Poems by Kaur, McCarthy and Maylor but First: Instagram Poets Seem to Rule – Will It Last?

Indo-Canadian Poet Rupi Kaur. Photo Credit: Cut.

from home

it takes a broken person to come searching
for meaning between my legs
it takes a complete.whole. perfectly designed
person to survive it...

Rupi Kaur from the sun and her flowers, Simon & Schuster, 2017

To call twenty-five year old Indo-Canadian poet Rupi Kaur a sensation is an understatement! Her book of poems, milk and honey has sold at least 1.4 mm copies in about three years. Unheard of in poetry! And her second book, the sun and her flowers, just came out, published by Simon and Schuster. I profiled Kaur a year ago. To read that post, please click here. To read a recent feature interview with Kaur in the Cut please click here.

I discovered, thanks to Kaur, a new type of poet, an Instagram poet. According to the U.K.-based Guardian (For the Oct. 2nd and Oct. 4th Guardian articles on Kaur please click here and  here) she is the most popular. There are others, notably Nayyirah Waheed, author of the 2013 collection salt.

The Guardian includes Kaur, Waheed  and other authors, Warsan Shire, Yrsa Daley-Ward and Amanda Lovelace as examples of poets writing in a style that blends the spontaneity and rawness of a teenage girl’s Tumblr with the poise and profundity of lyric poetry. These authors write about shared themes: anger at how the world treats young women, especially women of colour; defiance in the face of dismissal; celebrations of modern femininity.

Kaur’s extraordinary popularity, especially with her short poems accompanied with her own illustrations, tells me the desire for poetry has not vanished. But it’s not a desire that shows up in what I would call a more conventional poetry, not of the Instagram variey, whose poetry also carries great poise and profundity!

I am thinking of two Canadian poets, also women, who published books this year. Micheline Maylor and Julia McCarthy. Their poetry, rich and complex, dealing with themes also of love, loss and impermanence, will most likely sell a mere fraction of what Kaur has sold to date let alone what her new book may sell. I include samples of their poems below.  But I wonder, are we encountering a true sea change in poetry or a temporary change in wind and currents?

For me a steady diet of Instagram poetry would not fill my poetic dietary needs but at its best as show cased by Kaur it’s fresh and brave: I think of these lines from milk and honey:

When my mother opens her mouth
to have a conversation at dinner
my father shoves the word hush
between her lips and tells her to
never speak with her mouth full
this is how the women in my family
learned to live with their mouths closed

Rupi Kaur (1992 – ) from milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015

And these chilling words, some of them in the epigraph poem excerpt above, from three longer excerpts from her poem home in the sun and her flowers that describe a harrowing rape and the narrators response to it:

…….you took a left
to the road that led nowhere
I asked where we were going
you asked if I was afraid
my voice threw itself over the edge of my throat
landed at the bottom of my belly and hid for months
all the different parts of me
turned the lights off
shut the blinds
locked the door….

I can’t blame myself for having a hole
the size of your manhood in my chest anymore
it’s too heavy to carry your guilt – I’m setting it down
I’m tired of decorating this place with your shame
as if it belongs to me…

The truth comes to me suddenly -after years of rain
the truth comes like sunlight
pouring through an open window
it takes a long time to get here
but it all comes full circle
it takes a broken person to come searching
for meaning between my legs
it takes a complete.whole. perfectly designed
person to survive it……

The emptional wallop of so many of these lines. In particular: my voice threw itself over the edge of my throat/ landed at the bottom of my belly and hid for months. Where Kaur’s poems hold what Lorca called the dark notes I think they really work well. But at their least interesting her poems feel, too easy and so light on complex images. In their pithiness, their tellings (aphoristic wisdom poetry) they can begin to feel overly simplistic and preachy. The haunting dark notes white washed. Here are examples from the sun and her flowers:

what is stronger
than the human heart
which shatters over and over
and still lives

*****

if I am the longest relationship
of my life
isn’t it time to
nurture intimacy
and love
with the person
i lie in bed with each night

– acceptance

I get and so appreciate Kaur and her peers have struck a nerve in popular culture. I remember a young recovering addict in Houston last year who asked if I knew about Kaur. I was glad to say I did. But for me I would like, to use American poet and teacher Tony Hoagland’s term, a consistently more layered, complex poetry. One with images to spare! A poetry like that of  McCarthy and Maylor. Thier short poems may not be Instagramish enough for some but they heart-haunt me in a way many of Kaur’s quick poems don’t:

After Winter

After winter the cornfields
are rows of burnt match sticks

skeletal stalks and blackened earth

not one of us remembers the fire
only a long dream full of cold white smoke.

Julia McCarthy from All the Names Between, Brick Books 2017 (Nominated for a 2017 Governor General’s Award)

Citizenship of the broken heart

Not one of us leaves unscathed.
All stories tainted by degrees of disaster.
Pick a lucky number.

Yesterday, I met a man with an angry scar
 across his cheek, a machete bite,
 a blessing, a station of the cross to bear.

And here is a story of the elephant  described by two blind men—
this a tusk, this an ear. Calculus and compassion
have much in common when counted on fingers.

In this line-up of catastrophe,
we all have a number, we’ll all be called
and sworn into suffering, sometime.

Micheline Maylor from Little Wildheart (Robert Kroetsch Series), The University of Alberta Press, 2017

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