Community and Self-Help in the Poetry of Rupi Kaur
Let’s evaluate Rupi Kaur’s work against her self-ascribed purpose as an author, that of a confessional self-help poet, which redefines the traditional understanding of poetic excellence as a mix of subtlety, complexity, and innovation of form and content to being one almost exclusively centred on content. This seems the most fruitful route of analysis given that most of her critics read her through the traditional understanding, even though it has little to do with why she writes.
Kaur was born in Punjab, India, and moved at four to a Southeast Asian community in Brampton, Ontario, Canada. Her poems, initially shared through Tumblr, became famous on Instagram in 2015 after she posted an art photograph of herself with menstrual blood on her sweatpants. The network took it down twice, citing a breach of their Community Guidelines, before uploading it again and apologizing, in large part because of Kaur’s impassioned Facebook post on the matter. The sparring resulted in international media coverage, attention she parlayed into a multiplying fan base and an offer from Andrews McMeel Publishing to re-release her first book, milk and honey, which she self published in 2014. Having sold in the vicinity of five million copies to date, Kaur has her throne reserved in the history of Canadian literature. She regularly shares new verse with 3.3 million Instagram followers, and performs to audiences the world over, notably to 900 people at a launch for her second effort, the sun and her flowers, in New York City.
Her poetry is minimalist and direct. It centres on a wide variety of subjects, including physical and emotional abuse, racism, sexism, feminism, family roots, emotional intelligence, her sense of cultural inbetweenness as an immigrant, and a great deal of love and heartbreak. A poem may be deeply personal and step into a vast and complex topic. For example,
this place makes me
the kind of exhausted that has
nothing to do with sleep
and everything to do with
the people around me.
Or often a poem may simply delineate a feeling or hokey slice of wisdom and allow it to hang in the air. These captured feelings carry vestiges of Neruda writing about an onion, harboring a hope to catalogue the contents of the earth. Except Kaur’s focus is on building a mental toolkit to deal with how to coexist in society as a responsible adult. Such is her remedy to the violence and injustice she confronts in her writing, which we’ll speak on later.
it takes grace
to remain kind
in cruel situations.(2)
Any seasoned reader of poetry would realize that Kaur’s approach to the genre is more about what she says than how she says it. She spoke to Rolling Stone’s Shannon Carlin about distancing herself from poetry dense enough to need its meaning coaxed from it.
“Kaur…doesn’t want readers to agonize over each and every word like she did when learning poetry in school. “I would have to pull out the list of literary devices my teacher gave me and my 10 colorful pens,” she says, her big, almond eyes getting wider. “It was like doing surgery on the damn thing.””(3)
Those who enjoy flare in their poetry have plenty to site when they dismiss Kaur outright. Take the poem about introversion above. She revisits a thought that anyone who has thought about introversion has had a version of. That would seem to exclude all of those people from the intended audience of the poem, leaving only those who haven’t had much contact with the condition. Kaur’s interest in self-help begins to show here in the attention she tends to pay to readers who are novices in what she’s writing about. She tailors the poem to them, happy to state it flatly to maximize understanding, never threatening to outgrow its minimalist husk. She does not attempt to arrange words such that readers might discover new angles through which to understand introversion. As is the case in virtually all of her work, characterization, imagery, and metaphor follow suit with this spoon-fed flatness by keeping paper-thin and overly friendly with cliches.
Even the shapes of her poems, though they might resemble rich, dense language from afar, turn out to be riddled with line breaks of chopped up prose. Their thoughtless, unpretentious structure is given more importance than the chance at experimenting with structure in the name of expanding poetic meaning, and self-help shows up as a priority once more. Kaur chooses digestibility over aesthetics, dispelling would-be poetry readers’ preconceived notions about having to be learned to understand the genre at all.
Similarly, Kaur’s lack of punctuation and exclusive use of lower-case letters convey grace, humility, and the appearance of innovation, but ultimately feel like resorting to surface changes to mask rather than support ideas left hollow. The same goes for her playfully ethereal drawings, which add little to the purposes of a given poem by being overly literal. In the case below, the drawing risks transforming the poem’s counterintuitive, and for that reason, fascinating comparison, into a belabored point. It takes up space traditionally reserved for a reader’s imaginative freedom when they sit down to meet a text halfway.
