Focusing on the controversy surrounding Rupi Kaur, and the Instapoetry of which she has become representative, this paper examines how the poet unsettles notions of genre, gender, and race in order to reveal anxieties about the imbrication of women, trauma, and power. By mobilising a fraught narrative of identity concerned with marginality, and by harnessing a multimodal platform that embraces both ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms of expression, Kaur undoubtedly troubles the borderlines, and highly successfully. Her debut self-published collection milk and honey (2014) sold over 3 million copies, remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for a consecutive 100 weeks. Marketed as a ‘social media star’ and lauded by dedicated followers, Kaur has been described as a ‘millennial publishing sensation’ and, even more impressively, ‘poetry’s Beyoncé’ (Roy 2018). Kaur as Instapoet is framed as an activist who resists and rejects authority, turning from the status quo to highlight the structural inequalities that have traditionally sought to keep the ‘other’ on the outside. Yet as this paper contends, the persona offered by Kaur is one that problematically uses the confessional mode to blur the lines between what is being offered by the poems of milk and honey, and the extra-textual discourses in which they are framed. The dichotomy effecting Instapoetry, then, is not about those impossible questions concerning what constitutes ‘good’ or valued art. Alternatively, arguments about the genre reveal a complex cultural politics through which the potential to transgress the split between self and other has been co-opted by cult-personalities such as Kaur, whose rhetoric of difference reveals only an astute act of commodification.
Keywords: Instapoetry – Rupi Kaur – autobiography – trauma – identity
A ‘slapdash assembly of words’: Instapoetry and questions of criticism
From dismissals as an artless ‘McDonald’s of writing’ (Bresge 2018), to celebrations of a burgeoning new market of post-millennial expression, Instapoetry is increasingly marked as a genre of provocation. A form strategically crafted to the ‘sanitized unreality’ of the social media platform, Instagram (Roberts 2018), Instapoetry is defined by its simplicity, stylised affectations, and appeal to mass readerships, a minimalist ‘byte-sized’ (Bresge 2018) mode dedicated to aphoristic profundity and inspiration. Critics of the genre contend that it provides little more than a ‘boutique of perfectly curated objets de commerce’, at its best understood as a vapid reinforcement of narcissism, a ‘poetry of capitalism’ offering only a ‘filtered reflection of an anxious generation scrambling for distraction’ (Roberts 2018). Indeed, remarking on its characteristic accessibility and insistence on honesty as an ‘aesthetic priority’, Rebecca Watts goes so far as to claim that Instapoetry is indicative of a ‘muddle-headed conspiracy to “democratize” poetry’, which reveals only an immature and ‘truculent anti-establishmentism’ (2018: 14-16). Followers of the trend, however, argue that such responses fail to acknowledge the value of a digital culture through which a new ‘poetic homeland’ is emerging to challenge and refashion a ‘longstanding brand of exclusivity’ (Mehri 2018). Positioned as a form of ‘literary affirmative action’ (Mehri 2018), Instapoetry is repeatedly framed by its defenders in terms of its capacity to function as a vehicle through which the silenced might find a voice. As Adina Bresge notes, while the ‘algorithm-friendly compositions’ often tend towards the reductive, the genre is also a ‘megaphone to poets who are diversifying the metrical discourse by speaking directly to marginalized communities whose tastes have historically been dismissed as trivial or niche’ (2018).
The contestations surrounding the rapid growth and success of Instapoetry are thus frequently presented as trapped within a dichotomy of value, a divided battleground on which tired literary elitism, ‘propped up by centuries-old institutions’ (Mehri 2018), is pitched against the dynamism and superficiality of popular culture. Such a binary reveals the ways in which critical attention to the genre has largely been preoccupied with questions of merit, of whether the digital poetry produced by the likes of Rupi Kaur, Atticus, Lang Leav, RM Drake and rH Sin achieves the kind of canonical weighting demanded by figures such as Harold Bloom, or appeals to the literary tastes of the critics and academics who act as cultural gatekeepers. Derided as ‘fidget-spinner poetry’ (Roberts 2018), it is a form excoriated as a consequence of a contemporary environment in which technological advancement has supposedly reduced an audience’s capacity for effort and complexity. As Roberts observes, Instapoetry ‘is produced quickly and consumed quickly. Within our increasingly frantic quotidian, and Instagram’s youthful metabolism, it is perfectly timed’ (2018).
