I’m a writer, I’m 21, I’m Gen Z, and frankly, I’m tired of the pretentiousness surrounding poetry. I don’t mean the Rupi Kaur format, where poets write what they’re feeling in an understated, easy-to-read formatI’m talking about quite the opposite. I’m talking about the poetry exclusionists, the people who can’t or refuse to see the way in which poetry’s moving with the rest of the world.
In 2014, I spent similar amounts of time doing Buzzfeed quizzes as I did on the Button Poetry YouTube channel when I first came across Instagram poets. They were small, clipped pieces, often in typewriter font, set against a white background. It was on Instagram, so it was a visual experience as much as a written one. With simple verses that stood without the conventions of poetry I’d come across in old books, it struck me, and it was a pretty good starting point for my writing and my reading of poetry.
Poetry’s always been written, read, and studied, but it’s very rare that someone will be able to make a career out of it. This begs the question, how long has Instagram-esque poetry been happening? To explain, by Instagram-esque, I mean poetry that’s subverted poetic conventions of the time, in a non-academic, non-literary way (in the sense of being outside literary circles). The short answer is as long as poetry’s been written, there’s been a counter-culture like this. But, like everything else during the digital tech boom we’ve experienced in the last few decades, traditional conventions (not necessarily subject matter) of poetry went out the window. The short and snappy nature of these pieces, averaging about six lines long, rids us of the predetermined notion that poetry is hard to read and inaccessible. Poetry’s always been written for people to enjoy. It’s never been intended to be an intellectually exclusive experience, and there’s no reason to exclude this sort of poetry from the wider poetic universe.
Generally, the themes of Instagram poetry are universal—something anyone who’s looking at their phone can relate to. It’s easy to understand, it doesn’t take ages to read, and it’s in a format we know and understand. The snappiness of the verse means it’s easy for anyone on Instagram to read, and it encapsulates the short, micro-sized information this generation in particular has grown accustomed to. Instagram poetry takes conventional literary functions and throws them out the window; it’s almost all written in free verse, leaning more towards stream-of-consciousness than being rigorously bound by meter and syntax.
Poetry’s always been an avenue to express your grievances. Whether those are with the world, with someone you know or are in a relationship with, or if it’s about the weather, it’s always been a way to air your frustrations. Instagram holds a unique spot in our universe, it’s often the centre of communication and media consumption, making it a melting-pot for creatives.
Poetry has always been a way of sharing stories. The Odyssey was first composed verbally and shared orally. It’s a social thing; it’s a way for people to forge connections with one another, and an easy way to be entertained. That purpose hasn’t gone out the window purely because we’re spending time online. Being online has given us a completely new way of looking at the world, of understanding it, and trying to cope with it. Short, snappy, free-form pieces suit the format of Instagram, making the experience something easily accessible for even the most uneducated reader.
Accessibility is perhaps the most important part of any art form. To get rid of the intellectualism sometimes used to hide from the opinions of others, opens up something truly vulnerable, something which people can understand and form opinions on. It speaks to the openness of Instagram, but also debunks it, in a way. Instagram poetry often isn’t polished. It’s raw and it’s written quickly. It’s there for mass consumption, but it also means that masses of people are going to see your work and form an opinion on it. Instagram’s been hailed as a highlight reel of someone’s life. But Instagram poetry, a genre so personal and so raw, is pretty much the antithesis of a highlight reel. It showcases angst, heartbreak, soullessness, isolation, and unhappiness in a way that everyone, not just those skilled in poetry, can understand.
It’s like the rise of bedroom pop, soft, easy to listen to tracks, which are often written in an air of sadness or existentialism. Instagram poetry serves the same purpose, it speaks for a generation clouded in anxiety and dullness, looking desperately through the social web of our phones to understand what this life thing we’re going through is, and trying to connect with people who maybe, just maybe, are feeling the same way. Instagram poetry, while often harshly sidelined and disregarded, has opened up the communal side of poetry, in a time where a community can be pretty hard to find.
Naomii Seah, a talented poet at UoA (and Craccum Features Editor) shares her thoughts about the changing face of poetry in the Instagram age, and its changing exclusivity level.
Why do you write poetry?
I think like many people I use it as a form of creative expression; I like words and I like how words sound together and the associations they hold, and I like poetry as a format to manipulate, unpack, hide and reveal meaning.
Do you think it’s harder to write poetry now than it would have been 30 or so years ago? Why/why not?
I think the act of writing itself has remained the same, but the ease of publication is different. The internet now has many more options for publication that aren’t necessarily gate-kept by the literary industry, yet still afford a large audience.
Have you found Instagram poetry to be something that has helped or hindered you?
I think Instagram poetry is a good place to start as an amateur poet because it’s a place where someone can be vulnerable. Seeing my friends’ semi-edited poetry, and seeing the reaction to shitty drafts I’ve typed up drunk at 3am and realising that it doesn’t have to be perfect or edited to hold value was really helpful. I think Instagram poetry is interesting because it’s almost a convention for it to appear less polished and edited and filtered, even when it is. However, that opens up room for experimentation for amateur poets, and breaks open the poetic canon into even looser forms. Seeing page poetry recreated in the grid format is also cool, because it helps me think about spatial poetics.
On the note of social media, have you found that it’s made you more connected to what you want to write about or less so?
When I’m on socials I’m head blank; no thoughts, so probably less connected.
Do you think Instagram poetry is unfairly scrutinised or side lined? Why/why not?
Yes. I have a lot of thoughts. Disclaimer that this is all my own opinion based on my own experience and observation!
I think Instagram poetry is unfairly scrutinised and sidelined and I think this for a couple of reasons. 1. It’s a movement largely led by women, 2. It’s a new format, and 3. Anyone who’s read Dr. Seuss suddenly has an opinion on what “real” poetry is.
To deal with no. 1, anything women writers do tends to be dealt with less seriously, even if those female writers are respected as writers, e.g. second wave feminist poets always got bagged on for focusing on domestic issues.
Secondly, poetry has slowly moved from being for the elite to being for the masses, so opinions on its form and legitimacy have loosened over time, e.g. everything used to be written in metre—free verse wasn’t really a thing until the modernists of the early 20th century. That’s a drastic break with a long tradition, and I argue that Instagram poetry represents a continuation of that spirit. The format of Instagram poetry—the smallness of scale—means that poetic conventions about things like line-breaks are often broken out of necessity, e.g. ending on “weak” words like “you” rather than descriptive words. Arguably, neglecting these conventions makes a poem weaker. However, that’s probably what the last guys said about Modernism. Poetry as a genre has also generally moved from being about grand abstract concepts to a more internal focus—if your complaint is that Insta poetry reads like a diary, then I suggest you look up the literary history of confessional poetry.
Finally, to everyone who says Instagram poetry is “not real poetry,” kindly fuck off with your Gaslight-Gatekeep-Girlboss take. It’s like saying spaghetti isn’t noodles—y’all look like clowns.