Playing to the Crowd: Can Poets Learn Anything from Rupi Kaur’s Success?
In 1917, Marcel Duchamp purchased a urinal from a restaurant supply seller, attached it to a wall, and called it art. The response was widespread criticism from other artists, critics, and art scholars who claimed that the work (entitled “Fountain”) was not art. Most of their criticism stemmed from the fact that Duchamp’s piece called into question the very foundations upon which they judged art. Exactly 100 years later, Duchamp is remembered as one of the most important and influential Modern artists. Still, the issue of defining art, or even differentiating ‘good’ art from ‘bad’ art still exists and transcends other art forms. This has occurred perhaps most notably in the recent discussions about the poetry of Rupi Kaur. To say the least, her work is polarizing. She has been ripped apart by poets and scholars alike, but despite that fact, her book Milk and Honey has sold over 2 million copies.
Let that sink in. A poet selling 2 million copies of a book.
Personally, I am not a big fan of her work, but that is not why I am writing this. I want to look at the phenomenon surrounding her work through the lens of rhetoric in an attempt to understand what is actually going on. Perhaps, in doing so, I can offer insight into how this phenomenon is relevant to the poetic tradition and what we can learn from it, both about the nature of poetry and about how we as poets reach our audience.
The first thing I want to establish is that her work is, for lack of a better way of putting it, unremarkable. That is, it does not seem to do much that is groundbreaking. Yes, the poems are short, and yes they are easily digestible, but her work is not the first to try to do a lot with a little. For instance, her poem “answers” reads, “the way they / leave/tells you / everything.” This appears on the left side of a page, next to a line drawing of a woman sitting cross-legged with her back to us. It attempts to say a lot without saying much. It also is a rather clichéd topic, one that poets have been writing about for a long time. Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) was a famous Japanese writer. One of his poems is as follows: “Don’t weep, insects. / Lovers stars themselves, / Must part.” This poem, too, sets out with the purpose of saying a lot through minimal words, and it deals with a very similar topic to Kaur’s, though with a different perspective. Remove the word ‘insects,’ and you are looking at a poem with very similar qualities. The main difference seems to be that Kaur’s work is intentionally general; consequently, its language attempts to appeal to a general audience. Issa’s work attempts to address a universal issue. Beyond that, though, the projects of the poems remain similar in nature. Both give us limited details, leave the topic ‘hanging out there,’ and force us to connect it to our own experience. These poems seem to rely heavily on what the audience brings to the table.
Admittedly, comparing Issa’s poem to Kaur’s is a little arbitrary, but I could have picked a number of poets who do the same thing. The fact that Kaur is not doing anything groundbreaking raises two questions in my mind:
1. Why, then, is her work so popular?
2. Why is the criticism of her so harsh?
To answer the first question, I want to start with a story. Several months ago, I posted a brief article on my website in which I explored audience and how audiences affect the way poets write. It was basically a conversation starter, but in a week or so after I posted it I spoke to a number of poets about the topic, and what surprised me was that pretty much all of them said that they did not think about the audience when they wrote. This seemed particularly surprising considering how limited the poetic audience is. If you don’t think this is true, go to a poetry reading. In most cases, the majority of the people there are poets themselves. It is not unusual for almost everyone in attendance at a poetry reading to also take part in the open mic that often follows. Compare this to other forms of expression such as visual art or music, and you begin to see just how specialized the audience of poetry is. Most people who read poetry are either themselves poets, involved in poetry, or know someone who is.