Yet such debates, which rotate endlessly around issues of high and low culture, are both repetitive and predictable – as Nilanjana Roy contends, the trademark tropes of Instapoetry are easy to mock, making it fodder for analyses tuned more to the mechanics or technicalities of language than to the act of poiesis or the real-world effects it might produce (2018). Indeed, as Chiara Giovanni notes of the criticism surrounding Rupi Kaur, even readers of Instapoetry do not ‘mount a defense based on the quality of language’ (2017). Instead, such audiences cite an insistence on the transformative results of (communal) engagement with such works, as well as their function in articulating a politics of selfhood which, as this paper argues, renders the poetry itself only a consequence of a much broader set of socio-political interests and, perhaps more importantly, performances.
As Giovanni contends, in understanding the tensions surrounding Instapoetry, it is necessary to move beyond an opposition of ‘vapidity versus raw honesty’ (2017) to grapple with the ways in which the mode operates as a by-product of more difficult questions about otherness and selfhood. Focusing on the controversy surrounding Kaur, and the Instapoetry of which she has become representative, this paper examines how the poet unsettles notions of genre, gender, and race in order to reveal deep-seated cultural anxieties about the imbrication of women, trauma, and power. By mobilising a fraught narrative of identity concerned with marginality, and by harnessing a multimodal platform that embraces both ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms of expression, Kaur undoubtedly troubles the borderlines, and highly successfully. Her debut self-published collection milk and honey (2014) sold over 3 million copies, remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for a consecutive 100 weeks.
Marketed as a ‘social media star’ and lauded by dedicated followers – 2.9 million on Instagram alone – as an ‘authentic, intensely personal’ poet speaking truth to power ‘in a literary scene that is overwhelmingly white’ (Giovanni 2017), Kaur has been described as a ‘millennial publishing sensation’ and, even more impressively, ‘poetry’s Beyoncé’ (Roy 2018). Kaur as Instapoet is framed as an activist who resists and rejects authority, turning from the status quo to highlight the structural inequalities that have traditionally sought to keep the ‘other’ on the outside. Yet as this paper contends, the ‘effortless authenticity’ (Giovanni 2017) offered by Kaur is also a highly specific and often problematic performance, one that uses the confessional mode to blur the lines between what is being offered by the poems, and the extra-textual discourses in which they are framed. The dichotomy effecting Instapoetry is thus not actually about those impossible questions – patrolled by the ‘fiefdom of the literary upper crust’ (Bresge 2018) – concerning what constitutes ‘good’ or valued art. Alternatively, arguments about the genre reveal a complex cultural politics through which the potential to transgress the split between self and other has been co-opted by cult-personalities such as Kaur, whose rhetoric of difference reveals only an astute act of commodification.
The aesthetics of redemption: speaking from the margins
While Instapoetry is an advent of the digital revolution, the confessional mode employed by Kaur is rooted in a long literary history, one characterised, Sandra Gilbert argues, by a sequence of ‘male mythologists of the self’ (1977: 444). Charles Molesworth observes how confessional poetry is a product of ‘one degraded branch of Romanticism’, in which the ‘sensitivity of the poet’ is placed ‘at the centre of concern’ (1976, 163). It is a tradition most often characterised by figures such as John Berryman, Robert Lowell, and WD Snodgrass, whose own works trace back to Walt Whitman, WB Yeats, Wordsworth, and Byron, ‘those romantic patriarchs’, Gilbert contends, ‘whose self-examinations and self-dramatizations probably fathered not only the poetry of what Keats called the egotistical sublime but also the more … ironic mode we might call the egotistical ridiculous’ (444). Importantly, while these poets drew upon the language and imagery of the confessional to express often turbulent notions about an inner-self, such poetry was not regarded as the articulation of an emotional conflict or instability, but rather received as a ‘symbolic embodiment of national and cultural crisis’ per se (Rosenthal 1967: 15). According to Gilbert, ‘the male confessional poet, in other words, even while romantically exploring his own psyche, observes himself as a representative specimen with a sort of scientific exactitude’ (445). The female confessional poet, however, fails to occupy such space and certainty, demonstrating ‘no paradoxical ease with her own anxieties’ (445), nor recognising the liminal crossings between the personal and the private as indicative of an Everywoman for whom she might speak.
