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ISSN: 0974-892X


Jul '20 & Jan '21



Locating Instagram Poetry: Re-readings on Rupi Kaur, Nayyirah Waheed and Other Instapoets

Neelima B., Research Scholar, Humanities and Social Sciences Department, IIT Madras, Chennai, Tamil Nadu



Rupi Kaur has three poetry collections, milk and honey (2014), the sun and her flowers (2017) and home body (2020). Her career from the humble phase of an Instagram poet to an acclaimed author contradicts the saying that poetry does not sell. The curiosity that how this twenty-eight year old poet who is living in Canada, the daughter of Punjabi immigrants from India, managed to accomplish fame and success is the beginning point of this paper. The answer lies partially in the fact that the appeal of her poetry is primarily universal. Her poetry moves on a plane where cultural codes are muted. At the same time, other Instagram poets like Nayyirah Waheed, and most significantly Warsen Shire, are less celebrated since their poetry challenge the readers with immigrant experiences, race and locations that are crucial to their identities. Rupi Kaur’s self imposed representation for collective womanhood goes wrong as it addresses only the western imagination of a mystic and oppressed South Asian female. This paper tries to analyse the “instapoetry” phenomenon in cyberspace where it re-defines the concepts like diaspora, transnationalism and new media. In this study, the poetry of Rupi Kaur, Warsen Shire and Nayyirah Waheed is taken into account as it records their experiences around travel and trauma.

Key words: Instagram Poet, Insta poetry, South Asian women, Rupi Kaur, Nayyirah Waheed


The Instagram poetry or the instapoetry is a recent phenomenon and it has been often dubbed as the new renaissance in poetry. Though a loyal fan base cannot assure the quality of instapoetry, it can make the poetry sell. The growth of instapoetry is amazing in an age where nobody cares much about new poetry as if all the poetry that we ever want has already been written. The poetry with which generally people are familiar in our syllabus is also the kind of works that demand our time, patience and in most cases certainly a dictionary/ Google. Meanwhile, the network society, that is what we are today, has transformed our reading as well as writing.

Rupi Kaur, the twenty-eight year old Indo-Canadian poet is a New York Times bestselling author. Her books milk and honey (2014), the sun and her flowers (2017) and home body (2020) are still trendy. The first one alone was sold over a million copies. She self published her poetry that was later picked up by Andrews McMeel Publishing in 2015. In the same year, Instagram removed one of her photo showing menstrual blood stains on her pants. It resulted in a public uproar against the censoring of the female body. This particular incident popularized Kaur’s feminist-activist image.

Rupi Kaur’s success deserves applause and part of the applause goes to the cyberspace where she experimented with her poetry before being herself the sensation she is today. Cyberspace invented her audience that would have been otherwise impossible. Instagram cemented the very method of her poetry. It cultivated and celebrated her prophetic persona. Using cyberspace the way she has used or been using is her idea. But that idea is not accidental or natural in today’s techno-centric world. Apart from Rupi Kaur, An entire generation of women instapoets like Lang Leav, Nikita Gill, Amanda Lovelace and many more are using the cyberspace to reach their audience. The glamour that attached to their art and poetry reading sessions cultivates their poetic persona in the style of a pop star.

The sections in milk and honey are titled "the hurting", "the loving", "the breaking", and "the healing”. the Sun and her flowers has sections like "wilting", "falling", "rooting", "rising" and "blooming”. The emotional geography of home body is not very different from the first two books. Kaur’s poetry is noted for its recurring themes on love, break up, trauma, sexual abuse and self-esteem. Her images are barely whole, but broken. Though it can be argued that it is the style of her poetry, the recurring pattern is evident. It seems that her vision of the world, emotions and body reflects the ideas of minimalism. The way she is arranging her poetry; brief lines in lower cases, lack of punctuation marks and hand drawn pictures, do not demand much time from a reader. Hence, it suits the network society and its busy traffic. She is well aware of the fact that the people are here to have a glimpse. So, as this type of visual grammar is common to most of the Instagram poetry, it repeats the same emotion, direct and serious over and over.  Because of this tiresome exercise of keeping the reader at the same place, her poetry could not go beyond the first impression of a reader. Her published books, each more than two hundred pages long, are the same. Some of her poems can be read like, “loneliness is a sign/ you are in desperate/ need of yourself” written under the image of a tree in a female body (Kaur 2015). Another one reads “she is water/ soft enough to offer life/ tough enough to drown it away” (Kaur 2015) along with the drawing of waves in a glass. Occasionally we come across longer poems:

i want to apologize to all the women i have called beautiful
before I’ve called them intelligent or brave
i am sorry i made it sound as though
something as simple as what you’re born with
is all you have to be proud of
when you have broken mountains with your wit
from now on i will say things like
you are resilient, or you are extraordinary
not because i don’t think you’re beautiful
but because i need you to know
you are more than that (Kaur 2015)

But nowhere in her poetic world have we seen the signs of Rupi Kaur finding her style. She has a style, but it is nothing more or less what the cyberspace demands. It is also the style of the media that she uses. Caught between clarity and perfection, her prophetic tone reminds poetry from another age, detached and confessional. In an age of postmodern feminism, the clichéd identifications with goddess figure and prophetic self can also be seen as an attempt to find legitimacy by evoking a universal woman.