The heavy handedness and redundancy continue with the summations preceded by a dash that end many of the poems. In the example below, repeating the word ‘representation’ in an otherwise stirring rallying cry for the voiceless, once in the text, and again after the dash, causes an unnecessary pause that distracts from the speaker’s demand for space.
is not the time
to be quiet
or make room for you
when we have had no room at all
is our time
to be mouthy
get as loud as we need
to be heard
otherwise the butterfly
surrounded by a group of moths
unable to see itself
will keep trying to become the moth
It is also notable how vague the poem is when it comes to who exactly it’s meant to encourage. There is a blending of experiences of voicelessness inviting readers who’ve been silenced to imagine each other’s lives regardless of beliefs and background. This merging of selves is a major theme in milk and honey and the sun and her flowers, as the ‘I’ that speaks in the poems not only imagines an introvert but also an escaped refugee on an overcrowded boat(6), an alcoholic parent(7), an idealist about love(8), victims of racism and verbal and sexual abuse(9), and a number of other experiences Kaur clarifies later on in this essay to belong to many different sources. She sees the potential empathy and community-building to be gained from poetically putting herself in other people’s shoes as invalidating the notion that authentic stories can only be told by those who have lived them. For her, the determining factor between writing and not writing about someone else’s trauma is whether or not subject, reader, and writer come out of the process seeing themselves and each other with greater humanity. Kaur has been called disingenuous for her appropriative practice, but I will commend her for it later on when we discuss Chinua Achebe’s concept of imaginative identification.
All this is not to say that Kaur is a bad writer, just an underdeveloped one. It isn’t often that she executes a concept and every word feels essential. But when they do, it’s a respite from the onslaught of sentimentalism, a mirage that turns out to be solid.
i went for my words
the i can’ts. i won’ts. i am not good enoughs.
i lined them up and shot them dead.
then i went for my thoughts
invisible and everywhere
there was no time to gather them one by one
i had to wash them out
i wove a linen cloth out of my hair
soaked it in a bowl of mint and lemon water
carried it in my mouth as i climbed
up my braid to the back of my head
down on my knees i began to wipe my mind clean
it took twenty-one days
my knees bruised but
i did not care
i was not given the breath
in my lungs to choke it out
i would scrub the self-hate off the bone
til it exposed love
-self love (10)
Here we have a melding of form and content, one that builds something new out of experience instead of merely accurately sharing it. The images, visceral and sensory, induce you to speed-read toward the poem’s affirmational ending, concentrating the speaker’s shared interest in getting there as soon as possible. You can feel a presence behind the poem, a beneficent hand redirecting violence inward to the roots of inherited beliefs that do not serve the speaker. This is the extent of Kaur’s occasional sense for composition before returning to a plain-spoken diary style. Which, as we’ve seen, pre-removes husks from their kernels, and often accompanies them by realistic drawings of those kernels just so everything’s completely clear. There are no multiple possible meanings to mull over or novel rhythms to be dazzled by. The stage is always relatively free of any sense of linguistic flourishes, which most might view as a disadvantage, something keeping her from standing out and finding a readership, but not for Kaur. Instead of worrying about writing tight, sensory poems like the one above, she has framed her work’s absence of ‘surgeries’ as a path for her lessons to reach her readers. Since nuanced writing carries so little weight in her work, it is clear content or message that makes up the writer-reader exchange. Kaur spoke to PBS News Hour’s Jeffrey Brown about what exactly she’s trying to get across.
“Brown: Does it hurt you when the poetry is being critiqued as more therapeutic or emotional than real poetry?