Alternatively, as suggested by poets such as Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton, Adrienne Rich, and Erica Jong, there is a persistent sense of ‘straining to formulate an ontology of selfhood, some irreducible and essential truth about her own nature’ which is trapped within ‘male myths about her and her own sense of self’ (Gilbert 1977: 448). As a genre, confessional poetry is thus invested in emphasizing a ‘central mythology of the self’ (444), or what Molesworth less hopefully describes as a ‘desperate attempt at self-definition’ (176). It is a mode that is undeniably gendered. As Gilbert contends, while most male poets are recognized for their ability to move beyond ‘self-deprecations and self-assertions’ to ‘larger, more objectivity formulated appraisals of God, humanity, society’ (444), female poets are characterised as anchored to the private sphere of the domestic, marginalised from public life and denied the articulation of an identity that might be also understood as part and product of the world: ‘[S]he perceives that she is supposed to be living quietly in her kitchen, adhering, as Plath wrathfully wrote, “to rules, to rules, to rules”’ (Gilbert 1977: 449).
In this context, Kaur can be understood as drawing from a continuing tradition in which women seek to complicate the socio-cultural construction of selfhood via confessional poetry. Much like Plath and Sexton, who refuse enclosure ‘in the cells of history’ (Gilbert 1977: 449), Kaur seeks to trouble and subvert the limitations placed upon the identities of women, often by revelling in subject matter regarded as taboo, including a focus on menstruation, female desire, sexual violence, and abuse. There is close attention to the ways in which the bodies of women are surveilled and policed, and a rejection of forms of patriarchal containment and control, such as Western beauty myths, for example: ‘the next time he / points out the / hair on your legs is / growing back remind / that boy your body / is not his home’ (Kaur 2014: 165). Similarly, Kaur’s emphasis on voicelessness highlights a persistent muting of women, while the portrayal of a denial of speech-acts suggests an insistence on female absence, particularly from public or social spaces: ‘you were so afraid / of my voice / i decided to be / afraid of it too’ (17).
It is significant, even ironic, that one of the first poems of milk and honey describes how the poet must ‘pull the lump / in your throat out / with your teeth’ in order to lie to a therapist (15), while there are repeated references to a fear of the speaking self, and the monstrosity of women who might dare possess a voice: ‘you tell me to quiet down cause / my opinions make me less beautiful’ (30). Indeed, in an interview, Kaur has described how she began to share her writing largely because she was ‘tired of being quiet’ (Spencer 2015). The imposition of female silence is exposed as a violence of patriarchy, through which male domination might be secured, and women disappeared into nothingness:
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 (35)
The shift to social media enhances the subversive strategies at play in this formulation of the confessional, democratising the right to speak via a platform designed for those wanting to be heard. Further, the use of such a medium complicates the distinction between public and private spaces: through its affectations, contrivances, and suggestion of a complete revelation of self, social media platforms offer an ambiguous and troubling borderline between truth and artifice. Importantly, however, through such a mode, figures such as Kaur have also appropriated the claims of the male confessional poet to the axiomatic relationship between confession and truth in order to posit a feminist vision or worldview. Kaur’s poetry has been described as ‘essential reading for women everywhere’, for example, whilst one reviewer (rather aptly) confesses that ‘by the final chapter’ of milk and honey, ‘Kaur becomes the sister you never had’ (Spencer 2015). This is arguably in part due to an engagement with gendered yet ostensibly universal themes relating to sexism, trauma, friendship, and violence (Giovanni 2017), speaking to both the general and the specific, for instance, by way of aphorisms about pain and recovery, or the importance of sisterhood: ‘my heart aches for sisters more than anything / it aches for women helping women / like flowers ache for spring’ (Kaur 2014, 187). Such imagery functions as a community of care through which women might discover solace or reassurance, but most significantly, the ability to attend to the self as central: ‘you / are your own / soul mate’ (189).
