Opinion: Rupi Kaur Winning Writer of the Decade ?

Libby Miller

Poet Rupi Kaur was announced a Writer of the Decade at the end of 2019 by the magazine The New Reporter. The win has brought up past arguments against Kaur’s artistic integrity as well as plagiarism accusations. Aside from the dramatics, it has revived the feud on whether or not her poetry is actually good.

To determine whether a poem is good or not, one would have to define poetry. As a poet, that seems a daunting task, especially when the “answer is always yes,” but I will attempt to do so. To me, poetry is a feeling. Whether it’s trying to make sense of a feeling, or trying to capture it, or the feelings of a certain situation – it is emotionally charged. I believe it is a form of catharsis for the author.

However, when it is sold, and in my opinion even when it’s not, there has to be a certain amount of intention. There has to be reason for the format and for the word choice and the spacing and the order of the poems presented. A lack of intention compromises a poem, as it insinuates that the author does not care, and cheapens the feeling trying to be communicated through poetry.

Now, should the definition be that, both being open to everything and having intention, the next question becomes ‘what is good?’ I think one can recognize good poetry, despite not resonating with it, and I think that not resonating with it, or not liking it, in today’s culture, can equate to “not getting it,” which I don’t think is necessarily true. If poetry is a personal art it can also be critiqued personally, and no one owes any artist their support. If the definition of what is good is limited to what is likable, then Rupi Kaur is good. But if it is based of emotion and intention as well, her “goodness” gets called into question. Kaur is often ridiculed for her seeming lack of deeper thought or metaphor. She is often called unoriginal, and boring.

Part of the divide comes from Kaur’s fans calling those who dislike her work “classist” (according to Twitter), and that those reading it simply liked to hate on young women. While many of the opposition, which includes young women, call into question not only the lack of substance but the lack of intention within her poetry.

She is an instapoet, which means most of her poems are formatted to be able to be posted to instagram, and this quality has been regarded as compromising her intention to cater to her platform. I don’t think this is necessarily wrong, but I also cannot blame those who do not like it. I think aside from just being an instapoet, a poet still requires a reason to write, and to communicate that reason, and the format of instagram may interfere with the emphasis involved in communicating that reason.

Additionally, her poetry is often regarded as just statements or as nothing new.

If we are basing goodness on likability, there is also the role of marketing. Rupi Kaur has sold over 3.5 million copies of her two books. That is not just likability. Growing up in a world where everything is sponsored, or everything is an advertisement, one has to evaluate whether they like something because they made that choice, or because they were meant to perceive it as something they’d like?

To Kaur’s credit, she has gotten many young women, and people of other generations as well, involved in poetry. Her audience is incredible, and her ability to expose so many people to this artform is a good thing. However, her style, instapoetry, is often ridiculed, and leaves a dishonest representation of what a lot of poetry is. That is not to say it’s bad, just different. The difference in style can change how one reads poetry. Whether they read it once or whether they read it five times and think something new every time. Simple poetry is not necessarily bad, but when it is bland, it is just short and boring, and as that is subjective, it is a hard opinion to refute.

When the book first came out, there was a scandal over whether or not Kaur had plagiarized from poet Nayyirah Waheed. This was brought back up with the announcement of ‘Writer of the Decade’. The two used to be friends, and Waheed published her chapbook Salt. in 2014. After Milk & Honey, Kaur’s first book, came out, Waheed emailed her both professionally and personally about the similarity of the content of their novels. Kaur did not reply.

The issue with this, aside from plagiarism being wrong, is that Kaur is often lauded for being a voice for the experiences of Indian women. However, if plagiarized, it would be to minimize Nayyirah Waheed’s experience of being a black woman, and to discredit the intention of her art.

The issues with the instagram format for poetry is it limits the depth one can go into on a certain thought or metaphor, and because of the need for quick communication on this format, oftentimes the part of poetry that is supposed to sit with the reader is lost. I think that goes hand in hand with the desensitization to technology for this upcoming generation, and how it has become so impersonal.

Kaur’s poetry has now even become something to poke fun at, despite this title. The people’s opinion will not be changed by the opinion of an online magazine, but it will once again bring up the discussion of the technical parameters of poetry, as if they exist.