Few read poetry, but millions read Rupi Kaur
She hasn’t won a Pulitzer Prize and been US poet laureate like Robert Pinsky, nor has she won a National Book Award like Mary Oliver or Robin Coste Lewis. Most poetry aficionados or scholars would tell you that it seems unlikely her work will ever garner honors of that kind, at least not in the near future.
But there’s no denying that Rupi Kaur is currently one of the most — if not the most — popular poets in America, and her crossover success from Instagram celebrity to print stardom is a path that is increasingly more traveled, particularly by those writers of verse who favor pairing visual image and accessible word.
Kaur, 25, will perform poetry from her newly published collection, “The Sun and Her Flowers,” to a sold-out crowd Thursday at Harvard’s Memorial Church. With sales of more than 1.1 million copies, Kaur’s hit debut, “Milk and Honey,” is currently the best-selling adult nonfiction title of the year. It started the year off strong, too, reaching the No. 1 spot on The New York Times paperback best-sellers list in late January after 41 consecutive weeks on the list.
By comparison, Penguin Random House’s most popular poet is probably former US laureate Billy Collins, and his last book, “Aimless Love,’’ has sold about 47,000 copies since its 2013 release. The 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry, “Olio’’ by Tyehimba Jess, has sold about 10,000 copies over the past year.
For Kaur, it’s a big act to follow.
“I don’t want to be the same writer that I was in ‘Milk and Honey,’ ” Kaur said in a recent phone interview. “I wanted to be a better one.”
The Punjabi-Canadian poet’s visibility adds to this pressure. Kaur’s ascent to Instagram fame began in 2015 and was in part due to a controversy surrounding a photograph she’d taken for a visual-rhetoric class at the University of Waterloo. Lying in bed, Kaur is pictured with her back to the camera and a blood stain on the crotch of her pants and on her sheet. Instagram took the photo down saying it violated “Community Guidelines’’ on content, and Kaur raged against the decision on Facebook. (Instagram later reversed, and the photo is now up on both websites.)
“i will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be okay with a small leak,” Kaur wrote.
Subsequently, and to Kaur’s pleasure, the attention shifted to her poetry. Andrews McMeel picked up her self-published debut later that year. Kaur now also shares her short poems and line drawings with 1.6 million followers on Instagram, though she follows zero accounts. Her feed is a carefully curated checkerboard of portraits and poems from “Milk and Honey” and “The Sun and Her Flowers,” often accompanied by her line drawings. Kaur says visuals are very important to her.
“How something is designed impacts the reader experience so much,” she said. “For me, keeping it symmetrical by having no uppercase [letters] kind of brought ease to the design elements that I like — very simple and minimalist.”
Kaur’s style — lowercase letters, simple language, variable line breaks, and a lack of punctuation — elicits cheeky parodies and harsh criticism left as comments on her posts — one simply reads, “This is garbage.”
Elisa New, a Harvard professor specializing in American literature, said there is certainly room for Kaur to grow in terms of the convention standards by which poetry is judged. But the fact that Kaur’s work is so popular, given its authentic, performative quality, serves as an example of the revitalization of poetry among American youth. New said that Instagram poets like Kaur share much with spoken-word and hip-hop artists, as all three groups involve “a premium placed on standing in front of people and surviving their scrutiny.”
“There’s a new heroism and a valor that I think young poets across media are looking for,” New added, “which has to do with saying, ‘Here I am. Here I am in public, unafraid and unashamed, speaking my truth.’ ”
Both of Kaur’s books are confessional and tend to focus on relationships, pain, and loss, though “The Sun and Her Flowers” departs from “Milk and Honey” in its wider exploration of family and the outside world. Its five chapters allude to the life cycle of a flowering plant: “wilting,” “falling,” “rooting,” “rising,” and “blooming.”
“Whereas ‘Milk and Honey’ was an inner reflection, ‘The Sun and Her Flowers’ is a walk out in the world,” Kaur said.
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page 173 from #thesunandherflowers 🌻 this piece is the first and oldest in this collection. written in nov 2014 immediately after the release of 'milk and honey'. i was deeply inspired by the way parts of nature worshipped one another. it reminded me of how humans fall maddeningly in love with one another. the way these flowers rose and fell with the appearance of the sun reminded me how someone can have us so hooked that our entire emotional mental and physical state rises and falls with their acceptance of us. this is the piece/thought that inspired both the title and premise of this entire book.
Born in Punjab, a state in northern India, Kaur was raised by her mother and maternal grandparents for the first few years of her life. She didn’t meet her father until she and her mother moved to Canada to rejoin him when Kaur was 3, she said, as he had been forced to flee India because of violent hate crimes against Sikh men.
While putting “The Sun and Her Flowers” together, she ruminated on all the sacrifices her parents made. One poem, “advice i would’ve given my mother on her wedding day,” reflects upon the burdens Kaur’s mother undertook in an effort to make life better for her husband and her four children.
Kaur says her work is steeped in South Asian culture, and she worries that her western readers may not be able to identify with all of it.
“You hear all your other friends, and they have dinner table conversations where they talk about their emotions and say, ‘I love you’ to one another,’’ she said. “I’m like, well, that’s not what happened in my house.”
But it seems that many of her concerns manage to strike a wider chord.
Shannon Lydon, a senior at Boston College, discovered Kaur’s poetry through Instagram and was drawn to her writing on autonomy.
“It’s very empowering the way she speaks about it and the way she talks about how women claim their own bodies,” Lydon said. “It’s something that can be lost a lot. The fact that she does it in such an incredible style and the wording she uses, it’s really relatable to a lot of women.”
Laura Stanton, a senior at Boston University, likes that she can encounter Kaur’s poetry daily while scrolling through Instagram.
“The thing that speaks to me the most is that she talks a lot about being soft and emotional, but being strong because of that,” Stanton said. “Rebuilding yourself and knowing who you are.”
Kaur hopes that her books encourage young women to create their own work. The space for female poets, including those of color, is expanding, she said. She hopes their voices “continue to be shared and become part of larger literary conversations.”
“It’s definitely happening with the Zadie Smiths of the world, Chimamanda [Ngozi Adichie], Jhumpa Lahiri,” Kaur said. “They have worked very hard to help writers like myself. They paved the way for us, and I hope to do that for the next generation as well.”
Read more of Rupi Kaur’s work: