Mahogany L. Browne’s first taste of internet fame came when her poem “Black Girl Magic” found its way to Facebook.
“You ain’t ’posed to get married. You ain’t ’posed to want no dream that big,” she recited in a two-minute video. “You ain’t ’posed to dream at all.”
Her words traveled far and wide on a wave of likes and shares. “I didn’t know what viral was until I went viral,” she said. “As a poet, I’d never experienced it.”
Poets, after all, pen chapbooks. They lecture at esteemed universities. They share their work with small groups of fellow poets at slams. Going viral, on the other hand, is for drunken Eagles fans who face-plant into poles and little kids who try to lick TV news cameras.
But social media is upending what it means to consume poetry and what it means to create it. It has birthed a new cohort of bards known as “Instapoets” who share on Instagram tidy compositions that have the feel of literary selfies, often in retro-looking fonts that evoke a dusty old typewriter. And it has allowed writers of verse to reach a generation that grew up with Twitter, emoji and memes. It has turned the Coachella crowd into a promising new market for poetry.
But if you think everyone is happy about that, well, think again.
“There’s a lot of negativity,” said Sam Cook, 34, a founder of Button Poetry, which specializes in spreading the gospel of poetry through YouTube. “Poetry has been such a niche space for so long, and the people in it feel like they’re entitled to decide what is good and what is bad.”
They fret that the artlessness of Twitter, and the heightened self-consciousness of Instagram, is diluting poetry’s power, if not making a mockery of the whole canon, he said. “There are people,” he added, “who think it never should have gone to the internet.”
Rupi Kaur, the reigning queen of the Instapoets, has fired back at critical online commenters — there’s something Robert Frost never had to deal with — “that just because your work is successful does not make it bad.”
A couple of times a week, she posts one of her short, elegiac poems, illustrated by delicate line drawings, to be lapped up by an audience of more than 2 million followers. (A sample poem, in its entirety: “This place makes me exhausted/the kind of exhausted that has/nothing to do with sleep/and everything to do with/the people around me.”)
While male poets aren’t entirely absent, internet poetry is largely made by young women for audiences of young women. The poems are highly personal messages of self-esteem and empowerment, deeply rooted in call-out culture — taking aim at abusers, bad boyfriends and all the (generally, male) oppressors of the bedroom and boardroom.
The popularity of such poetry on social media “demystifies this idea that poetry is some high, academic art of white men brooding in corners, trying to write poems that nobody understands,” said Rob Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress, which appoints the U.S. poet laureate (currently Tracy K. Smith).
Its success suggests the old guard may be increasingly irrelevant, along with its rules. But, he added, “A lot of first-time readers have come to poetry through Instagram poets. It gives them an ‘in’ to the art. Rupi Kaur makes sense in our Instagram-oriented lives.”
“On behalf of the establishment, I find this very exciting,” joked Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine, a publication founded in 1912.
“Poets now know they have an audience. We used to think, ‘Well, there’s not a big audience for this.’ ”
Danez Smith, a Minneapolis-based poet and National Book Award finalist, is frequently cited for straddling the traditional and online poetry worlds. Smith has a poem, “Dear White America,” that has garnered more than 300,000 views.
“I’m not interested in writing short, bite-sized pieces that can fit into a square on Instagram,” Smith said, but added: “We’re not thinking about our work in the same way. They’re thinking about their work to be quick and digestible. In a more traditional sense, we’re trying to build poems that people get to marinate on for a while.”