Indeed, an insistence on community is arguably essential to the positioning of Kaur’s work as a form of activism, and key to the coding of milk and honey as a manifesto of the feminist self. Kaur repeatedly notes the need for women to unify, for instance, and to refrain from the destructive competition instilled by patriarchy: ‘what terrifies me most is how we / foam at the mouth with envy / when others succeed / but sigh in relief / when they are failing’ (201). Rather than engage in the kinds of schadenfreude entrenched by the economics of capitalism and sexism, there is a determination to recognise those made threatening or invisible by their relegation to the margins: ‘we all move forward when / we recognize how resilient / and striking the women / around us are’ (191). The rhetoric of sisterhood posits a collective in which the boundaries between self and other are erased, and safety might be found, yet in Kaur’s articulation it is also problematically lacking in the particular. Rita Felski contends that the feminist confession is marked ‘by a tension between a focus upon subjectivity and a construction of identity which is communal rather than individualistic’ (1989: 92).
In these terms, the genre may ‘cater to specific needs’ arising from ‘the context of women’s recent cultural and political struggles’, and by doing so, recognise that ‘women’s problems are not private but communal’ (92). It is, according to Felski, a logical consequence of a history in which women are denied access to public life: ‘Given that women’s lives have until now been largely defined by their location within the private sphere, this realm necessarily constitutes the starting point’ (92). In line with Felski, Gillian Whitlock observes in Soft Weapons that the autobiographical narrator in ‘minority genres speaks on behalf of a collective, a subordinate speaking truth to power’ (2007: 20). In this context, Kaur utilizes a blurry version of witness testimony as a strategy of ambivalence, a means through which to hesitate between an expression of an inner-most self, and a speaking to the suffering of others: ‘there is no bigger illusion in the world / than the idea that a woman will / bring dishonor into a home / if she tries to keep her heart / and her body safe’ (Kaur 2014: 24).
In its suggestion of universality – that all women, regardless of background, understand fear and sacrifice – Kaur’s poem offers a canny balance between individual and communal experiences of alienation and otherness. Felski suggests that such a tactic reveals a compulsion of the feminist confessional mode more broadly, in which the ‘process of self-examination is necessary, even obligatory, for women, a politically significant act in relation to a projected community of female readers who share a consciousness of the silence which has been imposed upon women over the centuries’ (92). Yet such a sentiment, which emphasises the collective nature of subjective trauma, not only reveals a feminism lacking in the nuances of intersectional thinking, but also indicates the referential manipulations employed by Kaur to commodify a politics of inequality. Indeed, one of the key characteristics of successful Instapoets is an ability to mobilise the language of equal rights discourses, particularly in relation to the freedoms of women, often expressed within passé romantic tropes and an earnest faux feminism. Atticus, whose trademark Guy Faulks mask constantly obscures his face, drew upon such a strategy with ‘love her / but leave her wild’ (2017), an aphorism that went viral and resulted in a publication contract with Simon and Schuster, while RM Drake – followed by the likes of Alicia Keys and Khloe Kardashian – espouses axioms such as ‘Do not promise / her the stars / if you cannot / see them yourself’ (2018). rH Sin produces thousands of ersatz feminist epigrams, such as ‘but darling / you will never matter / to a fool who doesn’t / deserve you’ and ‘i wish you loved you / as much as you loved him’ (2018). The ‘feminism’ espoused by these Instapoets is little more than cliché framing patriarchal control within a language of liberation and love. More insidiously, such poetry reveals an attempt to craft the identities of women according to a male-defined code of femininity, one that is often understood in essentialist terms relating to an inherent connection between women and the natural world: ‘her hands could hold a hurricane / her touch could calm the sea’ (Sin 2018). The vacuity of the poetry nonetheless provokes hundreds of comments from online followers hooked on the constant feed of feel-good aphorisms. As one reader recently responded: ‘This was everything to me’ (2018).
