is the lifeblood of rebellion, revolution, and the raising of consciousness.”
Related Story: Lessons I Learned From Alice Walker
“Little kids love poetry, and they are drawn to it because it is so fun to play with language and be singing in poetry and playing with rhyme,” Manning shared.
Additionally, Manning emphasized the sheer diversity of themes and topics that one can find in the world of poetry.
“You can find anything in poetry. Do you like bugs? Do you like baseball? There is an entire book of poetry about the Super Mario Bros. video games and so there is nothing you love that you couldn’t connect with through poetry,” Manning shared.
She has taken advantage of poetry’s vastness on many occasions with her students. She once had a student, a football player, who didn’t care for poetry in the slightest. Yet she was able to finally win him over by introducing him to James Wright’s masterful poem about the onset of fall and the beginning of football season: “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.”
In other words, just because we might not have a burning desire to read William Shakespeare, Robert Frost, or Emily Dickinson doesn’t mean there isn’t poetry out there that can speak deeply to us, no matter our interests, background, or experiences.
Another powerful and popular form of poetry is slam poetry. Slam poetry entails performative elements, allowing for poets to read their work to an audience in a competitive and participatory setting. Poets “compete” with each other over the course of a few rounds. It allows for a high-stakes environment, in which audience members respond directly by snapping, crying out, or emoting feelings of some kind as the poet reads.
PLNU student Makayla Renner is a huge fan of slam poetry. She often attends events hosted by the nationally ranked San Diego Poetry Slam team in North Park in San Diego.
Related story: Advice from a Student-Poet
In addition to being a fan, Renner is a poet as well, and she has been writing poetry since elementary school. Her love for slam poetry was sparked in high school when she joined the school newspaper as a freshman. The teacher managing the newspaper discovered she wrote poetry and encouraged her to attend a poetry reading that he was organizing.
“Poetry never went anywhere.”
“I went and read my poetry in front of people, and it is still one of the coolest experiences I’ve had,” Renner said.
Renner loves how interactive and immersive slam poetry is. She also appreciates that it offers another modality for expanding poetry’s reach and helping others become exposed to the art form in more interactive and communal settings. It offers an alternative avenue for those who might think poetry only exists in academic anthologies.
“Slam poets are communicating more deeply by being vulnerable in order to get this art form out there,” Renner said.
The Unique Power of Poetry
Unfortunately, many find the thought of reading poetry quite intimidating. They believe they can only enjoy or appreciate poetry if they logically break apart each stanza and unlock the meaning of the poem. But approaching poetry as something to be solved can not only make reading it seem intimidating, but also diminish the experience of wonder, beauty, and mystery borne by good poetry.
“I think as we get older we get the idea from our school system that poems have to have a right answer or hidden meaning that we have to find out,” Manning shared. “I try to get my students to open themselves to the idea that poetry is larger than that.”
In the broadest sense, Manning defines poetry as “the artistic use of language.” It’s this willingness to play with language, metaphor, imagery, and sound in nonprescribed ways that gives poetry its unique vitality and beauty.
“I hate generalizing about genres, but I think one of the things poetry does particularly well is that it tends to live in the realm of imagery. It’s appealing to our senses, all of our senses, and poetry does this so intensely. I think it has the ability to engage our bodies in a more surprising way or an intense way. It can catch us off guard and speak to us without logic,” Manning said.
Manning explained that we can certainly read poems the way we might read an essay, in a logical and critical manner in order to understand and delineate themes, concepts, and symbols of interest in a given poem. But we don’t have to, and sometimes it is better to just be receptive to the somatic experience of a poem: allowing it to generate associations, effect change in our bodies, and conjure past memories.
“You can’t read a poem passively because you are always involved in making the meaning of a poem,” Manning said. “There are always gaps that we are filling in with our own assumptions, emotions, and associations.”
“Poetry allows us to communicate our thoughts and emotions in ways that convey human experience.”
Renner has similar feelings. For her, it’s poetry’s ability to render beauty and meaning in so few words that she finds alluring.
“I think poetry can communicate to us concisely things that might otherwise take hundreds of pages to do. Poetry doesn’t have to be rigid and elitist. It’s an expression of self and life that doesn’t require an anthology or several chapters,” said Renner, before citing what poetry, in its most primordial sense, means to her. “Poetry allows us to communicate our thoughts and emotions in ways that convey human experience.”
Featured below is a poem Manning wrote which was also included in The San Diego Union-Tribune.
by Katie Manning, Ph.D.
“It’s a scary world out there.”
And now a virus colonizes six continents on the globe,
and it’s named “corona” for its microscopic crown shape,
and it shares a name with Rapunzel’s kingdom in Tangled,
and many of us are locked in towers now, trying to be safe
and do our work and teach our kids and practice our arts
and read our books and clean the places we’ve neglected
and binge-watch the shows we’ve been meaning to see,
and some of us talk to animal friends who understand,
and some of us love this extra time with our families,
and some of us feel guilty for playing board games,
and some of us feel guilty for just wanting to be alone,
and some of us are coughing and struggling to breathe
and can’t find out if our homes hold the hidden crown,
and some us keep thinking about the thousand doctors
and nurses who came out of retirement to help in NYC
and how they went in fully knowing they were high risk
and short supplied but still showed up like quiet heroes,
and this story doesn’t end with all of the heroes happy
and whole. “It’s a scary world out there,” Mother Gothel warned.
And even though we know the witch was evil, she was also right.