In Defense of Instapoetry

I’m not going to start by defining it. You already know what Instapoetry is, and you might even have disdain for it. Often referred to as “fidget-spinner poetry” due to its brevity and its targeting of younger audiences, Instapoetry is frequently dismissed and even insulted by critics. But does Instapoetry have anything to offer—especially for us quick-scrolling younger generations?

Probably the most obvious facet of Instapoetry is the first part of the portmanteau: the social media. Many are quick to accuse Instapoets of building brands by sharing their work, but it’s important to note that these poets are constantly putting work out there. One of the hardest parts of being an artist is sharing your work—that initial hump of putting yourself out there and being vulnerable. Instapoets are especially bold (or even masochistic) in that they churn out work and post it for the masses to read, laud, and criticize.

“I’m taking my body back,” a poem from Rupi Kaur’s book Milk and Honey, discusses reclaiming one’s body after sexual assault. This poem makes Kaur vulnerable beyond just putting her work out for others to read. Kaur, the most famous Instapoet, often tackles racial identity and mental health in addition to feminist themes.

As Dr. Eleanor Spencer-Regan points out, “This is a radically democratic method of publishing that is giving opportunities to many women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and people who publicly disclose mental illnesses.” In addition to being a direct and publicized medium, Instapoetry is giving rise to a diversity of voices across the platform. Instapoetry has proven to be a forum for bringing past traumas, race, and other important themes to the forefront of social media.

Old-school poets are quick to knock this new poetry form, calling it a disgrace and a trend. However, the common form of Instapoetry (especially Kaur’s pieces) channels Greek and Roman epigrams to create terse, emotional, and memorable statements. Social media is the evolutionary ground for that ancient form and makes it available to current audiences.

Furthermore, Instapoets have made poetry more accessible. Formerly more academic and highbrow, poetry is now at the fingertips of our generation. The Gibraltar Magazine characterizes the phenomenon as “a formerly elite type of literature accessible on an entirely new platform, beyond the classroom and the often limiting nature of the Western canon.” Social media’s modern take on poetry gives the medium a fresh feel. The brief modern epigrams cause the scroller to pause, read, and consider the poem before moving on to other orders of business, threading the art form into the daily routines of the readers.

While poetry has been evolving as a form, its sales have also been growing every year. Booknet Canada reports that “poetry sales increased 79 percent over 2015 and between 2016 and 2017 the units sold increased by another 154 percent.” According to The Guardian, “1.3 [million] volumes of poetry were sold in 2018, adding up to £12.3 [million] in sales, a rise of £1.3 [million] in 2017.” Growth in sales over several years shows that this trend is not an anomaly. No one can deny Instapoetry’s influence on the market in recent years, putting books by Instapoets like r.H. Sin and Gabbie Hanna on prominent shelves.

But Instapoets are not the only ones enjoying a boost in sales. Graphs created by the NPD Group show that from 2013 to 2017, other poets enjoyed an increase in sales of nearly 50 percent. In 2017, poets like Mary Oliver, Pablo Neruda, Emily Dickinson, and Homer were intermingled with Instapoets on poetry’s top-selling list. Instapoetry is something Laura Byager calls “gateway poetry” for younger audiences: it encourages them to branch out beyond the poetry on the screen and explore books by famous traditional poets.

With the resurgence of poetry sales and increasing accessibility, it’s hard to ignore that Instapoetry is earning its stripes. There will always be haters. Rap and hip-hop went through the same growing pains to establish themselves as respectable genres, and maybe one day Instapoetry will take its place as a subgenre through creative use of the digital medium.

Pop Poetry and the World of Tomorrow—Social Media Poetry for a New Generation

Scrolling through Instagram recently, which is possibly the worst way I could think of to begin a sentence, I came across a picture of fresh ink on an indeterminable portion of someone’s body that read in typeface, “a happy soul is the best shield for a cruel world —atticus.” I laughed, as I’ve never been one to find solace in such self-assured aphorisms. That is, until I realized the extent of the relationship between this social-media-based pop poetry to everyone else.

It’s difficult to avoid social media in 2017. It’s made its way into our daily lives: in the content we read, music we listen to, the mouths of our politicians, and the morning news. With a smartphone or a tablet in the hands of everyone from ages one to 101, it has become a form of regular communication.

An entire generation of young readers has grown up with these devices and social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in hand. With 700 million Instagram users, 1.5 billion YouTube subscribers, 328 million active Twitter users, and 359 million Tumblr blogs, social media’s short form style of communication is, without a doubt, connecting people on a global scale.

The way we communicate is changing, and the power and ease of impersonal communication and immediate gratification of an internet-based society is making its mark on literature. According to the National Endowment of the Arts, literary reading has been in a slow decline for the past two decades, hitting an all-time low in 2015 at 43.1 percent, with poetry readers in an even sharper decline. That is, until recently. At least, in the traditional way we would imagine a reader with a book of Keats sprawled out in front of a roaring fire. Instead, those readers are scrolling through Instagram and Tumblr, on a bus or at home, scouring and commenting on poetry that resides solely online.

Short-format poetry has made a serious splash on the literary scene by use of social media. Platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr are giving writers immediate international visibility. These writers are self-published, with full control of their own media presence. And unlike any other generation, we’re seeing a more interactive aspect of poetry, as writers have the ability to directly connect with their audiences and receive instantaneous feedback.

The aforementioned anonymous poet Atticus has found success through his wildly popular Instagram account. With hundreds of thousands of followers and dedicated fans (yes, dedicated enough to tattoo themselves with his verse), Atticus grabbed the attention of writers and publishers alike.

Performance poetry has been given a massive boost through platforms such as YouTube. Button Poetry, for instance, with close to a million YouTube subscribers and nearly sixty thousand Instagram followers, even self-published an ebook called Viral. Their featured poets are filmed at slam poetry competitions and national events, such as Sabrina Benaim, whose viral poem, “Explaining my Depression to my Mother” has garnered over fifty million views.

These digital poets have gained not only hundreds of thousands of followers, boosts from celebrities, and the attention of corporate publishers such as TeenVogue, but many have landed lucrative book deals and even advertising campaigns.

Publishers and retailers are learning to adapt to their audiences in a modern world of digital-based consumption, as they must stay on top of social media trends in order to stay relevant. Andrews McMeel Publishing, usually a small market publisher for humor and gift books, recently released several bestselling poetry books—including Instagram star Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey, which easily sold half a million copies. Tyler Gregson, an Instagram-based poet with three bestselling poetry books under his belt, recently partnered with Ralph Lauren and Nordstrom for separate ad campaigns. Businesses are catching on to the popularity of pop poetry and marketing it, creating a symbiotic relationship between the writer and the company in order to boost sales.

It can be argued that short-form pop poets are grabbing more readers because their work is easier to approach, connect with, and digest, just as it can be argued that it is destroying a deeply emotional human craft. Either way, publishers realize the marketing value. Mass-marketed monetization of poetry for a newer generation of consumers, whether or not you like it, is most certainly a reflection of the publishing industry in the digital age.