‘Instapoetry’ in the LRB: Towards a Better Criticism of Popular Poetics

Hi all. You may have seen this circulating around social media already, but in their latest issue the LRB (London Review of Books) published an essay on Instapoetry. Many poets and critics, myself included, have observed issues with the way this essay flattens the genre, lacks informed context, and condescends both to the writers and readers of Instapoetry. Against my better instincts (because I spent a week two years ago down a rabbit hole writing a similar reaction essay to the infamous “Cult of the Noble Amateur” article in PN Review), I’ve written an open letter to the LRB editors detailing my concerns about the piece. I’m so frustrated with essays like this and don’t want to keep making the same points over and over again, but equally I recognise the importance of engaging with this journalism in a detailed, informed manner so that the discourse can evolve through dialogue. Here it is:

 

To the LRB editors,

I’m writing regarding your Vol. 40 No. 10 (21 May 2020) article ‘Instapoetry’ by Dr. Clare Bucknell. I highly appreciate and respect the work that you do advancing cultural conversations through publishing essays, articles, poetry, and other material. However, I found this essay problematic in several respects and wanted to raise my concerns.

I am a poet and researcher of contemporary U.K. spoken word poetry. Through my work I’ve become familiar with an unfortunate trend in criticism for contemporary accessible poetics: journalism which flattens and demeans entire sub-genres of contemporary poetry, implying stylistic uniformity and poor quality. I consider this article to be emblematic of this trend: it reads as deeply condescending to both those who compose material for publication through digital outlets and those who enjoy engaging with this material.

Frustratingly, and as I’d imagine your editorial team will be aware, a similar essay entitled “The Cult of the Noble Amateur” by Rebecca Watts was published in early 2018 by PN Review criticising Hollie McNish’s poetry collection Plum. While that essay had slightly differently targets (though both discuss Rupi Kaur), these essays are similar in that they pan contemporary accessible poetry written by young women (often women of colour) and fail to provide adequate evidence for their claims or interrogate the assumptions in which their criticism is grounded. Despite there being a massive backlash to the PN Review essay in 2018, sparking a vibrant dialogue about how to appropriately criticise popular poetics, Bucknell’s essay rehashes many of its problematic aspects. It reads as an echo of Watts’: the same condescending tone (even Bucknell described it in in a tweet as ‘unkind’), lack of diligent research into the existing scholarship on the field, and failure to introspectively evaluate the assumptions on which its analysis rests. In an effort to open a dialogue and to prevent more of this frankly frustrating criticism, I want to point out some of the issues I perceived in Bucknell’s piece as a researcher of contemporary popular poetics. I hope you will read this and the other informed critiques of this essay currently circulating online.

To begin: while this essay seems perpetually confused as to why anyone would appreciate Instapoetry, there is no evidence that it sought to solve this confusion by interviewing anyone who writes or appreciates it. That and many of the other issues with this essay are encapsulated in this early statement: ‘People are definitely sick of seeing Kaur circulating online, but they keep buying books of her poetry.’ First, this is logically inconsistent. People are sick of her but want more of her? What quantitative or qualitative data are these assertions based in? Second, who is ‘people’? Clearly the millions who follow these Instapoets online are not sick of their work. Either this is an inaccurate generalisation or the scope of ‘people’ here has been limited only to those who are sick of reading Kaur’s work online. Is this the only population the article is interested in?

Second, and most problematic in my perspective, is how the essay acknowledges the demographics of the writers of this work without analysing why the demographics are as they are. It grants that the best-known Instapoets are young and female and lists several of them. It does not acknowledge that many Instapoets who have large followings are young women of colour. And it fails to go into any analysis or even speculation as to why young women (of colour) apparently feel drawn to/comfortable in this specific creative platform and why they attain such impressive success in it.