Indeed, the strength of Kaur’s work is arguably in its capacity to speak to an incredibly wide audience, one that does not need a ‘geographical nexus’ but constructs a ‘symbiotic coterie’ in which the disenfranchised might find a home (Khaira-Hanks 2017). Sasha Kruger similarly observes how emergent ‘mediascapes’ such as Instagram denote a ‘space for community building’ for those ‘historically denied access to traditional marketplace economies’, a digital platform that enables shared storytelling, and ‘where communal resistance is forged’ (2017). Theoretically, Kaur thus presents an exciting new space in which alterity might be expressed, and the borderlines of traditional literary culture challenged in order to allow different voices to emerge. As Momtaza Mehri argues, Instapoetry can be understood as a vehicle through which a politics of marginality might be conveyed, but more significantly, might make room for those who are so often denied a place:
In its desire for imagined freedoms, some poetry aims only for what Theodor W Adorno termed the ‘aesthetics of redemption’. For some people, that means a solipsist Instagram sound-bite of a poem that appeals to both the specific alienation of young women of color and the common experiences of a wider audience. For some people, that’s enough. This is what they need to get through their day (2018).
It is a discourse echoed specifically by Kaur. When asked in an interview with PBS about whether ‘it hurts’ that her poetry is often judged in terms of its therapeutic rather than its literary qualities, for example, the Instapoet responded:
No, not really ... And it’s because I never really intended to get into the literary world. This is actually not for you. This is for that, like, 17-year-old brown woman in Brampton who is not even thinking about that space, who is just trying to live, survive, get through her day. (2018)
It also crucial to recognise, however, the ways in which Instapoetry transforms trauma and hardship into commodities, as ‘marginalisation becomes a kind of raw material’ to emotionally anchor readers (Mehri 2018). It is important to note, for example, that Kaur is a woman of colour, a Punjabi-Canadian who frequently, via extra-textual modes such as interviews and responses to FAQ on her website, refers to a ‘quintessential South Asian female experience’ (Giovanni 2018). According to Whitlock, ethnic autobiography is ‘highly valued for its exotic appeal and educational value’ and for ‘the status it confers on the consumer as an enlightened, sympathetic, and politically correct individual’ (15). With the increasing commodification of the ‘alterity industry’, Whitlock argues that ‘local and oppositional discourses and cultural products from the periphery circulate and are contained by metropolitan and capitalist systems of production and consumption’ (15). In this context, confessional narratives are a market sold to ‘powerful reading communities’ that range from the ‘metropolitan intelligentsia’ to ‘the fans of the best-seller’ (15) – indeed, Kaur’s work has been acclaimed by readers ranging from Ariana Grande and Emma Watson to Poet Laureate Carol Muske-Dukes. The mode drawn upon by Kaur is, moreover, an object capable of assuaging the guilt of the privileged Western reader, while allowing access to the intimacy of trauma and providing a ‘comforting narcissistic recognition that denies differences across cultures’ (15). Whitlock further suggests that ethnic autobiographies thereby function as an ‘agent’ through which concepts of self and other are both constructed and revealed, exposing extant notions of an essential ‘Western’ subject and the enigmatic ‘other’ (7).
In the promotion of milk and honey, Kaur thus exploits a market tuned to a very particular style of identity politics, one which enables sympathetic engagement without the specificities of detailed realities. Crucially, while Kaur as poet-persona repeatedly emphasises a language of trauma and rights, the poetry fails to echo such sentiments in ways that extend beyond the general and the cliché. In a poem sub-titled ‘kaur, a woman of sikhi’, for example, Kaur manages to blend a general sense of outrage and resistance to oppression whilst embedding enough familial markings that its ‘codes’ might apply to or be identified by the widest possible audience:
the name kaur
makes me a free woman
it removes the shackles that
try to bind me
to remind me i am equal to
any man even though the state
of this world screams to me i am not
…i have a
universal duty to share with
humanity to nurture
and serve the sisterhood
to raise those that need raising
the name kaur runs in my blood
it was in me before the word itself existed
it is my identity and my liberation (184)
Even in the sun and her flowers (2017), in which Kaur makes a more notable effort to address specific communities of trauma, such as asylum seekers and refugees, the results are predictably vague: ‘borders / are man-made / they only divide us physically / don’t let them make us / turn on each other’ (128). Extra-textually, Kaur repeatedly describes her trajectory as ‘the story of a young brown woman’, framed as ‘an icon of diversity against hostile gatekeepers of … prestige’ (Giovanni 2017). It is an important position, one which highlights the white privilege that so often defines literary culture and rejects the dismissal of the ‘other’ by insisting on a subjectivity that is central.
