If I were to mention Rupi Kaur to you, you may immediately think of the unconventional poetry collection, ‘Milk and Honey’. Or maybe of the recent “meme” whereby tweets mimic her infamous style. Behind this banter at Kaur’s expense, there is a seemingly legitimate questioning of the validity of what and how she writes. Though many agree it is the poet that should define their own work, there remains a poetic snobbery underlying much of Kaur’s work. As she writes in a contemporary way, there is a barrier placed between her and beloved poets of the past: Dickinson, Plath, Frost — the people you expect to see on a Leaving Cert English paper. The staples of literature are praised for their distinct styles, unique character, and way of expression. However, many refuse to see Kaur’s work as valid or even worthy of the title ‘poetry’.
This Internet “meme” in particular belittles her work and presents it as an overly-simplistic “idea” of poetry, rather than a collection in and of itself. It’s made to appear less than, as though it is not legitimate unless it can be taught in a lecture in Boole 4. Poets who have defined literary history supposedly did so by meticulously following the rules of writing — but yet even the bard himself conceived the Shakespearean sonnet which re-regulated that type of composition. ‘Milk and Honey’ breaks down these barriers placed by conventional poets. By taking away the much of the metaphors, similes and figurative language, Kaur gives a view of her world through clear lenses, tossing out the rose-tinted glasses of the past. It is a modern expression of trauma, abuse and hurt that possibly makes poetry more accessible for young readers struggling with similar issues than the aforementioned poets. In a way, this uncomplicated writing acts like a ‘gateway drug’ to poetry, allowing those who feel alienated by the prestige of literary greats to appreciate art, starting within their comfort zone. The unjarring modern poetry in this collection makes complex works like Wordsworth seems more manageable to tackle.
However, the Internet’s obsession with Kaur’s style raises a valid point: is this considered poetry? Though what I have mentioned is true, some of her collection consists of single sentences on a page, occasionally accompanied by a suggestive, hand-drawn illustration. The common thought that this is no more than a “tumblr” style of writing may seem warranted. Critics have shunned the collection as being made for aesthetics, rather than art; in other words, it is one-dimensional, naïve and cringeworthy. Her grammatical choices add to the idea that her work is made to be more visually appealing than intellectual as she writes in all lowercase and punctuates solely with full stops. Some simply may be too quick to judge her humble beginnings as an “Instagram poet” as her aesthetic choices in fact pay homage to her native Punjabi tongue. Today, Emily Dickinson is renowned for her stylistic choices, yet with Kaur, as a contemporary writer, similar decisions are seen as discordant. Those who expect a collection like “Ariel” with more modern themes will be disappointed with what Kaur has to offer. After all, Kaur said herself that “people aren’t used to poetry that’s so easy and simple.”
Though, in ‘Milk and Honey’, words aren’t always the most important thing on the page. The illustrations work with the words in disturbing conjunction to challenge the reader’s perception of what poetry can be. You have to look deeper to see how the puzzle pieces fit together; she draws on metaphors within her illustrations that change the meaning of the words when read together. So it seems fitting that The Guardian deems Kaur to be “at the forefront of a poetry renaissance”. She does not hold back and can be graphic in how she gets her point across. It seems to go against all unspoken rules of poetry which say that meaning must be masked by words, that we must dig deeper to find what we should take from the piece. Kaur hands us her life story on a plate; as per the chapter titles, she shows us the hurting, the loving, the breaking, and the healing and forces us to experience her bitter-sweet biography.
Love her or hate her, you can’t deny that this collection has been able to relate to a plethora of people from diverse backgrounds. It has provoked many to deal with their own experiences of abuse, sexuality and self-love through Kaur’s forthright dealing of her own struggles. Who’s to say that it is ‘bad writing’ because she does not write in iambic pentameter? Let’s not forget that even Shakespeare himself challenged the boundaries of what art means.