This question deserves a full essay, and I won’t go deeply into it here, but there are many feasible reasons for the demographics of Instapoetry. Perhaps these poets feel that they are less able to access and succeed in traditional print-based publishing platforms (the conclusions of the 2005 Free Verse report documenting the severe underrepresentation of BAME poets in U.K. literary publishing would justify their fears). Perhaps they are concerned that the critical reception for their work will not take into account the sociocultural environment in which it was written and the audience for whom it was written (the sobering demographic statistics of U.K. poetry critics gathered by Dave Coates would validate those concerns. I don’t mean to imply that only marginalised critics can analyse marginalised writers, but the diversification of our critical sector is vital for encouraging the diversification of the published writing sector). Perhaps the fact that Instagram is a low-cost platform for publishing one’s work attracts poets without the means to pay journal submission fees, thus making a more financially accessible publishing option for working class writers. Perhaps Instagram, with its interactive interface allowing followers to like, comment, and share, makes writers and readers of a digital generation feel more engaged and able to form meaningful connections with the poetry than print media. Perhaps the thread of recent journalism in elite publications condescending to contemporary popular poetics has made it clear to these poets and readers that they are not welcome within the ‘traditional’ publishing sector. There are many potential reasons for these demographics, but they are unfortunately not explored in Bucknell’s essay.

Third: consistently throughout the article, Bucknell implies that the material the Instapoets are producing is unfiltered, direct expression, and that any narratives they recount are autobiographical, describing this work as ‘spewed-up realness.’ First of all, and I don’t mean this flippantly: does the LRB consider it acceptable for one of their writers to refer to an artist’s work as vomit? This is deeply insulting.

But more to the point: yes, it does seem that much of the material published through Instagram is hyperrealist and narrates apparently autobiographical subjects and events. Rather than interrogating why so much of this material has this focus or why confessional material is so in demand, the article simply (again) pans it as glorified ‘innocence.’ There is a fascinating discussion to be had concerning why confessional, hyperrealist narratives of trauma, marginality, and abuse are demanded (and, arguably, fetishised) in contemporary popular poetics (including not only Instapoetry but spoken word poetry as well), but this is not picked up here.

This discourse becomes even more urgent when we consider the demographics of the writers and fans: why do young women of colour feel incentivised to divulge confessional, traumatic narratives? Do they feel as though other narratives of their lives are requested or valued within this sphere? What does the hunger Instapoetry readers feel for ‘relatable content’ typified by narratives of oppression, trauma, sexism, body dysmorphia, and abuse say about the challenges present in their lives and whether or not they recognise their lives reflected in the literary sphere more broadly?

Ultimately, whether or not the narratives these Instapoets are telling are true—whether what they are ‘spewing’ is actually ‘realness’—is beside the point. What I am more concerned about here is the readiness with which authenticity is assumed in this criticism: how there is no skepticism regarding the extent to which their performances of self are crafted. In a brief allusion to the performativity inherent in social media, Bucknell writes that Instapoetry can ‘remind us that not all of those who purport to be barefaced actually are.’ Yet her criticism does not analyse her subjects through their skeptical lens. It does not assume distance between the author and speaker of the poems—a basic rule of poetic analysis at least in how I was taught it—and instead assumes the work is not crafted performance but direct, ‘authentic’ expression: ‘Cox loathes her cellulite and her thighs.’

To interpret a piece of art as authentic (honest, personal, directly expressed, raw) means to interpret it as not crafted (it’s original and thus not altered or shaped). Thus when we describe work as ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ without interrogating our usage of these terms, we imply that it is not art (see G. A. Fine’s scholarship for more on this). Bucknell’s essay swings between acknowledging the poetic attributes of much Instapoetry (its creative use of white space is not, after all, unique to digital platforms) and smearing it as not art but pure, authentic utterance devoid of craft.

And, again, this easy assumption of Instapoetry’s ‘authenticity’ is exacerbated by its practitioners’ identities, a fact that this essay fails to observe or interrogate. People with marginalised identities (and here, again, I would include the majority of Instapoets as young women of colour) are more immediately read as authentic, due to racist, sexist, classist, and prejudiced stereotypes. There is plenty of academic literature documenting this effect within the arts (see the work of Gatchet for analysis of how it functions in blues music, for example). In reading the work of these Instapoets, many of whom document their experience of marginality through their writing, as ‘authentic’ without then interrogating this interpretation, this essay falls into a rut riven by bigotry, whether intentionally or not.