Yet such a persona is also meticulously crafted to suit the demands of particular markets, modulated to fulfil the expectations of both a Western readership and ‘the grassroots social media audience’ to whom Kaur owes her fame (Giovanni 2017). Priya Khaira-Hanks argue that criticisms focussed on the commodifying strategies of the Instapoet merely reveal how ‘Kaur is a victim of a toxic mix of snobbery and misogyny’ (2017). But the effects of universalising are enormously problematic, particularly in terms of how the poet compromises the integrity of both the self and the collective, further alienating the margins from the centre. Giovanni observes how the FAQ on Kaur’s website make clear that ‘she is interested less in sharing her own experiences, despite the claims of her fans, and more in what she portrays as the collective nature of sexual trauma in her community’ (2011). As Kaur notes on the site: ‘we know sexual violence intimately. we experience alarming rates of rape. from thousands of years of shame and oppression. from the community and from colonizer after colonizer’ (2018).
The insistence on the collective ‘we’ denotes a South Asian female experience that is ‘marked by abusive relatives and fear’ through which, Giovanni claims, Kaur ‘seems to note little different between her educated, Western, Indian-Canadian self and her ancestors, or even modern South Asian women of a similar age in rural Punjab’ (2017). As Khaira-Hanks’ comments suggest, broadly speaking, Kaur is positioned as victim whose words do not absolve some established, transcendental criteria of worth: ‘As a young woman of color in a world where white, male delectations are treated as the barometer of definitive taste, Kaur speaks a truth that the literary establishment is unlikely to understand’ (2017). Yet it would also be naïve not to highlight the performances being enacted by Kaur, whose privileges enable her to capitalise on the uncertainties of a complex cultural politics:
While more female South Asian voices are indeed needed in mainstream culture and media, there is something deeply uncomfortable about the self-appointed spokesperson of South Asian womanhood being a privileged young woman from the West who unproblematically claims the experience of the colonized subject as her own, and profits from her invocation of generational trauma (Giovanni 2017).
‘bodies in the first place’: on Kaur’s Instapoems
While critics of Kaur have been described as traditionalists, trolls, and ‘imaginatively bankrupt’ (Mehri 2018), it is thus difficult to ignore the issues the Instapoet presents, both in terms of a politics of selfhood, and in relation to the slippery nature of a mode that commodifies marginality as ‘authentic’ expression. It is undoubtedly precarious ground on which a surface image of affirmative action collides against a poetry that works to appease the values and interests of a Western mainstream culture. Such a conflict becomes particularly clear in Kaur’s attention to the body and to the expression of female sexual desire. Sasha Kruger argues that Kaur ‘transforms the place of her body by celebrating it, and thereby asserts sovereign power over her embodiment’ (2017).
Through such a manoeuvre, Kaur is not only able to contest colonial discourses which render the physicality of the ‘other’ an exotic object, but also defy Western patriarchal definitions of beauty and ownership. Resistance is articulated visually as well as poetically, by way of sketch illustrations that offer further exposition. In one, for example, a poem is positioned between the legs of a naked, headless woman: ‘you / have been / taught your legs / are a pit stop for men / that need a place to rest’ (Kaur 13). The confrontation rejects the notion that women are a ‘vacant body empty’, reiterated by the inability to distinguish a unique self – she is decapitated, removed of voice. Kruger contends that the framing of the image is significant: by offering a vision of a woman spread wide, taking up space, Kaur comments on a politics of nationhood in which the bodies of coloured women are representative of the violence of colonisation. Yet Kaur, Kruger argues, ‘visually reasserts dominion over her own sexuality by reoccupying her body’ in poetry, thus ‘destabilising the colonial ideologies that would lay siege upon it’ (2017).
