March 26, 2021
A few days ago, Rupi Kaur, a Punjabi Canadian artist and arguably the most famous internet poet, joined TikTok, the short video app built for instant gratification — an app particularly suitable for her bite-sized poems. A TikTok video of Kaur performing a poem from her debut collection, Milk and Honey, where she gesticulates with her fingers, soon made it to Twitter and has since garnered 4.7 million views and over 22,000 retweets and quote tweets, many of which are not kind. (Kaur has since taken down the TikTok video.) Kaur is so intensely popular that even mockery of her rakes up ridiculous numbers; Kaur ended up trending on Twitter for two whole days. Though I do not particularly care for Kaur’s poetry, something about the latest round of trolling against Kaur rubbed me the wrong way.
I’m not suggesting that Kaur’s video isn’t easy bait for trolling. But it’s too easy to criticize Kaur for her work, to point out that her poetry is devoid of complexity and compelling imagery and language, to bristle at her success in mastering the art of marketing and selling poetry in a way the genre hadn’t seen. This is why criticism of her is often incredibly clichéd and often misses the underhanded ways in which other poets sell their work. It also misses how essential Kaur’s voice has been to Indian politics, especially as she highlights the farmers’ protests in India.
Kaur’s fame was made possible by the internet, by the kind of virality that propels an unknown person into a global phenomenon. In 2014, at the age of 21, as an undergraduate student at the University of Waterloo in Canada, Kaur wrote, compiled, illustrated, and self-published her debut collection of poems Milk and Honey due to growing rejections from literary journals. In 2015, Kaur posted a photo series centered on menstruation on Instagram; people shared the images — of her sleeping with blood on her trousers and of blood trickling down her legs in the shower — widely. Instagram’s consequent removal of the images made Kaur popular in a quick, almost unprecedented way. Kaur unabashedly hit back at the censorship of women’s bodies on the internet and became one of the first Tumblr-era internet celebrities. Milk and Honey, which until then had had a modest following, now sold like hot cakes; soon it would sell over 2.5 million copies worldwide.
Kaur writes sparse, confessional poetry that she arranges as minimal black lowercase text against white, sometimes adding an illustration. Her work is not buried under the weight of punctuation or density — most of her poems are barely five lines long, with only a period for punctuation. On her website, Kaur claims to have borrowed this style from the Gurmukhi script of the Punjabi language, which doesn’t have an upper or lower case or punctuation save for the period, characterized as ‘|’. But the style is also reminiscent of other internet poets of the time, particularly Nayyirah Waheed, who publicly addressed and then deleted the unmissable similarities in their work. (Kaur’s presentation in all lowercase even hearkens back to e.e. cummings.) The style Kaur uses became so ubiquitous on Tumblr that it’s hard to pinpoint when inspiration ends and plagiarism begins; Kaur has cited Waheed as an influencing force in her work.