the anatomy of a poet
rambles on language, process, and the death of genre
Click here to read this essay on Substack.
Many years ago now, a friend, let’s call her Jay, shipped me a book for my birthday. “These words have brought me much comfort these last months,” she inscribed on the inside cover, “and I hope they do the same for you.” At the time, the book was at the top of best sellers lists and had sold millions of copies worldwide. I had seen it on the shelves of my school’s library, on my friend’s Instagram feeds––if Jay hadn't have sent it to me, I’m sure I eventually would have bought it myself. The book in question was called milk & honey by Rupi Kaur.
Rupi Kaur has a bit of a mixed legacy as far as writers go. Born in Hoshiarpur, India and later a Canadian resident, Kaur wrote, illustrated and self-published her first poetry collection, milk and honey, as a 21-year-old university student. She has since written two other collections, which have both sold millions of copies and debuted on bestseller lists across the world. Despite her work’s critical acclaim, Kaur has turned into somewhat of a pariah in recent years, with many calling her writing simplistic or commercial. If you Google “Rupi Kaur,” just as many memes come up as sincere renderings of her art.
I’m not a die hard fan of Kaur’s; I never did more than skim the copy Jay gifted me. And yet, her legacy continues to intrigue me. I think Kaur offers us an excellent case study on the pitfalls of writing as a woman, and especially a woman of color. To cater towards a market that is hungry for stories, certain stories, of femininity and diaspora, but to do so in a way that doesn’t label you cliché or cringe is a difficult task that at times feels impossible. As a Black woman who writes on these themes often, I know this trap first hand. Lately, as I’ve devoted myself to experimenting in my work––trying out new language, style, and branching into newer areas of interests––I’ve grown ever more stymied by Kaur’s cautionary tale. How is it that a writer can be so loved––her work topping best seller lists, inundating social media––and so mocked, dismissed, and hated all at once? To me it seems that Rupi Kaur is the result of a culture that needs poetry desperately and is ashamed of it.
In his seminal text, Poetics, published circa 355 BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle provides what is commonly referred to as the first written example of literary theory. In his work, the scholar argues that literature can be divided into three categories––verse drama, lyric poetry, and epic––depending on differences in rhythm, harmony, meter, character, and narration. (Lyric poems, for example, are a “formal type” of poetry typically written “in the first person.”) Aristotle’s text becomes the first characterization of literary “genre,” a category that is still widely used to define all forms of writing today. Since Aristotle’s time, the English language has steadily been chopped into smaller and smaller pieces. The Pulitzer Foundation, for example, currently divides literature into five categories––drama, history, biography, poetry, non-fiction––though in other circles the categorizations are even more vast. These divisions sometimes prove useful, but are more often used as a distraction, a byproduct of what I like to call The Flattening. Under capitalism, the mechanism that birthed genre and continues to uphold it as a marketing tool, we are encouraged to undergo a flattening of every aspect of our lives: to make flat the body, to drive dull the senses, to lay still the spirit, to wipe blank the mind. Genre is a flattening of literary expression, yes, but it is also a diminishment of the vastness of language: to Aristotle, and to many others in the West, if language does not fit into these arbitrary categories, then it has no right to exist at all.
Poetry is often categorized by it’s aesthetic considerations––a half sentence here, nature metaphor there––but what ultimately separates poetry from other genres is not structure but sensibility. In her classic 1977 essay, “Poetry Is Not A Luxury,” the prolific queer Black poet Audre Lorde defined poetry not as a genre, but an emotional sensation. “I speak here of poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience,” she writes, “not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word ‘poetry’ to mean in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.” Historically, poetry has been an art form championed by the marginalized, and particularly by Black people. Throughout the 1800s, enslaved Black folks like George Moses Horton and Phillis Wheatley wrote and published poetry collections documenting their experiences with slavery and their love for Black culture. That both these people, who wrote during a time when it was illegal to teach Black folks to read, were still able to produce this work tells us that poetry is not defined by words alone but by the poet’s relationship to language. “Writers are obliged, at some point, to realize they are involved in a language which they must change,” writer and poet James Baldwin once said in 1979. “And for a Black writer in this country to be born into the English language is to realize the assumptions on which the language operates are his enemy.” Poetry destroys language, undoes it completely. Places the unchanging, unforgiving rigor of English under a hot sun until stone melts away to reveal a liquid softness that is warm to the touch. A poem splits language wide open.
A few years ago, when I was still in school, I started an Instagram page specifically dedicated to sharing my weird, experimental writing. Like all of my creative projects, it quickly became an obsession. I would write over morning coffee, muse through the afternoon, and post poems and prose on that Instagram nearly every day. I don’t quite know what I was searching for when I started that page––whether I was trying to find an audience for my writing, or just the will to create–– but strangely, as soon as I started gaining a following, I deleted the entire account in a panic. The writing itself was cathartic for me, but the perception was hugely overwhelming. Looking back at that time, I realize that though I wanted to write poems, I did not want to be known as a poet.
