Rupi Kaur, Social Media’s Poet Laureate, Switches to Self-Help
If I am ever, God forbid, driven back to the dating sites and apps, I will certainly use the introduction to Rupi Kaur’s Healing Through Words as my bio:
Poetry is the language of human emotion. It is air and fire and water and soil. Poetry is the breath in our lungs. The sighs. The Stutters. Poetry is the first time you fall in love. And it breaks you. Poetry is hunger. The words hanging in the space between two mouths, right before the kiss. The thrill. Poetry is when your stomach is so heavy with butterflies, it drops down to your feet. Poetry is the light you walk away with after digging yourself out of grief. It is a long conversation by the ocean. Poetry is winter’s first snowfall. The smell of cookies in the oven. Poetry is sex. Elation. How we fight and make up. The journey. The story. Running and laughing. Laughing and running. Poetry is the might of one person, and the echo of billions. Our survival is poetry. Our lives are poetry. And the final act is writing it down.
Excise the “poetry” and you’ve got a profile nicely calculated to entice some wealth-burdened doctor or financier in search of a little feminine magic to restore the joie de vivre his profession killed long ago.
This is a cynical way of thinking about love. But something about Rupi Kaur—who, upon publication of her Instagram-caption poetry, attained commercial and popular (good for her) if not critical (good for us) success—seems to invite her haunting by Dorothy Parker’s ghost. Like Parker, Kaur writes poems drawn from the highs and lows (mostly lows) of wrestling with love, wrestling with the self. Like Parker’s, they have a brief, dashed-off quality to them. Like Parker’s, they are not especially excellent as poems. Unlike Parker’s, they aren’t funny and don’t scan.
This dashed-off quality, of course, does not reflect the actual work of composition. Healing Through Words is a kind of guided journal, a set of writing exercises Kaur lays out for the reader, often basing them on her own writing processes and using her own poems as inspiration. She describes how she creates her “peach pit poems” by freewriting for pages, and editing the result down until the composition is only a few lines.
The example given:
I’ve had sex she said
but i don’t know
what making love
“This process is like removing the skin of the peach, then slowly digging through the fruity meat, until finally, I hit the center—the peach pit. I take this peach pit, and present it to my reader on a silver platter. I love giving them the core essence of what I am trying to say, so that it is felt immediately,” Kaur explains.
Unfortunately she replied
It would be remiss to review the book without trying one of the exercises. This took three attempts. The first time, I flipped through hoping to choose one at random. Result:
Exercise 2: What You Keep Hidden. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Read the prompt, and freewrite your thoughts: The thing I am most scared of people finding out about me is
Nice try, Ms. FBI.
Several pages later, Kaur invites you to write a letter to your fears, and explains the difference between a rational and irrational fear.
“An example of a rational fear is worrying that you won’t be able to pay next month’s rent because you got laid off and have no savings.” Gee, thanks, Rupi. I feel better already.
I paged ahead to a different section.
Exercise 21: Round of Applause. Complete the following in jot form: Write a list of reasons why you are an ideal friend or partner.
Finally, something more my speed.
Working through the prompt was a useful reminder of the value of these types of writing aids. Obedience to their direction and limited scope frees you from the self-consciousness and nitpicking that accompany responsibility. The limitations of the prompt’s structure can force your mind in new directions. In this case, I was struck by the word “ideal.” Any particular person can only be an ideal partner to another particular person; what are credits to one would be debits to another. I found myself trying to think of qualities of mine that could be considered a net benefit more or less across the board. The list I came up with—can butcher rabbits, not afraid of fighting, will think up extravagant little gifts for myself so you don’t have to—is perhaps an indication that the prompt functions like a Zen koan, its impossibility itself revelatory.
Not all the prompts are so congenial. (One, which asks you to consider whether you would leave your loving spouse if the voice of God told you that the stranger you met in a coffee shop was your soulmate, is a wretchedly childish and debasing exercise, however you answer.) But overall, the prompts will probably be helpful for people trying to develop the difficult skill of facility in connecting thought to page.
More interestingly, they provide a window into Kaur’s poetics. Her poems are as informal as they come, constrained by neither rhyme or scansion, with the communication of passionate emotion or personal revelation replacing every other creative goal, even the attempt at beautiful word pictures typical of free verse. And yet her writing process often seems to flow from artificial constraints at least genealogically related to traditional forms: She writes the peach pit poem, the circle poem. At one point, she gives the reader/writer fourteen prompted lines to complete, and instructs them that they are writing a sonnet. What is this invocation, if not literature persevering?
What is Kaur trying to accomplish?
The introduction makes the question even more intriguing. She makes a perceptive distinction between performance poetry and paper poetry: the one written to be performed and listened to, the other to have a unique effect on the page. Whether Kaur’s paper poetry has the visual impact it aspires to is dubious, but it seems true that the poetry we name as such tends to follow the eye over the ear. Perhaps a poet who got her start on Instagram would be especially aware of the distinction.
Favoring the eye does not indict a poem, nor can the distinction be absolute. Emily Dickinson’s famously idiosyncratic punctuation is both a stop for the voice and a signal for the eye. Homer’s wine-dark sea remains beautiful even divorced from its recitational context. And the ascendency of the eye is probably to some degree inevitable in a textual rather than oral culture. But poetry’s relation to song, and its character as a communal and popular rather than solitary and rarefied aesthetic experience—these have mostly been banished to the hinterlands of lyric writing. Perhaps this character is what Kaur is trying to reclaim. If she were to take on the discipline of rhythm and rhyme, she would certainly make a competent song lyricist; she has a mind for the volta, and an ear for the triumphant or damning phrase.
But song is not the tradition in which Kaur is working now. If anything, she seems to be plying a new form: the heroic zinger. The heroic zinger descends in part from the older American tradition of the wisecrack (another kinship with Parker), and as such often remains wry, accusatory, or skewering. But unlike the wisecrack, it presents in brief a declaration and a dramatic narrative of the speaker’s self.
The heroic zinger is everywhere. It is written on mugs (Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee; Male Tears) on wine paraphernalia (Never underestimate a mom with a crisis and a bottle of chardonnay on her hands); on t-shirts (I’m not an asshole—I’m just allergic to idiots) and, above all, in memes. Vaguebooking—the practice of posting an elliptical reference on social media to some turmoil in your life—tends to provide the most sincerely emotional examples of the heroic zinger form (Not everyone can handle my darkness. But the ones that run away…..will never know the power of my light).
The heroic zinger is distinguished from the sort of cornball, homespun mottoes that hang above mantels (Gone Fishing!) by its framework of agonistic negotiation with the affronts of others and the demands of circumstance. It is a kind of generalizing and preemptive esprit d’escalier. At best, it addresses a profound and sympathetic desire—the need to understand your life and character as having form and narrative, to see your particular qualities acknowledged and affirmed—that will inevitably find lower and higher, more and less worthy expressions. The heroic zinger itself has more and less sophisticated forms: It appears in dialogue on TV shows, in political slogans, in exhortations at wellness retreats, and in literary personal essays. Earlier evolutionary forms of the heroic zinger include the Darwinized ichthys fish and belligerent inscriptions on And1 basketball t-shirts (Go to church. Pray you don’t guard me.). But its natural home and the origin of its dominance is social media, where we are all jostling to be seen by others, but only in the ways we choose.
Kaur—with her direct address to former lovers, her triumphs of empowering self-realization, her deliberate excision of all form or content beyond the bare, pithy narration of the self—is exploring the heroic zinger form, and attempting to move it from its social media context into print. And this may be a worthwhile project. Perhaps people will one day collect heroic zingers as they once collected epigrams in commonplace books. But I confess I at least would be much more interested to see her take a stab at the tradition of boliyan couplets she alludes to, tantalizingly, in the introduction.
Kaur’s poetics, interesting as they are, are not really the point of this attractively heavy, thick-papered journal, which is divided into sections called Hurting, Breaking, Loving, and Healing. The goal of the project is twofold: to unleash the latent creativity in the reader, and to harness that creativity in the service of personal healing and integration.
I do not have any quarrel with people using the book to address some wound. God knows I have tried stupider ways of dealing with pain than writing exercises, searching for harder and harder brick walls to throw myself against. That the mawkish and banal can be as therapeutic as the wise and beautiful is a mercy, a humbling, and above all a testament to the mysterious idiosyncrasy of the healing process.
My objection to the project lies in a passage under the heading, “Who Gets to Be Creative?”
“Want to know what makes me sad?” Kaur writes.
When someone tells me they’re not creative. How have we convinced millions of people that creativity is a skill only accessible to a select few, when the truth is that human beings are imaginative by nature……..When we were children, all of us were scribbling away, drawing and writing in our notebooks. At that age, we didn’t see “creativity” as a skill; we saw it as something we did…..
This, to my mind, is an important claim: Art, like philosophy, has become too identified with its professional practitioners. Too often it is taken to denote a special type of person rather than a shared human capacity that everyone should be able to train and exercise to the best of their ability. Even among the professionals, art is becoming more aristocratic: A recent English study found fewer people of working class origins in the arts in England and Wales than in decades past, a trend that likely holds just as true in the United States.
But then the point fizzles. As it turns out, everything is creative, according to Kaur, up to and including manufacturing an excuse for why you can’t make it to Thanksgiving this year. It is true that many overlooked leisure and domestic activities are highly creative. And it is true that an inventive excuse requires many of the same skills that, for example, constructing a fictional narrative does. But what is the object to which those gifts and techniques are directed? Is it wise or striking or beautiful? What is its role in the world? Can it be offered to others, to move them and invite them in? Is it open to criticism?
The shape of Kaur’s project in Healing Through Words—unleashing creativity through therapeutic exercise—is by nature closed off to criticism. The object of judgment is how effectively the process cleanses and enlivens the writer, not what it produces or what that product offers to a potential audience. Again, this is all fine for art therapy as such. But to frame it as a reclamation of popular creativity is to say that excellence is an irrelevant category to the efforts of ordinary people, that their appropriate role is going through the motions of their superiors in safe sterility, like a child pretending to cook dinner in a toy kitchen. It is to hold cheap the centuries of song, verse, story, dance, drama, textiles, woodwork, stonework, gardens, food and much more, produced in both work and leisure, that are our collective inheritance, the majority of the best of all human culture.
Kaur may one day be remembered as an avant-garde original reimagining the possibilities of mass culture. What she will not be remembered as is a champion of amateur creators. They deserve something better than therapy; they have something better to offer us all.