By Julia Bifulco
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been turning to art for comfort more than ever. With escapist tendencies ever-present in our lives, turning our brains off and letting ourselves be comforted by art has been a very popular coping mechanism. We seek work that makes us feel that we are not alone—work that we can relate to. Relatability has become an increasingly important criterion in measuring a piece of art’s value, specifically in the literary world, and this may not be beneficial for art and artists alike.
Just as its readers have, poetry has evolved over time, becoming simpler in form; this is not to say that it is simpler in meaning or themes, but rather in the way those themes are delivered. It is no secret that it’s easier to be told what we’re reading instead of having to figure it out for ourselves. As opposed to putting in the time and energy necessary to properly read and analyze a poem, we seek an easier way to connect with it. One way to do this is by claiming we ‘relate’ to it.
In 2019, Rupi Kaur was declared the writer of the decade, and this was met with quite a bit of criticism. Kaur’s breakout work, Milk and Honey is a collection of what can be categorized as ‘Instagram poetry,’ denoting poems made up of sentences which are broken up into lines containing a few words each, often accompanied by a black-and-white doodle. These sentences present what one could argue to be the seeds of an idea or theme, but typically do not explore it beyond a mere introduction of its simplest meaning. Instead of inviting its readers to open their minds to new ways of thinking or feeling based on their own interpretation, an Instagram poem will tell a reader exactly what to feel and how to feel it. For this reason, her fragmented approach to the free verse poetic form has been mercilessly picked apart by literary critics, who argue that what she writes should not ‘count’ as poetry.
Kaur has been accused of producing what are arguably nothing more than unoriginal ‘shower thoughts,’ but her supporters are adamant about defending the author and her work. Fans of Kaur claim that her poetry is powerful becauseit is ‘relatable’ and therefore has the ability to reach a large audience. This is a common stance taken by Instagram poets and their readers alike, one that claims the work is valuable because anyone can relate to it, no matter where they come from. Not only can this form of poetry be read by anyone, but it can also be written by anyone. While traditional poetry involves the writer putting their thoughts and emotions into their work in favour of readers forming their own analyses, the Instagram poet will present a one-sided perspective that doesn’t inspire further exploration.
Instagram poets depend on the simple lens through which many modern readers view their work. Social media has acclimated us to easily digestible content that can be accessed in an instant, and Instagram poetry is a product of this. Short, immediately-gratifying nuggets of poetry are available for everyone to read, reaching a far broader audience than a hard copy of an anthology of poetry—for example—would. The act of reposting a poem to Instagram stories allows someone to appear cultured and worldly without the effort required to actively seek and read poetry. This course of action enables the circumvention of the effort one must typically put into both finding and reading poetry that is worth their while. People skip through Instagram stories while paying little to no attention to what they are looking at, but despite this, the few seconds they spend on each story helps them to form a basic idea of what the person posting it is like. Seeing an Instagram poem, which can be both fully read and understood in seconds, leads them to believe that the person who reposted it is sophisticated and educated.
Similar to an Instagram story, this style of poetry is unintimidating. Given that one can find enjoyment without any mental strain, both the medium and its platform feed into one another. Often written entirely in lowercase and consisting of only a few lines, a poem by r.h. Sin, for example, does not seem as daunting as one of Keats’ odes. A mere glance at both of them allows a modern reader who may be seeking a simple poem—given that they have become so accustomed to what is popular that it is all they know—to quickly opt for the Instagram poem. Even if one chose to read both, Sin’s is straightforward in its meaning, while Keats’ requires a longer thought process in order to be properly analyzed
Many who are not fans of poetry argue that poets should simply ‘get to the point,’ and this is exactly what Instagram poetry does. While this is relieving to those who are discouraged from reading poetry out of fear that they won’t understand it, this phenomenon begs the question: why are we afraid of not understanding art? Reading is an individual experience, and the most important part of said experience is to learn something new, be it intellectual or emotional. If a poem is good, it doesn’t matter whether or not we understand it; what matters is what we personally gain from it.
What should a poem accomplish in order to make it ‘good’? There’s no set list of rules that a poem has to follow in order for it to be considered a quality piece of writing. The most popular pieces have traditionally provoked profound thoughts and powerful emotions, but as a result of readers’ evolving habits, a poem’s relatability has become the deciding factor in whether or not it is good work. Oscar Wilde claims that “all art is quite useless,” and perhaps we should listen to him. If art is meant to be admired, and nothing more, then the relatability-driven Instagram poetry craze is merely opening up the world to a new, simpler form of art. This, however, may not be the case.
Instagram poets’ obsession with making their work relatable has ultimately hindered it; many of their poems read as incomplete, containing only half-baked ideas. Instead of taking a theme and fully developing it in a way that allows for readers’ various interpretations, these authors limit themselves and their poetry. They provide simple work that cannot be analyzed beyond the surface level.
Instagram poets may be placing so much importance on relatability out of fear that their readers will lose interest in their work, since fans of Instagram poetry have become accustomed to being prescribed emotion upon reading that anything more complicated may discourage them. Many modern readers have unknowingly forced their favourite writers into a box by not being open to reading anything that doesn’t give them immediate gratification. Instagram poets are not entirely blameless, however, as it is up to them to shape their own literary culture, allowing for their readers to elevate their tastes.
Fans of classic poetry, like Shakespeare’s sonnets, enjoy the fact that various interpretations can be made for the same piece, all of which provide a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment upon reading them. This encourages readers to go beyond the meaning(s) they have uncovered, allowing them to apply it to themselves; intellectual growth opens the doors for emotional growth. The same cannot be said for Instagram poetry, which is often one-dimensional and stagnant. Instagram poets explore the same topics over multiple pieces and collections, but often do not provide new perspectives on them, thereby rehashing the same themes over and over. Given that it is one of the most popular forms of poetry these days, this is not beneficial to both current and aspiring writers. The emphasis placed on relatability in art has permitted readers to become lazy, which ultimately forces artists to limit themselves in hopes of appealing to the general public.
As aforementioned, classic works of literature have stood the tests of time because of their potential for interpretation and analysis from diverse perspectives. Many have been labelled ‘timeless,’ meaning they are just as relevant today as they were at their original time of publication. Relatability has, however, managed to catch up with classic works and affects their readers, just as it does readers of modern work, such as Instagram poetry.
Professors of English often begin lectures in class with prompts about students’ ability to relate to various aspects of a piece, be it a character, a specific plot point, or a major theme in the work. While this may be a good jumping-off point, discussions that were once meant to revolve around literary analysis have quickly become centered around relatability instead. Alongside authors, professors have felt the effects of the relatability craze, and they, too, have been influenced to alter their approach to teaching literature, ultimately limiting themselves too.
While art’s main purpose—sorry, Oscar Wilde—has always been to evoke emotion and promote new ways of thinking, artists have recently been forced to make room in their work for relatability due to the emphasis placed on this concept by modern readers. Ensuring their work is relatable and can appeal to the masses has become a priority for artists, for if it does not, the artist will not be able to profit off of it as much. Art has been commodified, to the point that artists must often sacrifice their work’s quality in order to make it appealing to consumers. Relatability has become important because people are more likely to purchase art that they can easily see themselves reflected in instead of art that they have to put work into understanding, ultimately forcing artists to create art that is marketable above all else.