Naming one poet as the ‘poet of the decade’, or writing lists of poets to watch, can arguably be an arbitrary act. But, the naming does inevitably draw more interest to those poets as we consume the easily digestible content and assume that it must have some bearing on those who made it. As a poet myself, I have seen many lists (looking for my own name as well as potential feature acts for my show, She Grrrowls), and most of these lists do offer some great poets to watch. However, the number of people considering poetry professionally is inevitably growing, and there are always going to be extremely talented poets that don’t get the recognition they deserve.
Recently, reflecting on the end of a decade and the beginning of a new one, Canadian poet Rupi Kaur was named ‘Poet of the Decade’ by The New Republic. Kaur has been a divisive poet, so it is a controversial choice that has provoked debate, with many quick to offer their opinion, possibly without even reading the article. The author Rumaan Alam admits that they don’t actually like Kaur’s work – the acknowledgement of taste better than others’ dismissal of it – but still argues that she is the poet of the decade due to ‘extent to which her work embodies, formally, the technology that defines contemporary life: smartphones and the internet.’ The point the author seems to be making is not that Kaur is the best poet from those years, but that she is historically representative of the time period and has left an impact, inspiring future poets. But it’s worth noting that Kaur is not the only poet embracing contemporary technology – I believe the work of poets such as Warsan Shire also shows the influence of the internet, purely because she managed to make her way all the way from London (via her place of birth, Kenya), to her words featuring in Beyoncé’s film Lemonade. For those of us writing poetry as children and listening to Destiny’s Child from the 90s and into the 00s, what more could you hope for?
There is a place for this poetry, and whilst she might not be my favourite poet, I still enjoy some of her work, admire the success she has had from it, and hope that her popularity can translate to a wider appreciation of poetry.
It was my younger cousin who first introduced me to Kaur, as with nearly a decade between us, we have come to poetry as we know it through slightly different angles, with hers seeming to be more influenced by the internet, and mine by live events. When I first read her work, I did find Kaur’s poetry simplistic, but I also definitely dog-eared a few corners as I picked out favourites that moved me emotionally. I bought her other book. There is a place for this poetry, and whilst she might not be my favourite poet, I still enjoy some of her work, admire the success she has had from it, and hope that her popularity can translate to a wider appreciation of poetry.
Most criticism of Kaur can often be labelled as classist and sexist, with many claiming that her work is dismissed by an older, more traditional elite due to her main audience being young women and her poetry being easily accessible. This accessibility therefore means that many can relate and connect to the words, giving her the widespread appeal that has been cultivated through social media and her own image and brand, as well as a distinctive artistic style.
However, there must be room for critique, and the biggest criticism that stands against Kaur receiving the title is the accusation of copying Nayyirah Waheed. Kaur had previously cited Waheed as an inspiration, yet refuted the claim of plagiarism. On one hand, the similarities may not be strong enough to be certain of plagiarism, but on the other, as Una Dabiero states, ‘while its important to celebrate Rupi Kaur as a Woman of Color who achieved great creative success, it is also important to remember [that] feminism requires us to consider intersections of privilege’, stating this issue is rooted in anti-blackness. Naming Rupi Kaur as the poet of the decade will, we can only hope, go beyond an Instagram feed and mean that poetry is not just a fad, but an art form here to stay both in the mainstream and in all the nooks and crannies most other art forms enjoy.
Featured image: Baljit Singh [CC BY-SA]
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