We all know instapoets. Now, their writing has expanded beyond the screen. Enter any bookstore and embrace the full physicality of a serif font with minimalist illustrations. Hold a tactile paper book in your hands and pore over pages of tragic, heartbreak poetry.
"I could be the next Lang Leav," my friend told me over lunch. "I could do it. All I’d need to do is take any paragraph of sappy, angst-ridden writing and add enjambments. Everywhere."
Even in Singapore, we have our very own social media influencer, Nicole Choo, who has published her own collection of poetry titled "Nineteen". According to her YouTube video, the publishing process went like this: Her friend's mother is a publisher (Ed note: Nineteen is published by Bubbly Books, a publisher primarily of children’s titles), and that her "best... and favourite subject is literature".
In the lead up to the launch, she posted snippets from her book on her Instagram account. On one of these posts, Instagram user colourpastries commented that the poem was “lyrical and superficial”, to which Choo replied that she had studied literature and “don’t think there’s any rules to literature so either love it or hate it, may not be for you [sic] but speaks to someone else.”
A scathing reply by user nicolewengg followed. Quite accurately, it encapsulated the stirring discontent, amplifying the murmurs into a strongly-worded shout (worth 39 likes) – that the standards and benchmarks of publishing have plummeted with the rise of social media poets. “It’s so damn rude to downplay literature like that if you’ve never majored in lit," she writes. "People who’ve spent years of analysing and doing what they love with passion, only for you to brush it off like it’s something any Tom, Dick, or Harry can do.” Here’s her parting line, in all its glory: “Everyone can write a poem, but not everyone can be a poet.”
There are thousands of writers out there who slog for years, sending their works in to hundreds of literary magazines. They face hundreds of rejections in return. In the face of instapoets or social media influencers with thousands of adoring followers lapping up every line they put out, this seems like sheer futility. One has to wonder: is it the struggle and the grind that solidifies you as a true, authentic Poet? Do you only become A Poet after throwing tens of thousands of dollars into an MFA? (And really, isn't that a luxury in this financial climate?)
Perhaps it’s naive to conclude with absolute certainty that social media is a medium which waters down the purity of poetry, a place where digital writers rehash the same stale and insipid themes over and over again. Maybe it's old fashioned, considering how even in the US itself, agents and publishers singularly receive between 12,000-24,000 submissions per year, and there are "literally thousands of agents and publishers". The margin of work which makes it to the printing press is narrow. Does it matter how shallow and puerile your poetry is perceived to be by literary students and critics if all you want is to let your voice be heard?
There will never be one definite way to quantify which strain of poetry is the best, and no means to dictate what should be critically acclaimed other than approval from the masses. What is poetry, exactly? What determines the authenticity or the greatness of a piece? If I look at one of Gertrude Stein's most famous pieces, Sacred Emily:
Night town a glass.
Color mahogany center.
Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
Page ages page ages page ages.
Wiped Wiped wire wire.
Sweeter than peaches and pears and cream.
Wiped wire wiped wire.
I could say that the repetition of the word "rose" or "page" gives it endless meaning. I could say she was playing with the form to make a point, to be deliberately opaque and to force the reader into acknowledging the arbitrary nature of the English language. I am taking a lot of liberties here, considering that 1) I am not her, and 2) I do not know her. But even if I was, even if I did, what is essential is that everything is open to interpretation. That is something which most social media poets lack. Honestly, literary themes get rehashed over and over through centuries. There’s a good reason for this – they’re relatable. Everyone gets them instantly. For one, who hasn’t been in the throes of heartbreak? Even Nicole’s collection is packed with this trope. That would be fine, if her discourse were repackaged cleverly at all. “If I could choose to be happy, I would,” she writes, “But the best poems come from the heartbroken, the lonely, the ones who wish they never existed.” In this elementary relaying of feelings, one is left feeling as though they’re listening to a banal reading of the narrator’s diary. Everyone knows your secrets the way I do, the reader concludes. You and I, we don’t share anything special. I don’t discover new, personal meaning in your writing. I don’t find any interpretations which would make perfect sense to me but elude any other reader on the street.
Everyone has a different perception of what a great piece of poetry should be. While I am not (and adamantly refuse to) downplay the struggle of a poet who chooses the "old fashioned" route of publishing, ultimately we’re all just people who want to be heard and validated. Ultimately, I'm a nobody. And so are you. And so are all of us. We are just people writing things. The difference lies in the words. No matter how big of an audience you garner, it matters that you allow readers to come away with something fresh, something personal. Something they can call their own.