Letters: Poetry Was Never Endangered

Readers weigh in on the rise of the “Insta-poet.”

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How Instagram Saved Poetry

With the rise of “Insta-poets,” Faith Hill and Karen Yuan wrote recently, today’s poets are no longer just writers—they’re entrepreneurs.

As a small-press poetry publisher, I don’t think Instagram has “saved” poetry. I think it is changing one facet of it: easily digestible, short and simple. There have always been haiku and other short forms in poetic cultures for people willing to read a book; it’s just that now, some (mostly young) people have noticed these mottos, aphorisms, or sayings in the visual, swift world of social media. Good for them, but it does nothing to advance the kinds of books I’m publishing. I think there’s room for both. Poetry will go on in many forms whether or not it sells millions of copies of books—and we all know sales don’t mean something has lasting value.

Jennifer Grigg
London, England

Your article “How Instagram Saved Poetry” operates on a number of false assumptions.

First, that poetry was dead and needed saving; second, that a social-media platform designed for quick image sharing could “save” something that, over centuries, has developed as an essentially reflective lyrical and narrative art form; and third, that poets’ side jobs have ever had anything essential to do with their work as writers. Writing poetry has never been about the money, and “brands” have been misinterpreting Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” since he wrote it. Just because insurance companies have realized a few “Insta-poets” actually do a pretty good job selling their products doesn’t mean brands suddenly have ownership of the poetic form.

Then there’s the problematic term Insta-poet, which conjures an image of someone who, as Rod McKuen and Richard Bach did in the 1970s, popularizes easily digestible platitudes in the guise of poetry. As a writer who has posted a photo and haiku using the handle @placepoet almost daily since January 2016, I follow many poets who use Instagram’s posting and editing capabilities as inspirational tools—ekphrastic prompts to focus creative vision and work. These daily, now habitual, opportunities to observe, photograph, edit, write, and post are part of my practice wherever I am. Sticking to a form disciplines me to focus on the image, not myself. I call these anti-selfies—the opposite of what the term Insta-poet has come to imply.

Despite the effort I put into editing and writing these Instagram haiku/photo hybrids, most people who follow me (nowhere near the number who follow Rupi Kaur) tell me how much they like my photos. This confirms to me that with Instagram, it’s not really about words, only images (and I don’t choose to confuse the two by superimposing my words over my photos). As the former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove said, “We tend to be so bombarded with information, and we move so quickly, that there’s a tendency to treat everything on the surface level and process things quickly. That is antithetical to the kind of openness and perception you have to have to be receptive to poetry.” Let’s hope “Insta-poets” are the gateway drug that leads their followers to the more mind-bending stuff available in the form of podcasts, live-streams, video performances, and even literary magazines and books.

Ellen Girardeau Kempler
Laguna Beach, Calif.

Readers responded on Twitter and Facebook:

Elizabeth Stansberry wrote: As a poet, I do want to say that poetry never needed to be “saved.” I am glad this strange poetic technique is helping sell poetry books. But I want to mention that with every Rupi Kaur that sells, there’s a more talented, less media savvy poet who will never sell.

Laurie Ciulla Plasker wrote: I can’t find it in me to judge anyone who has figured out a way to write and make a living doing it. Good for them. It’s apples and oranges really, but I’d be happy to sell the one that people are buying.

Faith Hill and Karen Yuan reply:

First and foremost, we’re very grateful that so many people have engaged with this work. Clearly this is a subject that has been on people’s minds, especially among poetry lovers like us.

Many of the comments we received pushed back against our headline, “How Instagram Saved Poetry.” Admittedly, this title was hyperbolic, and poets understandably argued that poetry didn’t need to be saved in the first place. We meant to refer to the poetry industry, not the art itself; our point was that poets deserve to make a living from their art, and that Instagram is introducing an element of financial remuneration that wasn’t always a possibility for poets in the past. In the piece, we note that plenty of people are still enjoying and pursuing poetry in all the traditional mediums. The piece in general was intended to celebrate poetry and underline its importance—and that means poetry in all forms, digital and not.

Other readers have expressed concern about what it means for poetry to find these new avenues of profit. We’re indeed viewing poetry in its relationship with capitalism, but only noting that the relationship is taking novel forms, and interrogating what that means. Without making a value judgment, we hope to surface a phenomenon—the commercialization of poetry, aided by social media—that is, for champions and critics alike, very real, and only becoming more necessary to grapple with. Whether such a phenomenon is ultimately beneficial or harmful to the art form is a question that’s part of a much larger debate. A follow-up piece could ask non-“Insta-poets” how they feel this trend is impacting their careers as well.

Ultimately, this conversation surfaces some important questions: What does it mean to be a poet in 2018? What challenges are poets facing, and how has the industry changed—or not changed, for that matter—in recent years? We’re looking forward to continuing the discussion.