Rebecca Watts, in a striking essay published in the PN Review, has compared the cult of Instagram poets like Rupi Kaur, Lang Leav and others with the rise of Donald Trump; which has, quite naturally, created some ripples.
Unlike what Anthony Anaxagoru believes, she hasn’t compared Trump with these poets – she has compared the culture that gives rise to both these poets and the presidential phenomenon. I’d like to make my case keeping this accurate comparison in mind. Rupi Kaur’s presence works to eliminate other important voices. She is not responsible for that – it is the culture of social media that wants, in Twitter’s co-founder, Evan Williams’s words, to “dumb the entire world down”, and, in effect, divert our attention from more pressing issues. Watts’s comparison of Kaur and Trump too, comes soon after she quotes the same words by Williams.
The fault, however, is not Kaur’s. It would be foolish to blame a bad poet for writing bad poetry. The culture industry around publishing works to maximise profit, and profit has very little to do with the art of writing. When it sees a bestseller in Kaur’s writing, it plunges into her works, promotes her, creates arguments and counter-arguments around her – basically, keeps her in the news.
As a result, it takes our focus away from conversations we should be having as a community of poets and readers. Let me explain with an example.
Kaur was recently invited to the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival, which concluded some days back. She was, in an interview with DNA India, asked about her process of writing. She traced the lack of punctuation in her poetry to Gurmukhi, the script for Punjabi. In the same festival, Surjit Patar, one of the most important and radical Punjabi poets of his generation, received a lifetime award for poetry. (Patar’s work can be read in a compendium of Punjabi poetry curated by Chaman Lal in Guftugu.) There should be no surprise about who garnered more attention between Patar and Kaur.
Instead, it would be better if we reimagine our discourse and see the real issue – the inability of the poetry establishment in the Anglophone world to open up their understanding of poetry from other cultures. This, again is not Watts’ problem alone, but a problem with the Anglophone world itself, where a certain naiveté about other cultures is passed off as a small faux pas. It is not just a coincidence that a French journalist asked Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie if there are bookshops in Nigeria. Caroline Broue, the journalist who asked the question, too, must not be lambasted in singular ways. Her question is symbolic of how the “First World” sees the second, third, fourth, and fifth worlds which, by the way, exist on the same planet. The poetry establishment, by which I mean Watts and her takers, and what she calls “the cohort of young female poets” and their supporters, actually share this ignorance.
Besides, there are several points in Watts’s essay which ignore and overtly simplify some aspects. Take the “cult of personality” for instance. I quote from a section in Watts’s essay where she accurately compares the rise of these “young female poets” with the rise of Trump:
Like the new president, the new poets are products of a cult of personality, which demands from its heroes only that they be “honest” and “accessible”, where honesty is defined as the constant expression of what one feels, and accessibility means the complete rejection of complexity, subtlety, eloquence and the aspiration to do anything well.
The cult of personality is old wine in an old bottle
The “cult of personality” is not a new phenomenon for poetry. In the twentieth century, such an idea of the poet was perhaps most actively promoted by a group of poets clubbed together as the “Beat generation”, and by no means were they alone. They travelled and met others of their ilk in the 1960s – the Hungryalist poets in Calcutta, for instance. Even in these journeys, Allen Ginsberg, perhaps the most famous in the entire lot, often objectified India in his photographs – a point frequently made by Malay Roy Chowdhury in the BBC Radio 3 programme, Ginsberg in India, produced by the Indian English poet and novelist, Jeet Thayil.
There can be no doubt that the Beats were far superior poets than the “cohort of young female poets”, but they were also influential in driving American poetry towards this cult of personality. Robert Lowell, and later, his admirers, poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, would soon go on to carve poetic personas out of their writings. Unlike Watts’s claim, there is nothing new in this cult of personality. The only difference is that the new poets have used newer tools of communication; have produced consumer-driven content for a readership which identifies with them. But previous generations wrote and consumed as much rubbish as they do now. Several writers, whose work have now become literary classics, were not really celebrities in their lifetime.
Again, this is not new – there may not have been any social media, but changes in modes of communication have always produced newer forms of literature. Even though it is contested that the novel was the child of the printing presses of the fifteenth century, it certainly became the most dominant genre after printing presses were established.
Is poetry driven by social media, by default, bad?
It is not that social media cannot, by default, produce great writing; or that spoken word poetry, by default, is “bad” because it is accessible. As of now, most of it is terrible, but we are probably overlooking fantastic spoken word poets like the Palestinian poet Raffef Ziyada.
Is this because Ziyada is not a white female poet? But Kaur too is not white, so what is it that makes her a bestseller? White/brown, female/ male are binaries, which is a symbol of the lowest common denominator for literary discourse. A better way to understand the question can be through the prism of political force in poetry – its contexts, the particularities of political struggle and its reflection in writing.
