Tom spent his days as a clerk, two floors below ground level in the cellars of Lloyds Bank. He worked in the foreign-transactions department from 9:15 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. each day, and in his free moments between filing and tabulating balance sheets, he wrote.
Tom was better known to the world as T. S. Eliot. By the time he started as a clerk in 1917, his most popular poem—The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock—had been published to great acclaim. But even then, despite his bank salary, the man who has often been called the greatest poet of the 20th century struggled to make ends meet. He accepted money from relatives to buy underwear and pajamas, and anxiety over his finances drove him to breakdowns.
Poetry has always been an art form, but it has rarely been a career even for the most legendary poets. William Carlos Williams was a doctor. Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive. Charles Bukowski held a bevy of odd jobs, including work as a dishwasher, a truck driver, a gas-station attendant, and a postal clerk. The poet’s story has long been one of a double life, split between two urgent duties: making a living and making art.
Rupi Kaur is a case study in how dramatically the world of poetry has changed since then. The 25-year-old Canadian poet outsold Homer two years ago: Her first collection, milk & honey, has been translated into 40 languages and has sold 3.5 million copies, stealing the position of best-selling poetry book from The Odyssey.
It wasn’t always like this for Kaur. She started her career by posting her work to Tumblr in 2012 and then gradually switched to Instagram, but her social-media strategy wasn’t yet making her nearly enough money to live. “My mind-set was: No way can poetry pay your rent,” she told us. Then milk & honey was published in 2014 and hit the New York Times best-seller list in 2016. Kaur realized, It’s not stopping. It’s getting bigger. Maybe this can sustain me. Her success doesn’t seem to be slowing. Within the past year, she appeared on Jimmy Fallon, made the Forbes 30 under 30 list, and sold out a “World Tour de Force” across India and the U.K. This month, she finishes her sweeping American tour. Kaur now has 3 million Instagram followers.
Since the publication of milk & honey, the poetry genre has become one of the fastest-growing categories in book publishing. According to one market-research group, 12 of the top 20 best-selling poets last year were Insta-poets, who combined their written work with shareable posts for social media; nearly half of poetry books sold in the United States last year were written by these poets. This year, according to a survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Census Bureau, 28 million Americans are reading poetry—the highest percentage of poetry readership in almost two decades. Kaur’s publisher, Kirsty Melville, has seen it happen firsthand: “It used to be that poetry was down in the back of the store next to the bathrooms, and now it’s out front,” she told us. “And that naturally helps sales of all poets. The classics and other contemporary poets are selling.”
The rise of the Insta-poet didn’t start with Rupi Kaur. In 2013, Melville noticed that a Cambodian-Australian poet named Lang Leav was becoming popular on the internet, her work passed around on social media. Melville took a leap of faith and signed her to a book deal with Andrews McMeel, her publishing company. That book, Love & Misadventures, sold more than 150,000 copies. “We thought, Huh, there’s something going on here ... For a poetry book—a love poetry book—to sell 150,000 copies was notable.”
Five years later, the poetry world has been rocked by myriad other social-media stars. Cleo Wade, the 29-year-old known for her inspirational mantras (“You want love? Be love. You want light? Be light”), has her words on billboards in Los Angeles and Times Square. Atticus, who wears a mask to keep his identity hidden, can count Emma Roberts, Alicia Keys, and Karlie Kloss as fans; his upcoming fall tour will include 12 performances in cities across the U.S. and Canada. R. M. Drake, who first began sharing his poetry in 2011 using Tumblr and DeviantArt, now has 1.8 million followers on Instagram; he’s also published 12 books in print, several of them international best sellers.
In 2010, the editor of n+1 magazine, Chad Harbach, famously wrote that there were two distinct and rival literary cultures in America: the institutional, university-driven M.F.A. track and the New York–centered publishing world. But now there is a third option: the fast-paced, democratizing, hyper-connected culture of the internet. The poets of this third category often have little formal training, and their publishers are strewn across the country. Andrews McMeel, for instance, is an indie publisher in Missouri. Social media seem to have cracked the walls around a field that has long been seen as highbrow, exclusive, esoteric, and ruled by tradition, opening it up for young poets with broad appeal, many of whom are women and people of color.