Kaur: Not really, because I never intended to get into the literary world; this is actually not for you. This is for that 17-year-old brown woman in Brampton who is not even thinking about that space, who is trying to live, survive, get through her day.”(11)
Kaur goes on to say she favors plain, accessible language because her poetry is a space of healing, one where readers like herself, who have gone through “some really real things”—like sexism, racism, and abuse— and aren’t able to talk about it, can see their concerns reflected in the voice of another and feel heard and understood. She returns to this notion of reflection when offering her personal definition of poetry, “For me, poetry is like holding up a mirror and seeing myself.”(12) But Kaur is quick to state that only the poems’ emotions are autobiographical. The majority of the stories being based on the everyday experiences of love and violence lived by her sisters, cousins, aunts, and mother. Lacking formal writing flare, it is these experiences Kaur is responding to and reflecting back at her readers as a way of making community. That way they might rid themselves, if only for a few moments, of the anguish of suffering through trauma alone.
Kaur replaces craft with unadorned clarity so that her work may offer her readers the comfort of a village having their back. We can express how she goes about populating it into at least two steps: 1) By poetically rewriting her life, the lives of the oppressed, her idols, friends and family, the depressed, the anxious, the lovelorn, and loads of others, such that pretty much anyone can feel how it is to be them from the safety of the page. 2) By laying out a philosophy of emotional intelligence that fills in the gaps in these re-examined, often traumatized lives such that they might stay and understand themselves and each other more fully. It suggests Kaur’s historical awareness of her profession and the circular nature of time, of how people like Plato, Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius wrote self-help books and were revered for them, but how nowadays giving advice is seen as lowly, heavy-handed territory for an artist. Kaur stands up for the role of education in literature, subverting the ludicrously popular idea among serious writers that providing insights into functional models of behaviour is somehow below the purview of creators of worlds.
Kaur gets at 1) by what Chinua Achebe calls fiction’s property of imaginative identification. As her readers, “things are then not merely happening before us; they are happening to us. We not only see; we suffer alongside the hero.”(13) Kaur takes fiction as an opportunity for “the imagination to recreate in ourselves the thoughts that must go on in the minds of others, especially those we dispossess.”(14) But beyond a mere choice, it is also a responsibility, one she assumes by channeling these minds in the service of humanization. Kaur wants to add the experiences of the people she writes about to her readers’ conceptions of what it means to be in the world. To this end, she relies on the common ethical thread of our shared nervous systems; that if she writes a person under a justifiably favorable or disparaging light, we will follow her there.
When she writes that “drowning is easier than staying”(15) for a refugee escaping persecution, that perhaps “the sea is your country…because it is the only place that will take you”(16), she is co-opting our hearts to care for people who need it. On the contrary, the position from her spoken word poetry community at large is that telling someone else’s struggle in your own voice is wrongful appropriation(17). Silencing someone for one’s own inauthentic artistic ends. Though noble on the surface, loyal as it is to everyone sticking to what they know, this position can be falsified due to how it can’t differentiate fact from fiction. Any concerns about misrepresenting refugees should be quelled by how Kaur is making up a scenario based on their treacherous journeys. Realism is the concern of realists. There is no reason to hold her, or any other romanticist, accountable to the tenet that fiction is somehow bound to replicating the world as it is. This would prevent her from portraying as undeniably human people who tend to be treated as much lesser than.
Kaur repeats the process in a poem about a girl in therapy who was sexually abused by her uncle(18). Her entire childhood seems to evaporate into maturity in the short piece. The aging process begins with when she was “the size of girls/your uncles like touching”, and ends with the last line,“fine/numb really”, its shades of world-weariness too casual and jaded to possibly refer to a child. Kaur shines a light on not feeling as a survival mechanism and hints at the day-to-day consequences it poses to basic interaction. The girl’s mood resembles anyone closed off from the world who still has to talk with you or me to get on with their life, the major difference being that people don’t go around explaining their sourness like it’s weather talk. The poem invites us to save tenderness for these brick walls and what lies behind them.
