Some unexpected things happen to poetry when it’s posted to Instagram.
For one thing, the poems themselves feel freed from the prison of the page, unbound from the book and bound for who knows where.
They also feel blissfully liberated from the capital-P poetry world of MFA programs and juried first book prizes — poems on Instagram feel unplaced, happened-upon (particularly given how surprising it is to find words amid the app’s endless grid of selfies and still lifes of lunch).
But there’s another, more significant thing that Instagram does to poetry: It can make it really, really popular.
Look at a recent day’s Amazon top 10 bestsellers in poetry, and it’s a virtual friends list of young Instagram poets.
Rupi Kaur (whose “Milk and Honey” is No. 1), Neil Hilborn, (whose “Our Numbered Day” is No. 3), and Iain Thomas a.k.a. pleasefindthis (whose “I Wrote This For You” is No. 5) have all found their way from the virtual pages of Instagram to the kinds of book sales most poets can only deconstruct dreams about — thanks to follower counts that feel more like the province of pop stars.
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Their names join the literal ranks of Rumi, Maya Angelou, and Shel Silverstein on the list; even Tyehimba Jess’s masterful “Olio,” which just took the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, hovers admirably at No. 18.
But before this sets all those furious quills wiggling: None of this is an attempt to suggest book sales equal quality.
Instagram being an entirely click-driven editorial wild, there are plenty of arguments to be made about the merits of what passes for poetry on the popular social media platform — more often that not, aspiring illustrated aphorisms and fragmented lyric snatches with a twist of emo.
But as bank accounts and rejection slips have long reminded poets, eyeballs are the true currency of their economy. And business is booming on Instagram.
Rupi Kaur’s 1.1 million followers are there for the small, near-weekly serving of her slim, sweet, uplifting poems — often addressed to a “you,” often citing a “we,” and often accompanied by simple line drawings — imagine a far less mischievous Stevie Smith with a designer’s eye. Meanwhile, Simon and Schuster is preparing to release “Love Her Wild,” the debut volume from Instagram sensation Atticus, a few of whose 340,000 followers have committed his lines to their skin.
Not far behind in this peloton of posting poets is Brian Abbott, a 30-year-old from Marshfield who, after just two years of posting tiny poems to Instagram as @highpoetssociety, now finds himself with 222,000 followers hanging (or at least clicking) on his every word, as well as his first book whose title is taken from his IG handle.
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“If you told me five years ago that this is where my life would be, that we’d be having this conversation about my poetry, I would have an anxiety attack and curl up in a ball under a blanket,” he tells me over the phone.
Abbott’s poetry comes from a sweet spot. He’d been a bookworm since spending hours roaming the stacks at the library in Dorchester as a child, but writing poetry never really occurred to him until a friend at UMass Boston gave him a copy of Angela Ardis’s “Inside a Thug’s Heart,” a collection of love poetry and letters sent from the author’s late ex, Tupac Shakur.
Shakur’s handwritten poems showed Abbott an unseen side of his favorite rapper, and it inspired an impulse within him to try his own hand at it, privately proffering sweet nothings to his then-new girlfriend. (The poetry bug stuck around longer than she did.)
After quitting a corporate job two years ago, Abbott started to see more and more poetry filling his feed on Instagram. He furtively launched the @highpoetssociety account, downloaded a typewriter app, and started posting.
Within two months, he had over 1,000 followers — sharing his poems, rewriting them in lush calligraphy (a common tribute in IG poetry circles), and giving him confidence to keep writing. He also officially had a secret from his girlfriend. Fast forward two years and the cat has long since fled the bag: He’s fully out to his friends, family, and fans as a poet — and racking 3 million views per day.
Abbott cites poets like e.e. cummings and Edgar Allen Poe as his favorites — if Poe had posted “we loved with a love that was more than love“ (a line from “Annabel Lee”) to Instagram, he posits, “It would have been the greatest poem ever.”
But his biggest influences are his fellow Instagrammers, who seem to have collectively influenced each other into forming the scene’s confessional conventions. The “Following” list on most Instagram poets’ pages offer less a sense of their respective social circles than a cross section of their aesthetic cohort. Abbott, for instance, only follows 75 accounts, with his favorite writers among them. He cites J. Iron Word (403,000 followers) and S.L Gray (29,600) as particularly influential.
“I do see many advantages for Instagram being a platform for poetry,” says Gray, a 21-year-old poet from Maryland. “A poem can be read more there than anywhere else. It also gives a poet some creative freedom. We aren’t limited to a certain amount of characters and one font. We are also able to present our work the way we want it to be seen. You can post a photo of your poem handwritten or post a screenshot from whichever app you choose to write from.”
Instagram is hardly the only social-media platform where poetry is having a go. Twitter is a hotbed of poets — and seems to be the preferred online outlet of poets straddling the line between the establishment and the Internet.
Poets like Patricia Lockwood and Melissa Broder have used Twitter to supply an ongoing stream of their voice, and Broder has also experimented with intriguing hybrids of visual and poetic work on the creative social media hub NewHive that harken back to Web 1.0 “e-poetry” explorations). The artist and poet Candystore O. McCritter has used Instagram to boost the audience of his poems — which he often publishes in the text fields of his Scruff profile.
But like everything else on the platform, poetry is changed slightly when viewed through the virtual lense of Instagram. Like a series of selfies, the poems tell you less individually than they do when taken as a composite. When you consider the way each serves to reflect and refract the self, it’s no wonder that poetry and Instagram are getting along so well.
For Abbott’s part, as good as Instagram has been to him, he still got a special thrill from seeing his book on the shelves of the Barnes and Noble he grew up going to.
He takes to heart a line that’s stuck with him (and that he’s since enshrined on his account) from Edward Frank Allen’s introduction to the 1936 anthology of traditional verse, “The Best Loved Poems of the American People”: “It is the preference of the people, after all, that gives permanency to poetry”
“You can make fun of me, but there’s 3 million people that love it, so they win,” he says, laughing. “And deep down, I just think if you love your own [expletive], that’s what matters.”Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.