Instagram and the Commercialization of Poetry

Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on Sunday, August 25, 2019, in the Inlandia Institute’s weekly column.

Instagram poetry might be the most hotly debated topic in literature today. For the last few years, citing a boom in book sales, outlets like The Atlantic, the Guardian, and Publishers Weekly have regularly proclaimed the social media platform to be the savior of poetry. “Traditional” poets have either professed a sanguine agreement or fired back with scathing reviews and parody accounts.

Whatever the response, Instapoetry is something to be reckoned with. As I write this, 7 of the top 20 bestselling books of poetry on Amazon were written by Instagram poets, and none of the other authors—Homer, Mary Oliver, Maya Angelou—are contemporary in the literal sense.

They’re all dead.

One of the top 20, the poet and musician David Berman, died just last week, and just this week became a bestselling poet, I assume, for the first time. The message to poets seems clear. If you want to be commercially successful, there are two options: be dead or be on Instagram.

Needless to say, that isn’t a message poets want to hear.

With an open mind, though, we’ve spent the last year exploring Instapoetry for this summer’s issue of Rattle. Over a decade ago, we did the same with slam poetry while it remained controversial among publishers and found much to admire on that stage, so I thought we should try the same with Instagram.

For those unfamiliar with it, Instagram was designed as a social media app that allows people to quickly optimize and stylize smartphone photos to a quality that mimics professional photography, and then share them with friends and followers. Eventually users started sharing aspirational quotes and other text along with the photos and adding longer captions—features which lend themselves well to short-form and visual poetry.

In preparing the summer issue, we received submissions from over 1,000 self-described Instagram poets. We also allowed each of them to recommend other Instagram poets, and we scoured hashtags and media articles, trying to read as much as we could.

Having scrolled through thousands of accounts, it might be true that I’ve now read more Instapoetry than anyone in the world, and I’ve come to this conclusion: Instapoetry just isn’t poetry—at least not in the way that I’ve always conceived of poetry.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t creative or artistic, or that it’s lacking in value. That doesn’t mean there aren’t poets on Instagram or poetic elements involved. But poems and Instapoems are different objects on a fundamental and irreconcilable level. They’re different actions, in different directions, with different motivations.

Elizabeth Bishop was talking about poetry when she called art the act of “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” What she meant was that poetry is a meditative form of aimless exploration. It’s a door to the inward unknown and to the mysteries of our existence. The word “poetry” itself comes from the Greek poiesis, “a made thing.” A poem is a mantra, a “mind-tool,” that makes meaning out of the chaos of human experience. Poetry is the creation of an associative empathy machine, forged on human breath, which illuminates the limits of our awareness.

Instagram poetry is the exact opposite. It’s self-aware and entirely useful. It is designed to sell and so it sells. It’s not exploration, but expression. Rather than poiesis, it is mimos, “to mimic,” or better the Latin mirari, “to look at and admire.” Rather than a door to new meaning, it’s a mirror held up to the reader, reflecting and rendering beautifully back what the reader already knows and wanted to express.

For example, this recent post by Atticus is typical of his style:

If I conquered all my demons
there wouldn’t be much left of me.

The two line aphorism doesn’t have 40,000 “likes” in spite of it being a cliché—it has 40,000 likes because it’s a cliché. It’s the memorable re-articulation of a cliché that we can all relate to and appreciate.

There is value in that. And there is skill and craft involved in its construction. There is, sometimes, even poetry—but the poetry is tangential in the same way poetry is tangential to music. Some music includes poetry, but it doesn’t have to in order to be music. The poesis, the meaning making itself, isn’t the point.

In the same way that some great musicians are also great lyricists, there are many Instagram poets who are also “real” poets. We had no problem filling an issue with interesting Instapoems, but there was no correlation between there poetic quality and their popularity.

In the process of putting this issue together, I met and interviewed Pavana Reddy, a kind of Leonard Cohen, who does a marvelous job of successfully navigating both worlds.

Reddy has tens of thousands of followers online, but has also published two books, Rangoli and Where Do You Go Alone, that genuinely are doors to the unknown. In her candid interview, she acknowledges both the strengths and limitations of Instagram:

“For Instagram as a way to make any kind of profit, I’ve learned that you need to write for that audience, as much as you don’t want to. It’s funny, sometimes I’ll post poems to see what the reaction will be … and it could be a good poem, but people would rather hear me tell them they’re magic.”

People are magic. And it’s important that we be reminded of that as often as possible.

But to remind is an act of reflection, not creation. Once we understand that distinction, the controversy about Instapoetry begins to unravel. Instapoetry sells more than traditional poetry because it isn’t poetry—it’s something different altogether, something with much more commerical appeal. And it’s no coincidence that the dominant publisher of Instapoets, Andrews McMeel, isn’t a literary publisher—it’s best known for its comics, puzzles, and gift books

Later in the interview, Reddy shares her excellent and concise definition of poetry as “making a story out of a moment.” She goes on, “You can unpack any moment so many different ways, and that’s what I like to do. It’s kind of a relaxing time; I can go to work and come back and unwind by thinking about the story.” In other words, she writes for that self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration that Elizabeth Bishop described.

That’s why Pavana Reddy is both a poet and an Instapoet.

For those interested in learning more about Instagram Poetry, Reddy is hosting a workshop on September 28th as part of this year’s Wrightwood Literary Festival.

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