What I mean with 2) by filling in the gaps is that Kaur has assembled a narrator across both of her books whose prescription for hardship, trauma, anxiety, and depression is confronting it from the standpoint of seeing oneself as intrinsically valuable. In other words, worthy of love regardless of the tragedy and prejudice that claims you aren’t and how much anyone thinks of you.
who tricked you
was meant to complete you
when the most they can do is complement.(19)
Reading Kaur is to be reminded that you will remain whole through the salvaging of your shadow side, the redemption of the parts of your life you wished you had processed differently. Her array of prescriptions is vast and safe to mix and match. You may choose, for example, to “get flowers from your pain”(20), or to reassess pain as the sole determiner of its presence in your life(21). You may place things you can control like spirit and intelligence over ideals of beauty(22) and integrate failure as a way forward in your life-plan(23). You may broaden how you love so that it is worth giving in principle only when it is worth giving in practice(24). Then there’s relying on your community(25), periodically blocking the world out with love reserved exclusively for yourself(26), and upgrading your collection of comforts for pains that can only be fixed by letting them hurt(27). Anything you might need to find a way to reclaim experience you could only hope to ignore before.
what is stronger
than the human heart
which shatters over and over
and still lives(28)
I am a museum full of art
but you had your eyes shut(29)
it is a blessing
to be the color of the earth
do you know how often
flowers confuse me for home(30)
It is good to remember that Kaur recognizes how self-esteem is easy to forget, and how its existence is always news to somebody. And that the age of that somebody isn’t necessarily 12 or 13 if they’ve grown up being told they have no choice in how confident they can be. It seems pointless to call attention to any flaws in poems that act like assurances that one isn’t cursed and that the world won’t end. You’re probably going to get much more done in a day reading one than not. It is a revolutionary insight to be told that the devastating loneliness of a breakup isn’t actually an involuntary nightmare but a product of having a better idea of what you deserve and the wherewithal to attain it. Kaur is affording people years in terms of getting used to how maturity is choosing the pains we are willing to endure.
She goes a step further, treating awareness of one’s entitlement to love as a privilege, rallying readers blessed with it to remind those who have to deal with the prejudiced sideswiping of it that they should demand it too. Kaur’s mission for her readers is to make fair the oppressive institutions that create the need for poets like her determined to form a counterattack.
on the sacrifices
of a million women before me
what can i do
to make this mountain taller
so the women after me
can see farther
….last month i visited an orphanage of
abandoned babies left on the curbside like waste…
how can i refuse to believe
my life is anything short of a miracle
She challenges those who are loved to open pathways to self-realization for people with adverse odds at finding one. They are called to consciousness, to be selfless, and give back for the sake of the greater good. When it comes to building her literary community, Kaur requires a closeness that entails mourning when anyone is lost.
i am sorry this world
could not keep you safe
may your journey home
be a soft and peaceful one
—this will free you both(33)
Kaur sets her readers up to be people more willing to address negativity, injustice, and irrationality, understanding that all three are default components of the human psyche. This self-image is what makes the difference between granting pain—regardless of provenance— the right to be managed, and repressing it under mistaken religious or political assumptions that it is wrong to feel or that it will just go away. Kaur’s pain management system, her community of imaginative identification and emotional intelligence, does not in principle restrict membership, no matter how contemptible the person’s behaviour. To do so would be to deny someone their humanity—their right to heal, to be forgiven, and to work out a burden with a book like hers that helps you forgive. But that’s exactly what happens, at the expense of the ever-widening altruism responsible for unity among her fans. Ethical issues arise with observations that seem problematic without a more thorough treatment.
did you leave a door
open between my legs
were you lazy
did you forget
or did you purposely leave me unfinished
—conversations with god(34)
It is easy enough to offer the poem a charitable interpretation and say Kaur is pointing to a topic that branches out into how many women internalize subservience next to men, i.e. ‘finished’ people. But it would seem careless not to also add that the poem doesn’t contribute to minimizing the problem, nor does it completely close off the possibility that its last line carries a hint of truth. The lack of a guiding hand is glaring when we compare it with the straightforward positivity of the complete you and self-love poems above.
