The young Canadian poet understands better than most of her contemporaries how future generations will read.
Rupi Kaur has published two books: 2015’s Milk and Honey, 2017’s The Sun and Her Flowers. Her epigrammatic verse is spare, the offspring of classical aphorism (if you’re feeling generous) and the language of self-help. The poems have a confessional, earnest manner; disarmingly full of feeling, they can be easy to dismiss. Nevertheless, Rupi Kaur, a Canadian poet who is not yet 30 years old, is the writer of the decade.
Kaur’s writing is not itself to my taste. She writes, in “the breaking”:
did you think i was a city
big enough for a weekend getaway
i am the town surrounding it
the one you’ve never heard of
but always pass through
Beyond the affectation of the lowercase letters, I find the metaphor impenetrable—the speaker is … a suburb? Further, I’m not an especial fan of the line drawings (they look like outsider art) that often accompany her poetry.
But Kaur’s achievement as an artist is the extent to which her work embodies, formally, the technology that defines contemporary life: smartphones and the internet. (Perhaps you could say the same of the novels now considered classics that were originally published serially in newspapers.) I’d argue that many of the writers currently being discussed as the most significant of the last decade write in direct opposition to the pervasive influence of the internet. Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk, and Ben Lerner (to name but three of our best) are interested in the single analog consciousness as a filter through which to see the world. If you think their experiment is the most important of the last 10 years, you’re probably (sorry) old.
The next generation of readers and writers views reality through a screen. Kaur, born in 1992, was 15 when the iPhone debuted. The majority of her readers have never known adulthood without that gizmo’s mitigating influence. On Instagram, Kaur doesn’t just share selfies and drawings; she publishes. Kaur’s books have sold more than 3.5 million copies, an incredible number for any poet but the more remarkable when you consider that surely some percentage of her readership has never owned one of those books.
Popularity does not generally correlate to artistic significance, but Kaur’s is an unusual case. That her work crumbles under traditional critical scrutiny is not really the point. There are readers who will forever think of Kaur as the first poet they loved. Even if they outgrow her—as is inevitable: I can no longer bear Salinger or Kerouac or Auster or many of the writers I adored as a younger reader—the lines in Milk and Honey will be a common text for the fortysomethings of 2035.
This is a different matter from a shared pop culture touchstone, such as Top 40 songs or sitcoms. The mantle of poet accords Kaur a kind of legitimacy, as it always has; you could write about her work for your college application essay. Readers who know about poetry might think Kaur’s work is dumb; those for whom Kaur is their first exposure to the medium think it profound. It doesn’t matter if you believe that title of poet belongs only to the likes of Wallace Stevens or Gwendolyn Brooks. Kaur has seized it for herself.
And she deserves it. Kaur cannily understands the contradiction that we want technology—in this case, a very powerful computer—to connect us to real people. She uses her verse, her drawings, her photographs, to give us persona, which is the next-best thing, and also an age-old poetic technique. It is easy for some readers (snobs like me) to dismiss Kaur’s self-representation as posture, or performance. I think this reflects a mostly generational divide. But can’t you imagine a younger Anne Sexton taking a selfie, or Elizabeth Bishop sharing a snapshot of the sea?
Kaur’s verse is compact in part because she’s thinking within the parameters of a smartphone screen, which is not that radical when you consider that many poetic forms are about artificial constraint. Think of hers as an Oulipian project. I also feel she’s onto something: The canonical poetry most likely to endure the next century is the one that can fit comfortably within the glowing window we spend so much of our time gazing into.
Technology has already trained us to read differently, which in turn has started to change the literature. The Crying Book, a recent nonfiction work by Heather Christle (also a poet), is organized into perfect swipe-size snippets of text. It doesn’t cohere as an argument so much as it overwhelms (maybe, alas, bores), like the internet’s infinite scroll. You can lament the death of the transitional sentence if you like; I’d say you should expect much more work like this.
A couple of decades ago, a handful of the avant-garde wanted a prose that assumed the shape—synaptic, irregular—of hypertext. That work remains mostly experimental (which is to say, a niche concern). Kaur’s poetry does something similar, but the experiment was a success. I was forced to read Robert Frost as a schoolboy and understood poetry to be metaphoric musing; Kaur’s young readers want to engage with her work, and will expect a poetry of brevity and brute feeling. They might enjoy Frost, but they’d also like an Instagram of those woods on a snowy evening. And Kaur (and her descendants) will deliver.
Kaur has used her own tools—her phone, her body and face (it doesn’t hurt that Kaur is strikingly beautiful), her sketches—to dismantle the master’s house: Many American readers consider a young woman of color our most prominent poet. Even if I think they’re wrong, it’s hard not to be thrilled by this fact.
A decade is an arbitrary thing, but the one now ending gave us remarkable writing. The artistry and sustained off-line attentions of Knausgaard, Cusk, and Lerner; the intimate multivolume epics of Elena Ferrante and the curiously under-discussed Jane Smiley; more singular and lovely novels than I could ever list here. Those are a matter of the past. I don’t know if we’ll be reading Rupi Kaur a decade or two hence, but I suspect we’ll be reading as she taught us to.
Originally published in New Republic