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2020 was hard enough—then I read Rupi Kaur’s new ‘poems’

We need a new literary genre to describe the best-selling writer’s creations—because poetry is too precious to be besmirched by such associations

Rupi Kaur at Diggi Palace for the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018.
Rupi Kaur at Diggi Palace for the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018. (Mint)

In a year that the Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to a poet—which is seldom the case—there are more articles on Rupi Kaur’s latest volume of poetry floating around the internet than about Louise Glück, who was chosen for the highest literary honour in the world. This is a sign of our times, rather than of Kaur’s greatness, though her appeal remains unflagging among a section of readers.

In 2018, I witnessed the Indian-born Canadian social-media sensation getting a reception worthy of a rock star from the crowd at the Jaipur Literature Festival. When I spoke to her after her session, she told me her personal nature held the key to her magic. “I’m a very empathetic person to a fault, my Dad will tell you,” Kaur said. “I see somebody remotely having a bad day and suddenly I’m on the floor crying.”

Not much has changed since then, going by her latest volume, home body. Sure, Kaur is now two years older, but the themes and style of her poems remain stuck in a teenage time warp. The collection is divided into four parts—mind, heart, rest and awake—and inspired by Kaur's continuing struggles with depression, anxiety, the trauma of sexual abuse, and dwindling self-esteem, especially as an immigrant. If you thought selling 2.5 million copies of her first book and ruling over the best-seller lists for months would alleviate Kaur’s self-doubt, do read home body.

Parodies of Kaur’s verse also continue to abound on the internet, no change in that trend either. Recently, a British man jotted down scraps of his girlfriend’s sleep talk and wrote them out like Kaur’s poems (“i … am a crab/ i go-/ side to side/ don’t go in the sea/ snip snip”). His efforts paid off, as his Twitter posts went viral. Another man created Kaur-like poems with stuff that his housemate says while playing Grand Theft Auto and was duly rewarded with virality as well. Clearly, the internet doesn’t get bored of old tricks. Nor do Kaur’s fans with her poetry, in spite of the tedious, repetitious sameness of it.

Much of Kaur’s current angst seems to stem from her self-perceived inadequacy as a woman and lover, though there are moments of writerly crises, too. There is a longish poem, at least by Kaur’s usual aphoristic standards, with the blandly obvious title, “productivity anxiety”. Several others are intended as pep talks to the self, to boost her flailing self-confidence. And there’s fair reason, it would seem, for such lingering self-flagellation, too.

Kaur’s utterances should be called poems insofar as a child’s doodles qualify as abstract art. Sample these, for instance: “i am not interested in a feminism/ that excludes trans women”; “you are lonely/ but you are not alone” – there is a difference; “you do not belong to the future or the past” – you belong right here.

The shocking triteness of Kaur’s verse, and the egregious lack of even the hint of any complexity, is one matter, but taking unfettered liberties with the English language is quite another. Kaur appears to have a special affliction for misusing the word “transcend” in this volume. It’s almost always evoked in the context of steamy sexual scenarios, and generously overlooked by her kind editor, if there were any.

Quibbles apart, there’s a wave of opinion that argues that writers like Kaur speak for immigrants, people of colour, and women. Her unadorned directness, glib motivational slogans, and, at times, nonsensical blandness have broken the barriers of elitism in poetry. Be that as it may, there have been many other great writers of colour, too, who have produced works of outstanding richness and ingenuity—and there are many more who continue to do so. If only publishers and our social-media-driven reading culture found a way of amplifying these less audible voices.

Whether you love or loathe Kaur, you are probably aware of the bouquets and brickbats that have been hurled at her since her emergence. There is scarcely any point in my boring you with any further analyses of her creations. To each reader, their own tastes etc, but I wish we had a new label to describe Kaur’s output. Poetry is too delicate and precious a word to be besmirched by such associations.

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