The fact that the poetic audience is highly specialized seems to have a profound effect on how we write, whether or not we are aware of that effect. Consciously or unconsciously, many poets write (or at least revise) their work to cater to the ‘poetry crowd’ because they are aware of who is most likely going to be reading their work. In contrast, the general public is often indifferent to poetry. Again, a story. I teach composition to mostly college freshman, and one of my classes contains a poetry section. Near the end of the fall semester, I spend several weeks going over poetry, and every fall I watch as students who a few weeks before were engaged and excited about writing acquire a glazed, bored, and confused expression as we begin to analyze poems. A few years ago, I changed my approach to poetry, and instead had my students explore the question ‘why do people read poetry?’ I have them conduct interviews with people about their favorite poems and why they chose them. Over the past several years, their findings have been consistent: most people don’t read poetry. The ones who do often encounter their favorite poem while in school, implying that they have read little poetry since. These poems are often very conventional, and many times are children’s poetry. While this is by no means a formal research study, it definitely provides insight into most people’s knowledge about poetry, and that it is often limited to two poems by Robert Frost, Taylor Swift, and Doctor Seuss. It’s not their fault – it is the consequence of our society – but it is still a factor that we as poets have to cope with.
In light of this, it seems that Kaur’s success comes less from her poems and more from her choice of audience. Instead of catering to the poetic community, who seems to care about universal issues, she has tailored her work to target a wider, more general, audience. This audience does not care who she has read. they don’t care about her poetic influences. They certainly don’t care about her poetic street cred. All they know is that her work is accessible and that it relates to them, even if the poetry itself is general and unremarkable.
This shift in the audience may also explain, at least in part, why claims of plagiarism have not seemed to affect her popularity. She has been accused by several people of stealing ideas and language. Now, poets take this very seriously. The authenticity of a work of art, as explained by Walter Benjamin, “is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning,” and inauthentic art lacks its “presence in time and space.” Thus, the inauthentic work is merely an imitation of other great works, removed of substance. However, the general public seems to have fewer hang-ups about authenticity than academics and artists. Take Bob Dylan. For years, he has been plagued with accusations of plagiarism. He has even been accused of plagiarizing his Nobel Prize Lecture, from SparkNotes, of all places! (Kornhaber). Despite this, he has remained immensely popular and well respected, with thousands of die-hard fans worldwide. Dylan is hardly the exception. To put it simply, most people don’t care.
This shift towards a wider rhetorical audience, one less concerned with the authenticity of her work, explains a lot about Kaur’s success, for better or for worse. It may to a point even answer the second question that I asked above. But I think that to simply say the harshness of the criticism comes because her work is watered down or is not authentic is a little superficial. Could it be that some of the vitriol in our criticisms of her may be merely good old-fashioned jealousy?
Unfortunately for us, if we limit our reaction to Kaur as one of knee-jerk jealousy or critique, we miss an opportunity to learn about our own work and how those interested in poetry view it as an art form. It requires us to assess why we do what we do. Are we in it for how many social media followers we have, or how many copies of a book we have sold? And if we are, can we live with that? We need to decide what we want to get out of our work, and what we are willing to sacrifice in order to achieve it.
I believe, though, that there is truly a lesson in all of this. Kaur’s success stems less from what she says and more from how she has appealed to a wider audience. We as poets should be looking for ways to expand our audiences without compromising our ethics. We as a field must expand beyond what worked in the past and toward new opportunities. I may sound dramatic here, but the survival of our art form depends on our ability to adapt to a contemporary context and to the audiences of today. Even if it does not affect the way we actually write, maybe we should reconsider how we market and present ourselves, taking full advantage of the tools provided to us by our culture and time.
Perhaps time will be Kaur’s harshest critic. In a hundred years, we may be talking about how she revolutionized poetry. More likely, though, people will be saying “Kaur who?” Either way, her success has once again gotten people talking about poetry as a genre. For me personally, thinking about this has galvanized my approach to writing, that I will continue to write regardless of judgment and criticism. If tomorrow I wake up and have 2 million people clamoring for my poetry, great. But if tomorrow I wake up, and the only one clamoring for me is my dog clamoring for food, I’m okay with that.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Translated byHarry Zohn. 1936. Accessed 10 December 2017.
Kornhaber, Spencer. “Bob Dylan Cheats Again?” The Atlantic June 14, 2017. Accessed 10 December 2017.
Anthony Palma teaches writing at Rowan University and Saint Joseph’s University. His creative work attempts to capture the hardship, despair, and isolation of modern life while showing that at the end of it all, there is always hope. He lives in West Chester, Pennsylvania