Social-media poets, using Instagram as a marketing tool, are not just artists—they’re entrepreneurs. They still primarily earn money through publication and live events, but sharing their work on Instagram is now what opens up the possibility for both. Kaur, the ultimate poet-entrepreneur, said she approaches poetry like “running a business.” A day in the life can consist of all-day writing, touring, or, perhaps unprecedented for a poet, time in the office with her team to oversee operations and manage projects.
Building their own mini brands, poets can harness e-commerce to supplement their income. Some sell merchandise such as mugs printed with their poetry and, in a mimicry of the aestheticized square of Instagram, “hand-typed poems of your choice” in shadow box frames. Atticus’s website features a shop called the Atticus Collective, where customers can purchase products inscribed with his words, from a massive $35 poster to a $174 “talisman.”
The ever-growing popularity of these poets also makes them valuable to other brands, providing newer and bigger ways to commodify their words. Cleo Wade’s poetry has been featured in Gucci advertisements, emblazoned on Nike sneakers, and scrawled across dishes sold by boutique homeware stores. During last February’s New York Fashion Week, the designer Tracy Reese had models strut to poetry readings on the catwalk. Even the insurance firm Nationwide is getting in on the trend; it recently released a series of commercials in which poets wax on about the miracle of a mortgage.
Perhaps this was inevitable with the nature of quick consumption on Instagram, where you can come across a pithy statement, double-tap the square it’s in, and reflexively scroll past it all in a matter of seconds; the pithier the statement, the better. The limited confines of an Instagram post incentivize the bite-size lyric, the tidy aphorism, the briefly deliverable quote. Most Instagram poems advise how to live a better life—how to move on from a broken heart, how to believe in one’s self, how to pursue one’s dreams. On a platform full of idealized lifestyles in food, travel, and fashion, poetry presents yet more aspirational philosophies.
Earlier this year, in a divisive, scorched-earth essay, the poet Rebecca Watts criticized the popular Instagram poet Hollie McNish’s work as that not of a poet, “but of a personality.” She derided Instagram poetry as amateurish and craftless commercial fodder that anyone can breezily snack on. “Artless poetry sells,” she wrote. “The reader is dead: Long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords.”
But poetry, like any other art, must adapt to the world changing around it.
Poetry, in particular, is often imagined as existing in a vacuum, dashed off on parchment by a reclusive writer shut in to ponder at all hours the eternal truths and greatest mysteries of our existence. But in fact, poetry has always been affected by shifting technologies. Rachael Allen, the poetry editor of Granta, noted this in explaining why she doesn’t find Insta-poetry cause for alarm. “Poetic form has always been affected by the medium in which it’s presented ... There are whole movements built out of poems embedded in landscape, or carved into stone,” she said.
According to Allen, Granta is still getting plenty of lengthy poetry submissions; the magazine has been publishing several multipage poems as of late, with one on the way that spans five pages. And Granta still gets about 2,000 yearly poetry submissions in total. “I think it just goes to show,” she said, “that all these forms, all these ways of reading, are able to coexist with each other quite peacefully.” Enrollment in poetry M.F.A. programs is still healthy as well. Elizabeth Willis, who directs the poetry branch of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, received 343 applications in 2018; compare that with 426 applicants in 2010, and you’ll see that the number has indeed gone down, but certainly not so drastically that one could claim the M.F.A. obsolete.
It’s impossible to predict, while the first Instagram poets are still at work, how radically the industry is being changed by social media and whether the transformations will be lasting. But the triumphs of poets like Rupi Kaur—the world tours, the book sales, the frenzy of fans—are undeniable. The word poetry originates from the Greek word poesis, which means the process of creation, of composition, of production. From the very beginning, the art was tied to the labor. Now, because of a movement of rookie poets on the internet, it is reaping its rewards.