You can read the #Korean translation of this piece by Diya Kapoor here
I would firstly like to start by appreciating Instagram and it’s poetry in the times of COVID – it was much needed.
Instagram poetry, or Insta-poetry as it were, is a culture Rupi Kaur thrived in, one where her art was born, and her art lives. It is this culture that I didn’t think of as ‘valid’ poetry up until a few years ago.
First of all, what is an Insta-poet? Simply put, the term refers to poets who thrive in the culture of social media, whose work has roots in the community of Instagram, and who extensively share their art on the social media platform. They’re poets whose art is embedded in the very phenomenon of Instagram, who go beyond the platform, but often come back to it. Insta-poets are Rupi Kaur, Megha Rao, Sarah Kay, Tishani Doshi and many others. There isn’t a fixed criteria to call someone an Insta-poet, but one relies on their presence on Instagram to call them one.
In 2018, poet and critic Rebecca Watts called out Insta-poets, especially Kaur, saying that this new breed of poets participates in the “rejection of craft that characterizes their work“. This comment, published in her contentious essay The Cult of the Noble Amateur published in the PN Review follows a line of thought in which Watts says social media has a “dumbing effect” on recent poetry, calling out Insta-poetry as a degenerative branch of traditional poetry.
My aim is to neither agree nor disagree with Watts. Her polemic comes from a perspective and understanding of poetry that I do not possess. My aim is to reflect upon Insta-poetry in 2021, for which Watts’ arguments were an important base.
Insta-poetry is not an emerging culture anymore; it arrived a long time back and has grown roots now. It is a secure, stable culture that brings the niche genre of traditional poetry into the accessible space of fast-paced social media. Watts says that this points to “denigration of intellectual engagement“. I disagree.
Insta-poetry is thriving not just because of its accomodation of social media, but because of its concise emotional value. In a world of character limits, there is little time to read ‘traditional poetry’, to sit back with Wordsworth, or to attempt to interpret Emily Dickinson or Walk Whitman; I use these figures because the definition of traditional poetry seems to go back to these people — representative of clear-cut genres and forms. Modernity has found us in a flux of activity, where even leisure has a cultural and intellectual value. There is little ‘free time’, thus, long woven traditional poetry is now a niche preference which doesn’t fit into the contemporary context.
Insta-poetry carves out a space in this hurried routine. Be it shorter pieces like Rupi Kaur’s or longer ones like Megha Rao’s or Sarah Kay’s – Insta-poetry is simple, emotional, personal, and adheres to a character limit short enough to hold the attention of the reader. There is little need for heavy interpretation; the very premise of Insta-poetry is based on metaphors that make us feel without having to look for hidden meanings.
T.S. Elliot once argued against the presence of the person or the ‘personality’ in the poem, but Insta-poetry has its roots in this very personality. Be it Rao’s femininity coming out in her poems or Kaur’s visual art defining her pieces — they have a personality and they are personal, which makes them capable of being felt.
It is this character that made Insta-poetry become a community of emotional support in the form of captions and doodles — words manufactured each day, minimal editing, honest, affective response to oneself, all at the brink of apocalypse we’re living in. Since 2020, all we have is time to think, feel, read and respond. Every single Insta-poem works with this sudden availability of time and uses it to create emotions.
Insta-poetry isn’t just limited to Instagram; it’s gone beyond, to print publications and online journals. It’s become an archive for emotions that the pandemic made us confront, a cultural marker of a world unlike any we’ve ever lived in. Just because it is simple and not traditional, not sonnets or villanelles, but random line breaks and seemingly unpolished formatting, does not mean it’s not important or that it’s ‘bad’. Insta-poetry is a communal activity reaching beyond space in a condition where touch is not allowed anymore — it connects, it compensates for distance and proximity.
There is an Insta-poem for everything; Megha Rao penned down a piece called For Millennials on the Eve of Apocalypse — the poem is a caption for one of her photos, a caption that says “I am writing to you. I don’t know who you are, but I am writing for you“. In another instance, poet Tishano Doshi wrote a piece titled Macroeconomics, a societal commentary — political, but no less evocative. The poem tells us how politics is not only personal but also emotional.
During Covid, feeling is a chore. We work to do it everyday, just like we work to work everyday. Insta-poetry makes it slightly easier to do so.
This isn’t to say that it is without faults; perhaps some of Watts’ concerns are valid, pertaining to the quality of the art. Insta-poetry is consumer-driven, often shaped into anticipated affective needs. Is it open to critique? Yes. Does it often receive that critique? I doubt it. It’s a one-stop emotional and intellectual response before we either move on, or save it just in case we want to reread it. There is little scope for offering criticism on Instagram.
So far, this piece reads like a defence of Insta-poetry — which it might be. But more than defending Insta-poetry, I defend the culture it formed, the community it shaped, and the post-COVID support system it manifested.
I end by appreciating Instagram in the times of COVID, for the space it gives to feel, and to develop more feelings.
Prithiva (she/her) is a Poetry Editor at Nightingale & Sparrow and a Blog Columnist at Headcanon Mag. Her work has previously appeared in Wellington Street Review, Vagabond City Lit, Ang(st) Zine, among others and can be found at https://campsite.bio/prithuwu and her Instagram @prithuwu.