Ziyada’s poems come from a site of actual struggle, from the pain of exile, and an understanding of that pain would require one to understand the pain of living in apartheid Palestine. There are contexts and subtexts to her spoken word poems. Kaur’s poetry, on the other hand, hardly has a context. In fact, it would be difficult to separate her poems from Holly McNish’s. Let’s look at the promotional blurb for milk and honey:
“milk and honey is the experience of violence. abuse. love. loss. femininity. the book is divided into four chapters. each chapter serves a different purpose. deals with a different pain. heals a different heartache. milk and honey takes readers through a journey of the most bitter moments in life and finds sweetness in them because there is sweetness everywhere if you are just willing to look.”
Again, there is no context to the “violence. abuse. love. loss” It dumbs down these words, strips them of any real political agency, and uses them for other words – healing and “sweetness everywhere”. “violence.abuse.love.loss” have an utilitarian purpose for Kaur – for “heal[ing] a different heartache”; for finding “sweetness” that is “everywhere”. One wonders if the same can be said of Ziyada’s poetry. Where – she might ask and add, in her most famous poem We teach life, sir – can she find sweetness when she has seen her own people bombed in Gaza? Kaur, Lang Leav and others always offer consolations – there is hope after all, survive this and you will emerge stronger. Ziyada knows that, unlike the subjects of Kaur’s poems, survival is not so easy.
Kaur, Lang Leav, and others are not new in using this mode of writing – it has existed for quite some time. Perhaps the most articulate criticism of accessibility-means-good-poetry comes from Charles Bernstein, again one of America’s foremost experimental poets, who criticises the National Poetry Month organised by Academy of American Poets:
“National Poetry Month is about making poetry safe for readers by promoting examples of the art form at its most bland and its most morally “positive.” The message is: ‘Poetry is good for you.’”
Kaur, Lang Leav and others follow this message like the word of god, not because they necessarily believe in it, but because it is their mantra for more readership.
The resistance to the cult of personality
Bernstein, Watts, and others, however, are part of a long tradition that has resisted the “cult of personality”. And it has been resisted not just in American letters, but in others literary traditions, like Bangla for instance. John Ashberry, Ginsberg’s contemporary, and undoubtedly one of the greatest living American poets of the twentieth century (also a major influence on Bernstein), can be said to embody the other side of American literary tradition that moved away from the kind of poetry the Beats encouraged. In India, the Hungryalists were not included in Adil Jussawalla’s landmark anthology, New Writing in India, published by Penguin UK. Jussawalla, one of the forefathers of modernism in the Indian English literary tradition, instead, chose to include the Bengali poet Binoy Majumdar, who had joined the Hungryalists in the initial days, but left later on. In an interview with the editors of Almost Island, the novelist Sharmistha Mohanty and poet Vivek Narayanan, he says he did not include the Hungryalists because he felt they had a certain irreverence to the literary traditions that came before them. At the time of the publication of the anthology, the Hungryalists had become (in)famous because they were charged with obscenity, and Time magazine ran a story on them. Their meeting with Ginsberg, and the parallels with the Beats, only gave them more attention. But Jussawalla’s was a literary decision that resisted the cult of the personality.
The view from India
Where I am writing from, the arguments for and against the “cult of the noble amateur” come across as plain boring. Consider the Don Paterson, a poet par-excellence’s defence of the noble amateur, a response to Watts published in The Guardian. Paterson said he felt that the essay was “evidence of something that divides folk across all sectional allegiances, whether avant garde, mainstream or spoken word: there are some of us who think that poetry is a way of cleaning the lies out of language, and lending our lives some meaning; and there are others who – despite their protestations to the contrary – seem to think poetry is primarily an excuse for having rather mean-spirited conversations about poetry.”
We might want to remember that the debate around folk, mainstream, and avant garde, became most prominent when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. From India, Mini Krishnan, who has spent a lifetime engaged in translations, might also want to ask Paterson if he has read authors like Mahasweta Devi, who have used folk and oral forms to create an astonishing range of work. I leave Krishnan to have the final word, and, in the process, hope that voices like hers create as many ripples in the Anglophone poetry establishment – at least, as much as Kaur and the cult of the “noble amateur”:
But… for the time it took to write this article, I forgot how far we are from the centre and that classics whether ancient or contemporary no longer offer models for living. Perhaps India’s Mahasweta Devi’s concerns were too remote, too tribal, too Third World for the consideration of the jury. Was Ngugi wa Thiong’o – repeatedly nominated from Kenya – read by anybody on the jury ? If he was, we have to wonder how his Petals of Blood, The River Between and Wizard of the Crow could have been set aside for someone whose answers are still blowing in the wind.
The internationalisation of literature is a daunting phenomenon, but if it trivialises the very creativity it is supposed to celebrate, we should learn to ignore it.
Well, I had been ignoring this, until now.
Souradeep Roy is part of the editorial collective of the Indian Writers’ Forum. He is a poet and translator currently based in Delhi.