Much ink has been spilled over the rise of online poetry in the past five years, discussing the corresponding – and very substantial – rise in poetry sales, and the emergence of young BAME and/or female poets, famously dismissed as “amateurs” by British poet Rebecca Watts. Journalists, poets and literary critics have ferociously debated instapoetry’s literary legitimacy, while celebrities such as the Duchess of Sussex and Beyonce have recognized the importance of instapoets by quoting them in their work.
More than just a passing trend or a pop phenomenon, instapoetry, like slam and spoken-word poetry before it, has emerged from a context which is not particularly welcoming to women and members of the BAME community. Poetry has always occupied a privileged and distinguished position within western literary traditions, and the majority of canonical poets are – to put it bluntly – dead white men. What is viewed as “poetic” or “avant-garde” continues to be based on standards set several centuries ago by an educated elite, and to be enjoyed by a small subculture of readers. Historically speaking, women and people of colour were rarely granted the same access to education and the classics as middle- and upper-class men, marking poetry out as a white male territory in which only a small minority of women could thrive.
Even today, female poets and poets of colour are reviewed much more harshly than men – if they are even reviewed at all. A 2018 study commissioned by the University of Liverpool reveals that the reviews published in UK and Irish poetry magazines are primarily written by white men, and that male critics are twice as likely to review other men, accounting for the strikingly small amount of poetry by women and people of colour in prestigious poetry magazines and poetry prizes. Assumptions that non-white non-male poetry lacks “universalism”, and that engagement with politics (often simply dismissed as “identity politics”) is strictly opposed to literary craft, permeate the ways we (re)view and reward poetry. Poetry critic Dorothy Wang has even suggested that poetry’s concern with language and high culture masks another, unconscious, assumption: poetry cannot be written by non-native English speakers. And we are all too well aware of how often ethnically-other people are asked where they really come from.
The hostility encountered in the established poetry world explains why women and minority poets often turn to self-publishing or alternative media. On Instagram especially, they have found a voice and an audience. Since its beginnings in 2014, instapoetry has been thriving, attracting millions of followers, and appealing to sections of society who do not usually read poetry. Publishers and book shops have seen an increased demand for poetry such as the works of Maya Angelou, Rita Dove and Audre Lorde, a trend which suggests that for many, instapoetry acts as gateway into “classic” poetry.
Instagram has provided a subversive space where poetry can engage with issues often considered as taboo or not “universal” – female pleasure, sexuality and menstruation, mental health, and racial discrimination. Like the sonnet or the haiku, the instapoem is a poetic form in its own right, and like all forms, some poems end up being formulaic, and some stand out. Whatever the take as to the literary quality of existing instapoetry, the fact is that instapoetry is a new literary form with potential. Unlike traditional poetic forms, the aesthetic constraints of the genre are less reliant on syllables, lines, feet or even rhymes, and more on size, space, font, and visuals. Instapoems have to fit into a square, and as they compete with pictures on the mainstream Instagram user’s newsfeed, must capture the attention. Subverting a picture-sharing platform by filling it with text, challenging us to consume poetry as we consume pictures and social media, the new form of instapoetry is a greater stimulant for powerful reflection on our contemporary society, our reliance on capitalism, and our incessant consumption of visuals and social media, than, say, the sonnet.
Laura Gallon (Doctoral Researcher at the University of Sussex)