There are a number of similar poems throughout milk and honey, often presented alongside reassuring aphorisms about the importance of self-love: ‘your body / is a museum / of natural disasters / can you grasp how / stunning that is’ (173). While such messages speak to a culture of empowerment and acceptance, and seem to critique how women’s bodies are spatialised as the resting places for men, they also adopt an essentialist vision of femininity as rooted in nature, and associated with passivity and resilience: ‘i like the way the stretch marks / on my thighs look human and / that we’re so soft yet / rough and jungle wild’ (169). Fittingly, the confessional ‘I’ transforms into the communal ‘we’, another evocation of sisterhood that offers a strangely static demarcation of what it means to be female: ‘i love that about us / how capable we are of feeling / how unafraid we are of breaking / and tend our wounds with grace’ (169).
In line with poets such as rH Sin and Atticus, there is something of the transcendental Earth Mother presented in Kaur’s vision, which not only aspires to a collective hive-mind of a singular feminine type, but also evokes a mystic aura of separateness as strength: ‘calling myself / a woman / makes me utterly whole / and complete’ (169). Kruger contends that the repetition of such gendered mythologies not only reveals a ‘biologically-regimented and essentialised femininity’, but also a frame of understanding that reinforces a subjectivity which is compulsorily cis-centric and heterosexual (Kruger 2017). Perhaps contradictorily, there is a repeated emphasis on the reliance of selfhood on the construction of other, but rather than being couched in terms of an ideology of nationhood – an inclusion the extra-textual discourses produced by Kaur might suggest logical – the subject remains trapped within the struggles of a male/female binary: ‘losing you / was the becoming / of myself’ (174).
Kaur frequently addresses the beauty myths which seek to control and contain women, especially in relation to body hair and, in line with the Mother Earth/Goddess complex described above, ideas about the ‘natural’ self: ‘to be / soft / is / to be / powerful’ (166). Yet there is arguably only one poem of the 200 in milk and honey that explicitly confronts the cultural construction of beauty by way of racial prejudice, which is not only at odds with the politics espoused by Kaur, but also with the framing of the work as confessional. While Giovanni notes that ‘this is not to reinforce the often-damaging expectation that writers of colour must write only about racism in order to be successful’, it does function as a reminder that Kaur ‘claims to be documenting a specifically South Asian experience that never materialises’ (2017). The single double-page spread devoted to addressing such questions initially challenges a colonial lens of objection through which beauty is defined in exclusively white terms. The tone is unusually antagonistic for Kaur, who describes a ‘lineage of women’ whose ‘big hooked noses’, ‘skin the colour of the earth’, ‘thighs are thick as tree trunks’ and ‘eyes like almonds’ (170) are rejected as ugly and monstrous.
The power of such a sentiment, which positions the non-Western body as central, is nonetheless complicated by the oft-quoted lines of the following poem, sub-titled ‘women of colour’: ‘our backs / tell stories / no books / have the spine to / carry’ (171). On the one hand, the poem reveals ‘how deeply embedded in Western culture are the mechanisms that silence women, that refuse to take them seriously, and that sever them (sometimes quite literally …) from the centres of power’ (Beard 2017: xi). The subtitle is a flag to the intersectional politics demanded from a contemporary understanding of feminism, one which recognises the myriad complexities involved in how women of colour negotiate the world. Yet in its juxtaposition against a poem that explicitly addresses the very particular suffering of certain groups of marginalised women, it effectively functions as little more than an ameliorative nod to Western and South Asian audiences. As Giovanni notes, the poems act as ‘a brief interlude in a collection that is otherwise devoid of racial politics, and once again addresses a white, Western audience in their appeal for recognition of South Asian beauty and resilience’ (2017).