Kaur’s poetry tends to represent South Asian women as an oppressed category (Chiara 2017). Her pronouns “I” and “we” highly patronize the collective experience of South Asian female. In the lines, “my heart aches for sisters more than anything/ it aches for women helping women/ like flowers ache for spring”(Kaur 2015), she became the holder universal pain. Her poetic self is projected on women’s collective trauma and the fact that she is an educated woman of independent means does not count much in her poetry. Certainly, as a young woman of colour, she has all right to be passionate about her roots. But her success is also the success of the colonial hangover in the western market that wants to expect the orient in a clichéd context. Western mainstream publishing industries as well as readers are very comfortable around Rupi Kaur’s poetry. Most of her admirers do not care much about her poetry but pay attention only because it is from a coloured poet. And what she is saying is what everybody expects from someone of her position. Apart from being an immigrant woman, Kaur’s other identities from the reference points of Canada and American context are not at all voiced anywhere in her writings. Rupi Kaur writes in the poem “woman of color”, “our back/ tells stories/ no books/ have the spine to/carry” (Kaur 2015). This woman can be any woman if one cares less about the title. Being a coloured woman is a diverse spectrum of experiences including trauma and beauty that is absent in Rupi Kaur’s poetry.

Warsan Shire is another poet who has already grown out of her instapoet identity. She is a British-Somalian poet who accomplished critical acclaim for the unusual brave tone in her poems. She is the author of the collections Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (2011), Her Blue Body (2015) and Our Men Do Not Belong to Us (2015). Her each poem is complete in its form and structure. Here is her poem “ugly” which explores issues like migrant and refugee crisis:

Your daughter is ugly.
She knows loss intimately,
carries whole cities in her belly.
As a child, relatives wouldn’t hold her.
She was splintered wood and sea water.
They said she reminded them of the war.
On her fifteenth birthday you taught her
how to tie her hair like rope 
and smoke it over burning frankincense.
You made her gargle rosewater
and while she coughed, said
macaanto girls like you shouldn’t smell
of lonely or empty.
You are her mother.
Why did you not warn her,
hold her like a rotting boat
and tell her that men will not love her
if she is covered in continents,
if her teeth are small colonies,
if her stomach is an island
if her thighs are borders?
What man wants to lay down 
and watch the world burn 
in his bedroom? 
Your daughter’s face is a small riot,
her hands are a civil war,
a refugee camp behind each ear,
a body littered with ugly things
but God, 
doesn’t she wear
the world well (31).

Warsan Shire does not have a goddess/ muse like centre to return continuously. Her poetry happens around her multiple identities. She frequently uses terms like “alhamdulillah” and other references related to Quran to reflect upon her Islamic roots. References to Somalian culture and language also appear in her poems. Following the Paris terrorist attack in November 2014, Shire wrote a poem titled “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”. The second part of the poem, which is more universal in appeal, went viral in social media:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?
it answered
everywhere .

The opening of this poem, with its references to the conflicts in Kenya and Somalia, was ignored by those who favoured the second part:

i called the boy who use to love me
tried to ‘okay’ my voice
i said hello
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?
i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like;
dear god
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.

This is a general tendency to cut away what “they” do not want. When American singer Beyonce Knowles made her pop visual album Lemonade (2016), Warsan Shire’s poetry was used as monologues in between songs. But Beyonce, a woman of colour, was very careful to choose what her audience wanted. In an essay, “Moving beyond the Pain” (2016), written in response to Lemonade’s success, bell hooks reflects on the market aesthetics of capitalism:

Viewers who like to suggest Lemonade was created solely or primarily for black female audiences are missing the point. Commodities, irrespective of their subject matter, are made, produced, and marketed to entice any and all consumers. Beyoncé’s audience is the world and that world of business and money-making has no color (hooks 2016).

Rupi Kaur is so precautious about her readers who have “no colour” and she exactly knew what to write and what should not. Hence her poetry presents the image of “universal woman”. Selective amnesia around different identities is not a new phenomenon. When Poets like Rumi and Omar Khayyam were translated into English, their cultural and religious identities were somehow erased from their poetry.

