The land of Milk and Honey has come to earth. It has been consolidated, abridged, and translated within the confinements of the English language. Heaven is a two hundred eight-page poetry collection detailing the experiences of a young woman of color in terse, emotive, occasionally indecipherable lines accompanied by simplistic black pencil drawings. These drawings illustrate the subject of the poem or a general theme of the anthology, tackling both the enigmatic and abstract (how do you draw ‘first heartbreak’ without using a heart?) and the more concrete—a nameless stick figure with a slumped posture gradually straightening out, symbolic of a woman regaining her sense of self. It is the book about every woman, and therefore every woman’s book, meant to empower and/or represent us. To read it is to find yourself within the scanty pages.
Such is the pitch posed by the series of poems written by Rupi Kaur, the twenty-four year old Indian-Canadian writer’s whose poetry has attached to her the responsibility of being “the voice of a generation”, dubbed so by critics and consumers of her work alike since its release in 2014. The poems in this collection, Milk and Honey, found their claim to fame through Kaur’s regular posting on Instagram, after her self-publication in 2014—and through this technique, Kaur ascended the ranks, from popular “Instapoet” to New York Times bestseller.
Kaur’s poetry holds a special resonance in the media of the 2010s, where visceral articulations of women’s experiences, in the literary world and outside of it, are gaining more and more traction from mainstream media (see Beyonce’s “Lemonade”, 2016). Her equally as popular contemporaries — Lang Leav, Nayyirah Waheed, Nikita Gill — could be more aptly described as her fraternal twins, as all three women occupy the same stylistic niche of ‘minimalist’ poetry: curt, anecdotal, to the point, in Kaur’s work, titleless, but somehow still deeply emotionally evocative—at least in the eyes of fans. It should be noted that Kaur has faced allegations of stealing several stylistic elements for Nayyirah Waheed. Waheed originally posted her poetry on Tumblr, where thousands of readers, Kaur included, it seems, engaged it. It’s a difficult allegation to defend—besides slight nuances in subject matter, if I were to read Kaur and subsequently Waheed, they would be difficult for me to differentiate. This is just one trait of Kaur’s poems in a series of traits that prevent me from joining in the international acclamation of her work: they lack any distinct artistic flair that would separate her voice from that of any other writer accustomed to writing for internet audiences; the lyricism of her poetry is not derived from her word choice or mechanics, but is manually created by line breaks that are monotonous and identical from poem to poem. Oftentimes Kaur’s work reads like a sentence masquerading as poem using an impressive mask—a beautiful metaphor—or no mask at all, simply trusting the readers to poeticize the unit of words stacked in three lines into a stanza. I’m not a fan of Kaur’s poems—but if you’ve never read one, and seldom read any poetry outside of the English classroom, then I’ll be the first to suggest you pick up a copy of her’s from your local bookstore.
Poetry matters. It’s a form of catharsis for both the reader and the writer; it puts words to experiences we’ve had but cannot explain, or will never have and seek insight into; poetry is a historian, a celebration of any and all subjects. Poetry is the highlight reel of a novel, all the best parts of reading prose packaged and condensed into a portable form—but it’s often shunned by readers for its complexity, mystery, or when those words seem to kind, stupidity. Thank God there’s a counterforce to prevent poetry from descending in obscurity: despite how self-effacing they might be in their writing, poets must be the writers with the highest self esteem, because nobody loves poetry more than poets do. But in the Digital Age, when you can thumb through the entire anthology of a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet in 30 minutes, the demographic of poetry fanatics is quickly expanding. This is where Kaur comes in: if vapid one-liners are what it takes to introduce someone to Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Siken, Anne Carson, or all the not-yet-famous poets growing followings in the Internet–if Rupi Kaur is the patron saint of 22-year-old first-time poetry readers turned long-time poetry lovers, then she truly is the voice of our generation. There have been say-nothing poets before who are still lauded for the ways in which they forged and feigned meaning in their words—if there legacy remains untainted by critique, then so should Kaur’s. And of course, my critique is informed by my tastes in poetry; to someone else, Kaur’s work might be the reason for the season (that is, National Poetry month).
I’m hesitant to critique Kaur so publicly because I know not all the criticisms she faces are objective: some come from people who mock any form of art that is emotionally charged, especially when it comes from a woman, much more likely to laugh at one poem than to analyze several for any literary merit. And you know what—“it is a blessing/to be the color of the earth/do you know how often/flowers confuse me for home” (“Milk and Honey”, 2014). I recall lines like these when I think the thirteen year old girls of color who repost her poems to their Instagrams or reblog them on Tumblr, how I was just like them, three short years ago, and how a poem like that would stick in my memory for days, maybe months, maybe even until now.