According to Molesworth, one of the ‘critical clichés’ that emerges around confessional poets is the notion that language might offer ‘salvation, that the redeeming word could set right what the intractable world of egos, projects, deceits, and self-destructions had insidiously twisted’ (166). Indeed, confession is ultimately a means through which to achieve catharsis, as recognised by Kaur: ‘It’s not as difficult to write about these topics as it is a relief to be able to express them’ (Spencer 2015). In milk and honey, the act of writing is positioned as a form of therapy – indeed, the foreword to the collection articulates the relationship between recovery and expression: ‘my heart woke me crying last night / how can i help i begged / my heart said / write the book. As noted, the repeated attention to motifs of speaking and voicelessness suggests an imperative to tell as a means of survival but also healing, to which the final quarter of the collection is dedicated. Focusing on self-empowerment through pain, Kaur presents a formulaic trajectory from despair to hope in which the confrontational nature of the confessional mode becomes a framing device. The section begins, for example, with the observation that ‘the thing about writing is / i can’t tell if it’s healing / or destroying me’ (148), and ends with a note of thanks: ‘you split me open / in the most honest / … / forced me to write / at a time i was sure i / could not write again’ (204). Characteristically, the pronouns are ambiguously signified, referring either to an audience of Kaur’s social media followers, or to those responsible for experiences of trauma and heartbreak. As argued, the persistent blurring between the individual and the collective remains deeply problematic, as efforts to appease a complex readership render the poems as little more than ‘inspo-verse’ that is often radically misguided.
The final quarter of the text is marked by a series of imperatives, for instance, which offers sage-like wisdom about the necessity of release: ‘do not bother holding on to / that thing that does not want you’ (149). Such dictums shift awkwardly from those relating to romantic relationships to poems signifying a more profound sense of loss, and are clumsily interspersed with sexualised maxims about the glory of the female body: ‘the goddess between your legs / makes mouths water’ (188). To those who have endured the kinds of trauma to which Kaur alludes, the suggestion that ‘it takes / grace / to remain kind / in cruel situations’ (160) – and the reassurance that ‘if the hurt comes / so will the happiness’ (182) – is not only painfully superficial but also, unsurprisingly, devoid of context, political reality, or psychological depth. That such sentiments are contrived as the common cure for suffering and sadness evidences the ways in which Kaur’s poetry utilises sameness to sidestep issues of difference, despite an extra-textual insistence on the nuances of a racialised (and radicalised) identity politics. Indeed, while the overarching thematisation of freedom from oppression is overt, it is difficult not to recognise the commodifying effects at play, through which two readerships are being clearly targeted: ‘white Westerners’, to whom Kaur appeals as ‘the patron saint of millennial heartbreak’, and ‘young people of colour’, who regard the Instapoet as a ‘representation of their desire for diversity in the literary world’ (Giovanni 2018). By treating trauma as a catchall device best realised through appeals to the universal, Kaur exploits the desire of audiences to self-fashion in line with the rhetoric of rights discourse that triggers ‘empathic identification, benevolence and a response to trauma in terms of a liberal set of values that are held above and beyond cultural difference’ (Whitlock, 118).
Framed within a context of activism, Kaur thus elicits the ‘empathic response of a secular humanist readership in the West’ (Whitlock, 169), while positioning herself as the advocate for repressed women worldwide. It is an undeniably savvy exploitation of a literary market that remains predominantly white and continues to devalue ‘non-European expression’ (Mehri 2018). Indeed, it must be acknowledged that Kaur has made deft use of a political economy that objectifies and commodifies the exotic ‘other’, playing upon a language of equality in order to capitalise on audiences aligned with both the centre and the margins, and attuned to ‘the gendered, raced, and classed social antagonisms that organize our world’ (Mehri 2018). By producing a poetics that relies upon paratextual performance in order to create a clear sense of context, Kaur appeases the demands of a mass, diverse audience.
While such manipulation is inherently problematic, denying a voice to those whose experiences of trauma and inequality are inescapably couched within the specifics of time and place, the issue is not entirely with Kaur or the Instapoetry of which she is representative. As Giovanni argues of Kaur’s remarkably divisive accomplishments, it is important to also consider a literary environment which fosters the emergence of such phenomena: ‘The Western metropolitan literary market’s demand for confessional writing that is coloured by just the right amount of postcolonial authenticity, ensuring that it is exotic enough to be attractive without making white Western readers uncomfortable, plays a major part in her success’ (2017). Via ‘broad-reaching sentiments and uncomplicated feminist slogans’ (Giovanni 2017), Kaur undoubtedly unsettles the borderlines, a maverick of paratextual performance and identity politics:
of course i want to be successful
but i don’t crave success for me
i need to be successful to gain
enough milk and honey
to help those around
me succeed (199)
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