Fourth: it’s one thing to criticise the poetry. It’s another to criticise the poets themselves, but arguably they’ve opened themselves up to that by putting work out there. It’s simply bad practice to criticise the people who appreciate the poetry. This essay consistently does that: since ‘people are sick of her [Kaur]’ then something must be wrong with the people buying her books. Since Instapoetry is ‘so barren of interest,’ the people who appreciate it must not be interesting. The article concludes: ‘Lots of people – hundreds of thousands – seem to want this. In Kaur’s words, “there are far too many mouths here.”’ Here Bucknell explicitly states that the fanbase for this work should be smaller: there are too many people who like Instapoetry and she does not understand why (and has not bothered to find out).

As I have heard from audience members countless times at live literature gigs, so many people feel alienated by the literary world, whether they were put off poetry when taught it in school or they find the complicated and expensive world of constant publication submissions and MFAs inaccessible. When people find a form of poetry that resonates with them, such as Instapoetry, that engagement with literature should be celebrated. What articles like this do is tell these people that their tastes are sub-par (how could you actually like work that is ‘barren of interest’?), and that they were right in their initial feeling that poetry wasn’t for them. It slams the already barely open door to the broad church of poetry in their faces. And by condescending to people who are just living their lives, enjoying some poetry on their phones on their way to work, maybe being inspired to pen some of their own, we are not only doing our art form a disservice but simply being rude.

A core mantra in stand-up comedy and elsewhere is ‘Don’t punch down.’ This applies (or I believe should apply) to criticism as well. From a quick Google search, I see that Bucknell has a doctorate and occupies a fellowship position within one of the U.K.’s elite universities. The LRB is a long-established, highly regarded publication. Thus the author and platform have high cultural capital within the contemporary U.K. literary sphere. Rather than using that prestige, knowledge, and experience to shine attention on and provide thorough analysis of a popular (‘low-art’) art form, this essay punches down. It alienates those who create and appreciate Instapoetry and makes it explicit they are not welcome within the ivory tower of U.K. literary discourse.

Fifth and finally: I see so many articles like this which read as though the author thinks they are the first person to have analysed contemporary accessible poetics. These completely ignore and fail to cite the healthy critical discourse on these art forms currently being developed by academics and practitioners. Bucknell could have looked into Kevin Stein’s work on contemporary digital poetics, for instance. While I don’t know the details of how this essay came about (i.e. whether commissioned or pitched), I’m curious as to why an expert in ‘c17th-c19th poetry, art & history’ (from her Twitter bio) is writing with apparent authority about contemporary digital poetics. It’s not that academics can’t or shouldn’t write outside their fields of expertise—cross-subject and cross-disciplinary research is exciting and valuable—but we must be informed when doing so. A comparative study of the area of Bucknell’s expertise and Instapoetry would have been fascinating (are there unexpected parallels between popular poetics in the 1600s and now?), but obviously this essay is not that. My point: please, when commissioning writers for these essays, be cognisant of existing fields of study and first ask the experts, or at least ensure that the author draws upon the existing theory if claiming to write from a position of authority.

 

When the 2018 PN Review essay received backlash, the editors brushed it off as the poetry community being unable to handle rigorous criticism (as I recall; I can’t now find their response on their website to cite them so apologies if I am mis-remembering). Bucknell also seems to anticipate a backlash and prepares the same defense—’technical analysis can be butted away too easily as gatekeeping’—so I want to forestall that strategy. My reaction (and the reactions of others) to this article is not a knee-jerk ‘Don’t shine a light on this work, it can’t stand up to that.’ Nor is it a ‘This work isn’t made for critical attention, it’s solely for the poet’s catharsis and community-building.’ That is a legitimate perspective for poets to have, but my opinion is that once work is out in the world, it opens itself to critique. A fair, rigorous critical discourse is vital to the development and evolution of art forms and should be welcomed (even when challenging and uncomfortable) by practitioners.

So yes, we should be engaging in critical discourse about Instapoetry. But rigorous criticism is, importantly, informed. It contextualises work within the broader cultural landscape and seeks to understand it from all angles. It does not contain loaded generalisations without proper evidence: ‘People are definitely sick of seeing Kaur circulating online,’ ‘There is little imagery (it gets in the way of deliverable content)’ (I’d love to read an analysis of whether Instapoems without visuals accrue more engagement than those with visuals: did Bucknell actually measure this to back up her statement?). Effective criticism is also respectful, even when observing flaws: to analyse art and find it lacking does not necessitate adopting an insulting tone.

