Rupi Kaur and Poetry in the Age of Information
Rupi Kaur’s own Amazon special Rupi Kaur Live was released in the United States a week ago and will likely be available for Indian viewers soon. This hour-long show is packed with poetry and its beautiful stage makes it a pleasure for the eyes too.
Since the internet goes crazy over its love-hate relationship with her every time she releases something new, it is necessary to have a serious discussion about her work.
It will be wrong to dismiss Rupi Kaur's poems just because she uses the 'Enter' key more than any other. Her poetry, however prosaic, captures the zeitgeist of our age better than most of the great poets. In fact, she is the very embodiment of it.
The Internet wants us to stay online: sites like Instagram and Twitter don’t want us to ever leave them and this is achieved by constantly feeding the users more and more content. The content that these sites feed is meant for quick consumption so that you can move ahead on your endless social media journey. This doesn’t necessarily imply that this content is bad.
Kaur’s poetry is the poetry of the Age of Information. It is not meant to make the reader introspect or close the book and take some time to let the verse sink in, rather it is meant to be understood and consumed in a second. This type of poetry is bound to faultlessly succeed in our times.
But, the aesthetic value of her work is something that suffers the most attacks online. There are two ways to approach this, first is using past theories. William Empson believed that poetry achieves its effect through Ambiguity, Cleanth Brooks believed that Paradox is the language of poetry and closer to home, the Vyanjana principle states that the soul of poetry is suggestion. Kaur's concrete works with their clear and precise meaning do not fit any of these. Is her art soulless then? It is a bit more complicated than that.
Here is the second way to approach this: Our aesthetic standards for poetry are not inherent to the art itself, rather they are socially and historically constructed. To simplify, what kind of art is considered great is contingent on time and the society in which it exists, so the aesthetic standards have and will change with time.
In addition to that, personal preferences are also a kind of construction because the more we are exposed to something, the more we tend to like it. It is like your friend saying, "you will love anime once you start watching it." This is called the mere exposure effect.
On the other side, people who have read the works of Romantics like John Keats or Shakespeare their whole lives may find Kaur’s verse relatively plain because it is not like the poems they were exposed to. In other words, people don’t find her work aesthetically pleasing because it is "new" to them. On the other hand, there are countless people who read and re-read her. Is their taste less valid? No, it would be elitist to dismiss their high feelings just because they are not shared by the critics who were raised on "high culture". It is simply a matter of difference.
That being said, the content of her poems is of great importance, she writes about abuse, healing, love, sexism and more importantly she claims to be the voice of the oppressed South Asian women.
However, as Buzzfeed mentioned, her universalization of personal experiences to represent the plight of South Asian women while being a privileged young woman from the west is problematic. She has also been accused of representing these issues for a “sisterhood” that largely comprises of white women.
Still, it must not be ignored that there are a lot of Rupi Kaur poems that are truly empowering; she has a huge community around her work and what she sells is not her poetry but the positivity and inclusivity that her poetry offers. In other words, her message is more important than her art.
Emily Dickinson wrote in one of her letters, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” At the end of the day, poetry is supposed to make us feel things, be it Kaur’s or Keats’.