Nayyirah Waheed is another strong voice in Instagram poetry. Waheed has published two books of poetry, salt (2013) and Nejma (2015). She writes about love, loss, feminism, Audre Lorde, Madiba, Trevin Martin, Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, Islam, and race. In the poem “tea” she writes, “islam is still in my life. We are old soul mates” (Waheed 2015). The poem comprehends the relationship between her and religion, of uneasiness and happiness, and establishes a mutual bond: “we still sip tea/ share our hands/ touch hearts/ every now and then” (Waheed 2015). At another instance, she writes, “my mother gave me islam/ my father gave me the god of absence/ and here I am/ a religion made of myself” (Waheed 2015). In “anglophile”, she writes, “you will be black. Again. I will wait.”(Waheed 2015). She writes about replacing the poetry canon of Keats and Browning with her native poetry (“what is the necessity of a black child being this high off of whiteness” 2015). Her choice of Words like chibok, wudu, zejune,orishas, nejma, shukran and yemanja indicate the geography of a different cultural experience.

Warsan Shire and Nayyirah Waheed represent what they are as they embrace and problematise their religious, diasporic and women selves. See another poem, rhythmic and content, by Nayyirah Waheed that replaces the colonial idea of the English language. Its title is “i have seven different words for love. you have only one. that makes a lot of sense”:

my english is broken.
on purpose.
have to try harder to understand
breaking this language
you so love
is my pleasure.
in your arrogance
you presume that i want your
skinny language.
that my mouth is building
a room for
in the back of my throat.
it is not. (Waheed 2013)

The basic idea that connects all insta-poets is their poetry. But their existence in Diaspora and cyberspace complicates the art they practices. In The Literature of the Indian Diaspora: Theorizing the Diasporic Imaginary (2007) Vijay Mishra identifies old and new types of Diasporas (3-4). The old is early modern, classic capitalist. The new is late modern and late capitalist. The old has a more communal framework as it tried to maintain a connection between Diaspora in different countries. In that manner, the diasporic population of Fiji, Malaysia, South Africa and Surinam shared a bond of friendship. But the new diaspora of 1960s had people entering into new metropolitan centres of empire/ white settler countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. To examine this new pattern of global migration needed a potential multicultural theory. Vijay Mishra says that the old/ new division is only a strategic function and it is not an unchanging binary construct.

Manuel Castells’  “The Net and the Self: Working notes for a critical theory of the informational society “(1966) also suggests that the electronic media culture, as he calls it, is redefining subjectivities. He has written trilogies The Rise of the Network Society (1996), The Power of Identity (1997), and End of Millennium (1998). These three books are written out of his frustration with the theories of 1990s which were incapable of explaining the new network society that lately emerged (Bell 54). Definitely, the emerging Instapoetry is one sign of a most advanced stage of cyber culture. The speed and hyper mobility of “new surfaces” enable new art forms to exist and flourish.

“Space of flows” is Manuel Castells’ term for cyberspace (Bell 65). It signifies the flow of people, money, ideas and capital in a rather chaotic environment. In The Power of Identity Castells argues that the cyberspace has built an alternative lifestyle and world views. He identities three broad types of identities which are usually constructed and projected in cyberspace: legitimizing, resistant, and project identities. The first type of identity is related to citizenship and rights, the second to fundamentalisms and the third works on the notion of self reflexive identity (Bell 56). In the third type of identity formation, He finds identity as a project upon which one works, unendingly. Castells’ third mode of identity partially resonates with many instapoets. The third generally takes its stand along the lines of the environmental, feminist, lesbian and gay rights. And women will be represented in a diverse experiential plane of permutations and combinations that are invented to represent the “universal” female. Such an identity projection is common among many celebrated insta-poets like Rupi Kaur.

Today, the nation state merely represents the individual and people have started to assume cyberspace as the new self. Castells says that we are still in the capital mode of production and he uses the term “global informational capitalism” (Bell 68). This makes better sense to the fact that why Rupi Kaur is a bestselling poet and why Warsen Shire is not. In a culture of simulation which strips down the difference between real and virtual, the features of poetry mediated through cyberspace is debatable like any other art. Since instapoetry is an emerging art form, its worth has to be proven by the test of time.



Works Cited

Bell, David. Culture Theorists: Manuel Castells and Donna Haraway. Routledge, 2007.
Giovanni, Chiara. “The Problem With Rupi Kaur's Poetry.” BuzzFeed News., 4 Aug. 2017,
hooks, bell. “Moving Beyond Pain.” Bell Hooks Institute, 2016, www.
Kaur, Rupi. milk and honey. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015. Digital.
---. the sun and her flowers. Andrews McMeel Publishing. 2017. Digital.
Khaira-Hanks, Priya. “Rupi Kaur: the Inevitable Backlash against Instagram's Favourite Poet.” The Guardian, 4 Oct. 2017, booksblog/2017 /oct/04/rupi-kaur-instapoets-the-sun-and-her-flowers.

Lefrak, Mikaela. “Poet Warsan Shire Is the New Voice of the Refugee Crisis.” The New Republic, 17 Nov. 2015,

Mishra, Vijay. The Literature of the Indian Diaspora: Theorizing the Diasporic Imaginary. Routledge, 2007.

Shire, Warsan. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth. The Mouthmark Series, 2011.

Waheed, Nayyirah. Nejma. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014. Digital.

---. Salt. CreateSpace Independent  Publishing Platform, 2013. Digital.