And, perhaps most centrally, it is good critical practice to avoid allowing the author’s tastes to influence the writing and instead seek to examine the work more or less objectively. I’ll be honest: much of the Instapoetry I’ve encountered is not for me. It’s simply not my cup of tea. But if I were to write an analysis of the field, I would work to prevent my personal tastes from permeating the tone of the article and instead focus strictly on the work. The sneering tone adopted here—describing this poetry as ‘shapeless’ and ‘spewed-up’—doesn’t even give the pretence of unbiased attention.

Certain sections and statements from Bucknell’s essay are intriguing and worthy of follow-up. I would love to read, for instance, a thorough analysis expanding upon this theory: ‘To be inspirational to young followers, bodies need to be “real”, or better still to have “been on a journey”, which means having experienced trauma or self-hatred and come out stronger than before.’ This is a fascinating assertion deserving of much more detailed analysis. When conducted in an informed, detailed, and respectful manner, it would provide insight into our constantly evolving literary sphere. It is the responsibility of critics to carry out this rigorous work and the responsibility of platforms to commission it. We can do better.

Thank you for taking the time to read my response. I hope this and other reactions will inform how you curate your platform’s essays on contemporary accessible poetics in the future.

Best,

Dr. Katie Ailes

4 thoughts on “‘Instapoetry’ in the LRB: Towards a Better Criticism of Popular Poetics

  1. Carly Brown says:

    This was a fascinating post Katie. I hadn’t read the LRB article, but I will do so now – my flat subscribes to it.

    One of the things I’d personally love to see in criticism of ‘Instapoetry’ is a more in-depth look at its links with VISUAL art. I can’t remember who I was chatting about this with (it may have been yourself!) but a friend of mine was suggesting that there might be links to explore about how people who write poetry for Instagram use white space, drawings etc. to effectively create mini works of visual ‘art’. Perhaps there is lots of analysis of this already that I’ve simply not read – this isn’t my expertise. But arguable we’re even looking at this the wrong way if we’re just thinking about these poems as ‘poems’ but maybe they’re something BETWEEN a poem…and a work of visual art. I don’t know!

    Anyways, I am curious to read this other article and appreciate the work you do in demanding rigorous criticism of contemporary poetry (in all its many forms!). x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. katieailes says:

    Thanks for reading, Carly! And YES – I think that when analysing Instapoetry we need to take into account the specifics of the publication platform. That means not only analysing the text of the poems, but the visuals, the captions, etc. We need to develop & utilise a different critical methodology than we would for text poetry printed on blank pages in a book. I’m not the expert in this either, so it’s very possible some folks are already doing this – I’d love to read it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Derek White says:

    Hi Katie
    It’s been a while since I commented on one of your posts . I hope you are well.
    I’d read the LRB article before you posted this and I have to say you have responded to it in a much more detailed, intelligent and, may I say, respectful way than I could have done. My reaction to the LRB article was puzzlement: why are you bothering to write this ? Did an Instagram poet ignore you in the street once ? It was an article where you look for an agenda rather than a rationale, but even then I can’t think of a plausible one. I don’t want to be negative about the author who is clearly a highly intelligent woman, and I found your question as to who initiated this article a good one. For me the lesser of two evils is if it was the LRB.
    I don’t like this idea of cultural “gatekeepers”, which to be fair the author herself seems ambivalent about. I think all writing needs to find its own audience and a great thing about recent years is that there are multiple ways of doing this. I’m not so precious about poetry or the arts in general to think we need sentinels to keep the barbarians out. ( I am not myself suggesting anyone is a barbarian).
    Like you I would also prefer if people could distinguish between a poet and a persona, especially in settings like spoken word or Instagram poetry. I like to say all my poems are true, it’s just that very few are factual.

    Liked by 1 person

    • katieailes says:

      Great to hear from you Derek, and thanks for reading the post! I really appreciate your comments. Yes, I completely agree that writing needs to find its own audience – that’s a great way to put that. And I get what you mean about the poems being true but not factual! Hope you’re well.

      Like

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