To be anti capitalist is to interrogate, constantly, the things we were taught to love and hate. If poetry is not a luxury, if it has the power to melt English to bare bones, then why, one might wonder, would the word ‘poet’ make so many roll their eyes? Why did I erase an archive so I would not be seen as one? Creativity is often tied to the feminine, and therefore to the infantile. I did not want to be a poet because I did not want to be a woman and did not want to be a child. This is an instinct that’s born inside all of us and slowly festers over time. When spectacles like that of Rupi Kaur occur, our fears and premonitions––that poetry is ugly, that creativity is a shame, that it is better to be silent than make art that’s loud and wrong––are proven correct. I was so young then, not much younger than Kaur when she wrote her first book, and so easily swayed by public tide; I deleted my poems out of fear that I too would be thought untalented, or undeserving, or some wretched combination of too sensitive and not self aware. To be a woman on the internet, I’ve learned, is to perform vulnerability but carefully, and quietly. To mix in sensitivity with other, louder traits––cynicism, sarcasm, hyper sexuality––so as not to be seen as hysterical, or worse––annoying. I am constantly afraid that if I fuck up the balance, not only would men stop taking me seriously––as a writer, and a person––but other women might turn on me too. This is not the way to be an internet darling. Get it the fuck together. Don’t make us look bad. The poet and novelist Fariha Roisin addressed this delicate dance in a recent essay. “We mirror and cycle abuse by using tactics that men use against us,” Roisin said. “This usually requires a demonization of things considered more feminine: sensitivity, care, emotions, and by doing so we gaslight someone’s own intuition, and self-knowledge, to make them question themselves at the very foundation of their being. The violence done is so innocuous, what’s left is just an unsettling feeling, like the remnants of an invisible hand on one’s throat.” This hand on my throat––that bastardized my earnestness, turned my softness into lead––was invisible, was another’s, and was my own.
When people ask me what I “do” I often say I am a journalist. This word is accurate but ugly, much like a good deal of journalism itself. In America, at least, journalists are often encouraged to pick a “beat,” or a topic they wish to write about intensely and indefinitely–– labor, sports, elections, and so on. When I was younger, I would speak to more experienced journalists who assured me that the more I reported, and the longer I was in the field, I would eventually find the beat that’s right for me. The longer I stay in media though, and the more I write and write and write, the more deeply sure I am that I don’t ever want to pick a beat. To write for profit in America is to entertain the false narrative that culture can’t be politics and politics can’t be art and poetry can’t be fiction and fiction can’t be culture. It requires an embrace of genre as a legitimate rubric, as a numbing machine for the masses. Poetry, meanwhile, cannot be distinguished by structure, form, or sound. It is instead defined by mission. “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am,” wrote Lorde. “The Black mother within each of us - the poet - whispers: I feel, therefore I can be free.”
The same year that I started the poetry Instagram, I took an introductory creative writing course where we read exclusively white male poets, many of whom, in my opinion, had thoughts much more cringey and uninteresting than that of Rupi Kaur. My professor, who was also an old white man, was generous with his praise but not his introspection. He would often make comments on our work that were nice, but brusquely disinterested. Once, during a peer review, my professor looked at the collection of writing strewn on my desk, wiped the sweat from his brow, and declared: “Mary’s work has an investment in the syllabic economy.” This, I suspect, is as close to an affirmation I can expect from my white male instructor, who had so deeply internalized the “I think, therefore I am” mantra that he could not fathom the value of art beyond his own comfort or life experience. Despite his vague, robotic comments, my professor made some points––I do think about syllables, and commas, how each dance alone and with each other. To me writing is contemplatively physical: I am pacing, I am humming, I tap my fingers on cool wood, and I put pen to page. Every sentence is a poem when you breathe deep enough. If my chest is full, my work is done.
I’ve had an art print hanging on my wall for years that my friend Megan made. It reads, “all my friends are artists. Making art is our destiny.” I keep this print close to remind myself that even though I paint with words, I am making art, I am making poetry, because I want to write things that make people feel, that make their chest full, that undoes the Flattening we’ve been forced to accept as inevitable. The truth is, I could never publish the type of things I write here in a real magazine; no one would pay me for it, because it doesn’t fit into “genre.” Because it prioritizes feeling over form. Because there is no logic to the words on this page, and I never know the truth until I’ve written it down. And yet this work, this poetry, sustains me. May we make art that feels true even if people cringe. May bad poems be louder than silence.
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