Voices of Morality: political poetry’s recent popularity

Voices of Morality: political poetry’s recent popularity

Photo Credits: JAMIE CHEN / AGGIE

The bond between poetry and politics has not died — only intensified

In recent years, the sale of poetry books has experienced a surge from young buyers looking to make sense of the world. In 2018, UK book sales monitor Nielsen Bookscan showed that poetry sales grew by over 12 percent last year, equating to 1.3 million volumes of poetry sold in the United Kingdom, adding up to £12.3 million in sales (roughly $15.5M USD). In Canada, during the years of 2016-2017, poetry sales increased by 79 percent. While in the United States, there was a compound annual growth of 21 percent within the same time frame. All these numbers pose the question: what’s driving the need for poetic literature in the 21st century?

Andre Breedt, managing director of Nielsen, a market research firm, said that sales are booming because poetry offers comfort in times of political upheaval.

“Poetry is resonating with people who are looking for understanding,” Breedt said. “[It’s] a really good way to explore complex, difficult emotions and uncertainty.”

The audience that’s contributed to this rise in popularity is young women — 41 percent of these buyers are between the ages of 13 and 22, making teenage girls and young women the biggest consumers as of two years ago.

The question of what draws these young readers to the craft has been explored by Katy Shaw, professor of contemporary writings at Northumbria University in England, who said that poetry is no longer being used to passively reflect, but to actively engage.

“Poetry as a form can capture the immediate responses of people to divisive and controversial current events. It questions who has the authority,” Shaw said. “Writing poetry and sharing it in this context is a radical event, an act of resistance to encourage other people to come round to your perspective.”

Shaw is referring to a poetic movement on Instagram — the “Instapoets” — where short and easily digestible poems are written by young, fierce poets and shared to the social media platform. The coordinating hashtags have created a multi-million person movement.

The leader of this movement is Rupi Kaur. The 26-year-old poet reached international best-seller lists with her first publication, “Milk and Honey” which has sold 2.5 million copies sold worldwide. She has been deemed the queen of “Instapoets,” and her Insta-peers are only building a larger poetic presence on instagram by posting their concise, yet powerful poems that address themes of race, sexuality and gender.

The saying goes, it’s never a good thing when poetry makes the news. Kaur and her peers have created an interesting divide in the poetry community; they are blamed for rejecting the fundamentals of the craft. Nevertheless, her social media presence is strongly contributing to the rising popularity of poetry among young adults. Such growing popularity might just accomplish poetry’s intended purpose on a much larger scale, which is a rising awareness of the self that results in united benedictions.

Kaur may receive some criticism for her newfound way of circulating poetry, but the buck should stop there. According to Rebecca Watts’s argumentative essay, “The Cult of Noble Amateur,” social media has a dumbing effect on poetry; the technicalities of the craft have been reduced to revolve around self expression rather than larger, sweeping topics, creating “personality poets,” as she refers to the Insta-poets. Curtailing poetry in this sense, however, does not negate the fact that personality poems have young readers thinking about what it means to be human in an unrelenting era, as Kaur’s themes suggest.

Though the rise of political poetry or even the recent spike in its popularity did not begin with Kaur and the social media movement. The predecessors are the Beat poets. Beat poets, specifically, were figures such as Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and UC Davis’s own Gary Snyder who wrote to rebel against the conventions of mainstream American life. Not to compare Allen Ginsberg to Kaur, but their mass popularity, “rejection of the craft” and themes of liberations are distinctly similar to hers.

The beats — a name that embraces social weariness, down-and-outness but also the idea of a beat in adherence to piece of music — questioned the society they lived in and sought to step out of it. As described by the Poetry Foundation, “[they] helped to spearhead a cultural vanguard reacting against institutionalized American values, materialism, and conformity.”

Closing our eyes to the generational gap between the two movements, they seem similar at first glance. Considering the forms of structural oppressions the beat poets were attempting to unearth, Instapoets can then be thought of as a product of the beat generation, or rather an evolution of tackling social problems.

The former may have been dealing with themes of capitalist consumerism and the latter with the voice of morality within the self. However, addressing both fields go hand-in-hand in the politics of tomorrow. The beat poets attacked the normalized utilitarianism so present in American culture and the systems that promote such a lifestyle. The Insta-poets are in the process of finishing the battle in addressing the self that accepts these regularities of oppression. Pablo Picasso said it best, “[Art] is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.”

Tracy K. Smith, poet laureate of the United States, talks about the variety and potential of political poetry in her recent article written for the New York Times. In it, she says political poetry is a means for owning up to the complexity of our problems, and that even the righteous may be implicated by the wrongs they decry.

Smith said, poetically, “Poems willing to enter into this fraught space don’t merely stand on the bank calling out instructions on how or what to believe; they take us by the arm and walk us into the lake, wetting us with the muddied and the muddled, and sometimes even the holy.”

Smith said that poets who are willing to expose their internal voice are not doing so just to be a seraph on the shoulder. Poetry means to be interpreted through an out of body experience where one may contemplate the self, the ego and the world in which it resides. The poet’s job is supposed to provide that means of trascedency.

There is no wrong way to share poetry, but there is a wrong way to read it — poems should not be interpreted as fluffy language simply meant to dazzle the mind. Poems are meant for the heart; they’re meant for united movements towards the light of tomorrow. But it starts with the individual and the requirement for them to sit, breathe and read every word as if each one was a poem itself.

Written By: Clay Allen Rogers – arts@theaggie.org