John Ashbery’s death in September gave my world a lurch, as the 90-year-old eminent American experimentalist was my favorite living poet. But the compensation was to discover how many others felt the same way. The appreciations became a rare public conversation about poems rather than about Poetry, and what it is or isn’t (as in last year’s exhausting brouhaha over Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize) or whether it’s “dead,” or corrupted by elitist obscurism, or replaced by popular music, or secretly thriving. On social media, people posted their favorite Ashbery poems and passages, like this one from 1977’s “The Other Tradition,” which might seem to refer to those cyclical debates: “They all came, some wore sentiments / Emblazoned on T-shirts, proclaiming the lateness / Of the hour … ”
It was sweet while it lasted. But now the T-shirts have come a-blazing again, because the 25-year-old Canadian poet Rupi Kaur has published her second book, “The Sun and Her Flowers.” Kaur is the kind of poet who prompts heated polemics, pro and con, from people you never otherwise hear mention poetry, because among other things she is young, female, from a Punjabi-Sikh immigrant family, relatively uncredentialed and insanely successful. Her first collection, “Milk and Honey,” has sold two and a half million copies internationally since it was published in 2014. “The Sun and Her Flowers” debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times paperback fiction best-seller list in October, and has remained near the top ever since.
These are airport novel numbers, not poetry ones. Ashbery’s publishers were delighted if any of his books sold north of 10,000 copies, which generally happened only if he’d won the Pulitzer or National Book Award that year. But Kaur established herself not in poetry journals but on platforms like Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram (where she has 1.8 million followers, and posts glamorous shots of herself). And she’s only the biggest of several popular “Instapoets” who have graduated from being retweeted by Kardashians to publishing books, including Tyler Knott Gregson, Lang Leav, Amanda Lovelace and the pseudonymous Atticus.
Collectively, to differing degrees, they lean to aphoristic, confessional and inspirational verse, often brief enough to fit into a tweet, or to be overlaid on a photo or an illustration like Kaur’s own eye-catching line drawings — an outline of a pregnant woman’s belly, say, with the legend, “we are all born / so beautiful / the greatest tragedy is / being convinced we are not - rupi kaur.” There’s a parody meme on Twitter to break any banal statement or quote into short lowercase lines and sign it “- rupi kaur.”
The last time poetry saw this kind of action was with the cable knit sweater-clad poet and singer-songwriter Rod McKuen, who sold millions of books and millions more albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s with titles like “Listen to the Warm” — far outstripping the reach of not only an artist like Leonard Cohen, but most popular novelists of the time. (There were dusty McKuen books and records in my house growing up.) The backlash then makes today’s seem gentle: Newsweek once dubbed McKuen “the King of Kitsch,” and Dick Cavett introduced him on television as the world’s “most understood poet.”
Like McKuen’s, Kaur’s work is often called “greeting-card verse,” but it would be a mistake to reduce her (or the bisexual, depressive McKuen) to that. Kaur writes movingly about immigration, domestic violence, sexual assault and other substantial subjects, though she follows quickly with self-empowerment affirmations to alleviate the sting. The same holds of Lovelace’s “The Princess Saves Herself in This One.” The boys acquit themselves worse — Gregson’s “Wildly Into the Dark” and Atticus’s “Love Her Wild” are loaded with sensitive-cowboy-mystic peacocking, monotonously mansplaining love to their stardust-kissed muses.
But it’s less the content than their plain conversational style that gets them dismissed as “not real poetry.” The Instapoets don’t do much for me aesthetically either: It’s often said of Ashbery that his poems actively resist paraphrase of their meanings, to slip from thought to thought like a dream, like music. These poets, on the other hand, print the paraphrase. But my tastes aren’t the point here. They’re those of a 20th-century leftover who has spent decades reading poems on pages. These poets’ directness suits their media, at their best disrupting never-ending streams of gossip, selfies and opinion-mongering with stark emotional clearings that aren’t entirely unlike the mental stillness and “othering” fostered by poetry’s traditional techniques.
They are also aimed at nontraditional readers, who may think of poetry as the literary equivalent of opera or ballet, a privileged-white-male establishment hostile to their interests. (And they’re only partly wrong.) Kaur has said her style grew in part out of her struggles when she was learning English after moving to Canada, wanting her work to be accessible to such readers. It was also shaped by her experience doing spoken-word performances, another populist branch of poetry that’s often slammed (pun intended) for its ignorance of literary craft. Watch the 2010 documentary “Louder Than a Bomb,” witness inner-city high school spoken-word teams’ fervent investment in articulating their lives, and it’s hard to care if they’ve mastered dactyls and spondees.
Fights about artistic tastes are nearly always about submerged social hostilities — putting down the audiences as much as the artists. A notorious New York magazine profile this fall, which cast aspersions on Kaur’s reading habits and penchant for gold rings, showed its cards in the first paragraph: “She comfortably strides her realm: the realm of college freshwomen who have recently been or may soon go through breakups.” It’s the same way that journalists often insult teenagers and young women who listen to “boy bands,” for instance, conjuring up a monolithic tribe of bubbleheads incapable of entertaining any other concerns.
Meanwhile, the latest National Endowment for the Arts survey of arts participation, released in 2015, found that the number of Americans who had read at least one poem in the past year had declined by 45 percent between 2002 and 2012, down to 6.7 percent of the population. Surely Kaur and her cohort are improving those dismal statistics, and even a smattering of their fans moving on to explore other poetry would be welcome news — just as “Harry Potter” readers moved on to “The Hunger Games” and a small but significant portion became avid adult readers. I don’t think it slights the writers to speculate that Instapoetry may mark the advent of a young adult subgenre the form has generally lacked.
Either way, it won’t hurt poetry (any worse than it’s already hurting) if for a few years a coterie of readers find their thoughts and feelings reflected back at them in verse form. If you find the vehicles narcissistic, well, the poet Matthew Zapruder (author of the recent book “Why Poetry”) pointed out to me that in the past, “everyone knew about the images of Byron or Whitman or Lowell or (more retroactively) Plath, and the poems were contextualized in that way.” Glamour always counts.
As for the decadence of direct self-mirroring, I can’t help thinking of Ashbery’s “Paradoxes and Oxymorons,” which begins: “This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level. / Look at it talking to you.” It laments how easy it is for poems and readers to “miss each other” — no matter how slippery the exchange becomes, a longing to connect remains. As Ashbery famously, generously concludes: “And the poem / Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.”
If those lines ended with “- rupi kaur,” it wouldn’t seem too out of place.