Has poetry taken over Instagram, or has Instagram taken over poetry? A coterie of creators, drawn to the image-sharing platform as a lyric technology, is helping poetry—or at least, Instapoetry—find a wider, more diverse audience. Their queen, Rupi Kaur, types spare, lowercase lines over stylized photographs. Her work, stark and minimalist, is nevertheless profuse when it comes to followers (2.7 million) and sales. (The collections “Milk and Honey” and “The Sun and Her Flowers” were New York Times best-sellers). Kaur, a Punjabi-Canadian in her twenties, is a catalyst for angst about a genre of verse that some view as trite, materialistic, soulless. “she was music,” Kaur writes, “but he had his ears cut off – rupi kaur.” Or: “we are all born / so beautiful / the greatest tragedy / is being convinced / we are not – rupi kaur.” On my phone, I have spirals of texts in which vapid thoughts or confessions are enjambed and then signed “- rupi kaur.” (This joke is also a parody Twitter meme: the Internet has impishly attributed such poems as “i shoved a whole / bag of jellybeans / up my ass” and “i wanted / chick-fil-a / but / you / were / a sunday morning” to “- rupi kaur.”) But writing in the Times, in December, Carl Wilson defended the directness and emotional honesty of the Instapoets. At best, he argued, their work carves out a pristine space for reflection—one not “entirely unlike the mental stillness and ‘othering’ fostered by poetry’s traditional techniques.”
Whatever you think of these artists (that they are engaged in radical self-discovery; that they sell banal faux-inspiration; that they empower young women and people of color; that they profane Apollo), their posts do share certain characteristics. These include brevity, a self-mythology that unforgiving critics will call narcissism, inclusiveness that often manifests as a lack of specificity, affirmation of readers’ emotions, and the thesis (more felt than reasoned through) that damage is beautiful and beauty damaging. (As a side note, there has to be a better way to lift up people with problems than to declare that problems are beautiful. Who cares if problems are beautiful? They’re problems!) One exception to this broad stereotype is Yrsa Daley-Ward, a British writer and model who embodies select elements of Instapoetry while skirting its worst hazards. (Her Instagram account has more than a hundred and thirty-five thousand followers.) Daley-Ward, of Jamaican and Nigerian ancestry, is the author of one book of poetry, “bone,” and one “lyrical memoir,” “The Terrible,” which is billed as “part prose, part verse.”
“The Terrible” sketches Ward’s childhood, in northwest England, and also her sexual coming of age, there and in South Africa. She and her brother, Little Roo, grew up with a single mother and her “half fun, half frightening” boyfriend. (He is readers’ first inkling of the “terrible”: the darkness that, because it happens to or around you, you believe you’ve conjured.) The children move in with their devout Christian grandparents—no fun, all frightening. It is not until they return home, four years later, that Daley-Ward fully grasps the apparent meaning of her body: “(1) a Hot-thing (2) a weapon of delicious and complete destruction (3) an almost-power.” She seduces, dates, and is exploited by older men; unable to find modelling work in her twenties (a booker explains that her “look might be too strong . . . it’s not easy for Black Girls”), she joins a strip club, and then an escort service. At the first, a guest assaults another performer in front of her. At the second, a client offers tea and small talk before shyly asking to play the schoolboy to her headmistress. While she is scornful of the predators soliciting lap dances, Daley-Ward describes her johns with detached compassion, like a doctor. Her bedside manner is brisk and kind, her boredom nonjudgmental. Meanwhile, she becomes depressed and begins experimenting with self-destruction: pills, anorexia, alcoholism.
Daley-Ward’s themes—addiction, mental illness, sexuality, body image, womanhood, self-expression—are familiar territory for Instapoetry. In addition, “The Terrible” has the experimental form and style one associates with verse more generally: there are invented words (“blackshining,” “powerfear,” “diediedie”), promiscuous italics and capitalizations, and irregular typefaces. Lines of text hover in fields of white space or are stacked into perfect rectangles. Daley-Ward prefers evocative fragments (“these parents of ours / our makers / our stars”) to complete sentences. Some chapters unfold as scenes in a play, replete with stage directions. (“YOU go the bathroom and struggle to peel this leather costume off your skin.”)
At worst, the nontraditional elements scan as crutches or distractions. But Daley-Ward’s giddy formatting evokes the blur of experience and sensuality she says that she is in thrall to, both as a one-time drug user and as an artist. She is extravagant, catholic with her techniques. Freely mixing first-, second-, and third-person narration, she creates an effect of plural selves, as if in conversation with Akwaeke Emezi, the Nigerian-born author of “Freshwater,” a novel told in the entwined mutterings of multiple spirits. Both works tap into strong undercurrents of magic. Daley-Ward finds unicorns in her garden; Little Roo “sees things” written in the sky. It is the subterranean glitter of mysticism in the narrator’s descriptions of her surroundings that lends them their occasional menace.
Despite the provenance of its author, “The Terrible” does not feel entirely Instapoetic. It is not minimalist. While the book itself can fit inside a large jacket pocket, the language is frequently incantatory, repetitive, or manic. Though her plainspokenness resembles Rupi Kaur’s accessibility, Daley-Ward has a specific story to tell, one that is suspenseful and affecting in its details, whereas Kaur aspires to universality, featurelessness. Daley-Ward is often intentionally funny, and reluctant to wallow in suffering or self-pity. She is less interested in inspiring readers or glamorizing herself than in voicing, with what can seem like sincere surprise, the contents of her mind. “It takes six moments to write a thing,” she muses. “You grip / your heart, involuntarily / and your soul comes up.” Her work, not (if we take her at her word) as intentional as the typical poet’s and produced with less effort, contains less artifice. This constitutes a welcome break from Instagram in general, not to mention Instapoetry. It suggests a praxis: “Your soul arises and you let it; or you don’t.”