Even if you aren’t into poetry, if you’re on the Internet, you’ve probably heard of Rupi Kaur. Her poetry collections, Milk and Honey and The Sun and her Flowers, have received a mixed reception across an ever-widening platform, owed largely to the fact that most of her poems are short enough to be squeezed into the character limit of a single tweet. A question they raise is this: What really qualifies as poetry?
The dictionary definition of a poem is rather vague. The Oxford English Dictionary describes a poem as a ‘literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm’. Well, Kaur’s style is certainly distinctive, as many internet users have laid out humorous or meaningless sentences in a way which is easily recognisable as mocking of Kaur, so what is missing from her work that causes such mockery? It’s certainly an expression of her feelings and ideas, but I must admit that the term ‘poetry’ doesn’t quite sit right with me either.
We can’t find a loophole in the dictionary definition that categorises Kaur’s work as something else, but I think the issue lies in the arbitrary line breaks and superfluous metaphors. There is a certain expectation that comes with the word ‘poetry’, acknowledged in a secondary dictionary definition as being a metaphor itself for something beautiful or moving, so that’s what we expect to be greeted by when we open a poetry collection. We want the words to be so stylised and rhythmic that they hit us with a force unrivalled by other forms of literature. Naturalness is key. And it just seems that Rupi Kaur tries too hard.
Naturalness is key. And it just seems that Rupi Kaur tries too hard.
There is a balance that must be struck, after all. Metaphors, similes, and other poetic devices with which we are all familiar have their place in literature, but an abundance of them is exhausting and stilted. I really see how it could have been that Milk and Honey was so transferable and relatable that a metaphor would make the reader exclaim ‘Yes! That’s it, that’s how I feel’, but the imagery she chooses, coffee, tea, cereal and all things quaint, are too romantic and idealistic, with echoes of the girl who sits reading second-hand books beneath a blanket as she drinks tea in a quiet café and thinks she’s better than those who don’t. I can see where the mockery stemmed from.
Metaphors, similes, and other poetic devices with which we are all familiar have their place in literature, but an abundance of them is exhausting and stilted.
The amazing thing about poetry is that while it can be restrictive and didactic in its form, there is no recipe for the perfect rhythm or syllables-per-line if you don’t want there to be. Outside of the sonnet, there really is a lot of freedom. But here Kaur inserts arbitrary line breaks and segregates the shortest of sentences into bite-size pieces. In fact, most of her poems are only one short sentence. Aloud, it simply doesn’t read how it is written – unfortunately, it reads almost like a Tumblr quote trying too hard to be profound, and what unsettles me as a poetry-lover is that focus seems to be on how the words look on the page rather than how they read. While this may be refreshing from time to time, a whole collection of this style strikes the reader as childlike. Below is one of her poems:
the way they
It’s true that this could have been a single line in a poem. And perhaps all of us who find the label ‘poem’ hard to digest are just poetry snobs, as it seems that we must accept that poetry truly is what you make of it. In Kaur’s case, however, I think this was a wasted opportunity.