If you are not enough for yourself
You will never be enough
For someone else.(35)
This poem ignores myriad ways love can find you. It is common sense that people incapable of loving themselves fully constantly turn others on, and that the semantic field of ‘my everything’ has room for all. Your circumstances really have nothing to do with someone stumbling upon contentment by your side.
take the compliment
do not shy away from
another thing that belongs to you.(36)
The poem is another that asks the reader to provide a grain of salt to avoid questionable implications. Given the welcomed emergence of zero-tolerance toward sexual abuse across the world, Kaur’s advice appears too open to recontextualizing an unwanted advance instead of getting as loud as needed to be heard.
the thing about having
an alcoholic parent
is an alcoholic parent
does not exist
who could not stay sober
long enough to raise their kids(37)
Here Kaur glosses over the roots of addiction, discriminates against those suffering from one, and essentially bans them from her literary refuge. The poem bubbles with resentment, anger, and the jaded person’s tendency for fatalistic pronouncements. Its tone is one of fact, an indefensible kick on the downtrodden.
Kaur’s poetic project responds to what Achebe calls humanity’s “need to explain and alleviate [its] intolerable condition”(38), that of being “caught in a tiny glow-worm of consciousness”(39), with an ultimately inconsistent path to altruistic community. The problem has to do with inconsistently romanticized trauma, how she sometimes gets too caught up in advice and in faithfully expressing victims’ feelings to consider who her phrasing dehumanizes. Her lack of critical engagement with these feelings and their causes has the effect of normalizing them, especially when prescribing behaviour is an integral component of milk and honey and the sun and her flowers. It is the case that there are experiences so grueling that expressing them as they occurred is remarkable progress. I grant the function of externalizing caustic feelings onto the page to diminish their strength. But, as a leader, and as a healer, Kaur loses credibility by conveying that certain people cause more harm than they are worth while professing a belief that people are worth more than any harm they could ever commit. Though she tends toward the latter, her attempt to teach the oppressed with such gaps in the troubles she is willing to take on cannot but inspire suspicion.
our bodies touched
by all the wrong people
that even in a bed full of safety
we are afraid.(40)
Sometimes it is not enough to summon an injustice into existence for your audience and call it a day. Sometimes unresolved fear shared among many stops being a solution and turns into a crutch. What I’m saying is there is a price to every citizenship. Kaur’s work may be the place to replenish you from devastation, but it is up to you to protect your critical faculties from her efforts to replace them with her version of your best self.
(1): p.85, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(2): p.160, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(3): Meet Rupi Kaur, Queen of the ‘Instapoets’. Rolling Stone. December 21, 2017. <https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/meet-rupi-kaur-queen-of-the-instapoets-w514035>.
(4): Rupi Kaur, Instagram, <https://www.instagram.com/rupikaur_/>.
(5): p.238-9, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(6): p. 126-7, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(7): p.39, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(8): p.74, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015; p.182, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(9): p.15, 41, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(10): p. 105, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(11): PBS News Hour. “How poet Rupi Kaur became a hero to millions of young women”. January 2, 2018.<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QEgOmgQVG4>.
(13): p. 144, Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments.
(14): p.149, Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments.
(15): p.126-7,the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(17): “The milk and honey author’s use of unspecified collective trauma in her quest to depict the quintessential South Asian female experience feels disingenuous”. Chiara Giovanni. Buzzfeed. Agosto 4, 2017.<https://www.buzzfeed.com/chiaragiovanni/the-problem-with-rupi-kaurs-poetry?utm_term=.om89j8lN5N#.go8mQxV8q8>
(18): p.15, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(19): p.154, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(20): p. 152, 158, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(21): p.151, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(22): p.179, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(23): p.160, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(24): p.162, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(25): p.97, 146, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(26): p.107, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(27): p.193, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(28): p.109, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(29): .100, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(30): p.227, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(31): p.213, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(32): p.130, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(33): p. 125, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(34): p.65, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(35): p.197, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(36): p .240, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.
(37): p.39, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.
(38): p.143, Hopes and Impediments, Doubleday, 1989.
(39): p.141, Hopes and Impediments, Doubleday, 1989.
(40): p.36, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.