'Imagination will take you everywhere'
I first read her words in a card from my friend. I had met her on exchange in France and we had become close – I was constantly in awe of her; self-assured, articulate, intelligent, and achingly cool. When we parted she gave me a card and inside it she had written in her elegant hand-writing a poem by Rupi Kaur.
i am water
to offer life
to drown it away
She said the poem reminded her of me. I read the words over and over again, drinking in the meaning. Yes, I thought. Later that day I wrote it out on a piece of paper torn from my notebook and stuck it on my wall and whenever I caught a glimpse of it an inner strength appeared from nowhere and surged within me, like a trickling stream had suddenly swelled into a raging river, burst the banks and flowed into a waterfall. It’s funny how a cluster of words can create so much emotion. That’s the power of Kaur.
Before this discovery I had always associated poems with A-Level English; analysing the structure, rhyme pattern, iambic pentameter – basically sucking the joy out of poetry. No more mystery, just make sure you can dissect it enough to write an essay about it. Kaur’s poems felt natural – I didn’t have to concentrate to get the meaning. Almost every poem encapsulated events or feelings that I could relate to – growing up, a daughter’s relationship with her father, first love, life as a woman. Most importantly she encourages her readers to embrace their bodies and not feel ashamed of them.
Over the next few days, weeks, months, I hungrily devoured her poetry, my finger numb from scrolling through her Instagram; each post was a fresh discovery. It was as if this young woman was taking my feelings and putting them onto paper. Sometimes direct, angry, confrontational, other times soft and flowing.
Kaur is more like a spoken word artist, like a rapper – no capitalisation, hardly any punctuation – there is no artifice, she says it how it is. This is probably why so many young people can connect with her writing. She has said that she wants to experiment with spoken word poetry in the studio, so perhaps we can expect an album from her soon à la Kate Tempest.
One weekend I visited the northern town of Amiens, dubbed the Venice of France, with another friend. A short train journey from Reims, the city where we were living. It was pretty bleak and empty but a bookshop caught my eye – warm and cosy – we managed to find the English books section and I chanced upon Kaur’s first collection of poetry, ‘milk and honey’. Two little bees buzzed on the cover as if they were guarding the words within. It turned out that my friend was a huge fan of her writing and had already bought the book for herself as well as for several friends. It didn’t stop her from buying another one (for her best friend’s birthday) and I bought myself a copy too. I read it on the train back and finished the whole book by the evening.
Kaur began self-publishing on Instagram in November 2014, but was soon picked up by Andrews McMeel Publishing in October 2015 and has now sold over 1.5 million copies of ‘milk and honey’ – remaining on the New York Times bestsellers list for over a year. Split into four chapters: the hurting, the loving, the breaking, the healing, ‘milk and honey’ takes the reader on an emotional journey through life – there are moments of pain and moments of happiness. Her writing deals with discrimination, race, abuse, rape, but also themes such as motherhood, body image, and sisterhood. She captures what it’s like to be a woman in today’s world – a world where it sometimes feels like women are fighting a losing battle. My favourite poems are the ones in ‘the healing’ section as they are full of hope, because despite the suffering described in some of the poems, Kaur reminds us that “there is sweetness everywhere if you are just willing to look”.
i like the way the stretch marks
on my thighs look human and
that we’re so soft yet
rough and jungle wild
when we need to be
i love that about us
how capable we are of feeling
how unafraid we are of breaking
and tend to our wounds with grace
just being a woman
makes me utterly whole
I know I am one of a chorus of women singing the praises of Kaur. She has been hailed as the voice of a generation –she is certainly the voice of millennial women. Her posts regularly get around 100,000 likes and a plethora of admiring comments (she currently has 1.4 million followers). Instagram has played a crucial role in her success, giving Kaur a platform for her work. She gained attention when she posted an image of herself lying on her bed, a scarlet patch of period blood on her bottom and bedsheet. The photo was part of her university project, which aimed to challenge a taboo without the use of words. It was taken down by Instagram for violating its Terms of Service, which caused uproar and prompted Kaur to write on her Tumblr:
“I will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of a misogynist society that will have my body in underwear but not be okay with a small leak”
Instagram later allowed the photo back up, but this didn’t stop the flood of followers that continued to support Kaur. The poems came out of her need to get things off her chest – she never intended to be a poet. She harnessed that golden combination of well-crafted prose plus beautiful illustrations – a formula now replicated by many. Catchy and Instagrammable, is this the future of poetry?
Her new anthology, entitled ‘the sun and her flowers’ will be released on 3rd October, and now Kaur is building up the anticipation on social media by giving her followers a taste of what to expect. The first poem, ‘the second birth’, was posted 2 days ago (see below).
bees came for honey
flowers giggled as they
for the taking
the sun smiled
Kaur describes it as being a grown-up version of ‘milk and honey’, dealing with themes about refugees, immigration and revolution (partly motivated by the election of Trump), as well as more personal topics such as losing “what you think is the love of your life – and dealing with its raw aftermath,” she told The Observer.
So in answer to the question that’s been thrown around the internet in recent years; is poetry dead? I’d say that poetry is certainly not in any danger of perishing, instead – as we have seen with Kaur and her avid fans – it is breaking into new territory. A digital sphere that is fertile ground for creativity and which is attracting a younger demographic who would not normally be so enthralled with poetry.
The friend who introduced me to Kaur’s poems lives in Canada now. I plan to send her a letter – I just need to find the perfect poem to write inside.