Mainstream poetry has been an alien concept for decades, but a new generation of sassy, topical and social media-savvy poets has found a willing audience…
Even poets used to make jokes about how few people read poetry, but Warsan Shire has achieved something poets rarely used to: her work has found mainstream popularity. Last year, Shire’s profile went stratospheric when Beyoncé used her work on the video album for Lemonade. Between the songs about anger, heartbreak and betrayal, she reads work by Shire including For Women Who Are Difficult To Love, The Unbearable Weight Of Staying (The End Of The Relationship) and Nail Technician As Palm Reader. We’re used to Queen Bey working with A-list collaborators and all-star producers, but here she was championing a poet whose visceral work encompasses – among many things – sexuality, immigration, politics and being a Muslim woman. The Kenyan-born, Somali- British poet is part of a new generation of ‘Instapoets’, writers publishing verse primarily on social media and finding audiences far beyond the usual bookshelves.
Shire, 29, who was London’s first Young Poet Laureate in 2013, has yet to publish a full-length poetry collection, but is already a sensation and has more than 87,000 followers on Twitter. “No one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark,” she wrote in Home, about the life of refugees. “No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” Those lines have been shared thousands of times.
Shire is no exception. Poets have dusted themselves off our shelves and are turning up in the least likely places: on bestseller lists, in music videos, on Instagram and on TV advertising bank accounts for Nationwide or burgers for McDonald’s. London’s poetry It Girl Greta Bellamacina has even turned up in Burberry campaigns (as well as hosting poetry nights for the label). Novelist Kingsley Amis may have flogged Campari back in his day, but when did poets last have this sort of selling power?
The fusty image of the poet is long gone. These new writers are redefining the scene and making it relevant to a fresh generation of readers. Writers such as Rupi Kaur, who has 2.1 million Instagram followers (and whose selfpublished collection Milk And Honey has sold more than 1.4 million copies), and the Mercury Prize-winning poet and rapper Kate Tempest. Book sales reflect this trend: poetry sales have risen by 15% this year (611,990 books by August compared to 531,788 by the same time in 2016). Why now?
“I work in a bookshop and am always surprised by what’s hot,” says Hera Lindsay Bird, a bookseller from New Zealand whose eponymous debut poetry collection was released with great fanfare by Penguin in November.
“I’d like to think it’s because poetry is becoming more democratic, and there are a wider range of voices and subjects out there than ‘Autumn reminds me of my own death and everyone else’s’.”
Bird’s work is an antidote to obscurity. She describes it as “comedic, metaphor-laden love poetry with equal parts exploding helicopters, fields of violets, Nineties sitcom references and dick jokes”. And the ‘traditional’ world approves: Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy picked her as a name to watch (“Without doubt the most arresting and original new young poet, on the page and in performance”).
Bird’s most famous poems include the self-explanatory Keats Is Dead So F*** Me From Behind, which received 50,000 page views in a month when it was posted on the New Zealand website The Spinoff, and Monica, which is about, well, Monica from the TV sitcom Friends. The most exciting new names in poetry are not being discovered by publishers, but by readers online.
Social media has allowed Bird to show her work to people who wouldn’t usually define themselves as poetry readers. Yet social media has also offered her more than just that.
“The kind of poetry I like was actually shaped by the humour and playfulness of social media,” she says. “I always have erratic punctuation and capitalisation in all my poems now, because the way we use punctuation to communicate meaning online is so funny and emotive. I know people have been using experimental punctuation for years in poetry, but Twitter has made grammar funny and fresh and weird again.
“What I like best about poetry is the total freedom of the form. Sometimes a poem will capture a feeling or a moment in time and as long as people love it, that’s enough.”
Not everyone agrees. Writing for the poetry journal PN Review, poet Rebecca Watt recently dismissed Instapoetry as “consumer-driven content” for “instant gratification”.
Bird is having none of it. “There’s this really intense bitterness and anger that comes from certain members of the poetry community when something they think is mediocre becomes popular, and I find the anger both hilarious and disturbing,” she says.
“It’s like yelling at your teenage daughter for preferring Britney Spears to Chopin. I happen to like both Britney Spears and Chopin, and think it’s possible for both to exist at once without hurting anyone. Besides, it’s so boring and entitled to yell at everyone else for not being as enlightened as you. Just be happy that people are reading.”
Yet the power of these Instapoets to reach new audiences for poetry is undeniable. Warsan Shire can broadcast her work to nearly 90,000 Twitter followers and 39,000 Instagram followers; former model Yrsa Daley Ward has 123,000 Instagram followers; while Nayyirah Waheed (author of The Becoming: “be easy./take your time./you are coming/home./to yourself”) has 428,000 followers.
In the past month, several major poetry collections have been released, from Wild Embers by Nikita Gill to A Recipe For Sorcery by Vanessa Kisuule, The Sun And Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur and You Took The Last Bus Home by Brian Bilston, known as the ‘Poet Laureate of Twitter’, who has been pseudonymously posting verse for years.
Social media, says Bilston, has made poetry relevant again: “Something like Twitter, which people are looking at every hour of their day, gives us an opportunity to put poems at the heart of things in a way that books simply can’t. So the poems that go viral are often a response to big happenings in the world.
“There are poets out there – whether old or new – who have said something funny or profound and relevant about it. That placement of a poem in a real-time setting can be really powerful.”
From Allen Ginsberg’s post-war beat poetry to the Jamaican-British dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, people have long expressed politics through poetry. And today is no different.
“Because we live in times that are so mental, we can’t tell a story without it feeling political. Obviously, everything is f***ing crazy”, Kate Tempest told The Guardian.
The poet Andrew McMillan, whose debut collection Physical in 2015 about modern masculinity was the first poetry collection to win The Guardian First Book Award, argues that poetry is thriving right now because it is the only form that can respond swiftly and directly to our times.
“People have always thought of it as this art form that can speak to important moments. Oftentimes, people come to me when they need something for weddings or funerals. Poetry can speak to these big moments. And I think for our generation, we’re living through a time that feels scary. Maybe that’s why they’re coming back to poetry. After all, poetry can respond quickly.”
Such was the case earlier this year when the poet Tony Walsh performed This Is The Place at a vigil for the victims of the Manchester Arena bombing. Walsh’s ode to his city’s rich culture and history had been written in 2015 for the charity Forever Manchester, which funds community activity, but then midway through 2017, it captured the response of the city to the terrorist attack. As Jeanette Winterson put it, poets find “words where there are no words”.
Meanwhile, the performance poetry scene is becoming a cornerstone of the entertainment circuit, with dozens of events taking place in cities across the UK every week.
What’s more, says Murray Lachlan Young, who in the mid-Nineties became the only poet to have signed a £1million publishing deal, “it is not, like so many areas of popular expression, a boys’ club”.
He gives credit to pioneers such as Salena Godden, Joolz Denby and Kate Fox for creating an environment in which “women feel comfortable and empowered”.
“Like any cool ‘new’ scene, it’s built on the fact that people are into it because they are into it,” he says. “Not because they feel there is a guaranteed living in it. And because of that, there isn’t industry control. It’s very underground and DIY… it’s a bit like the culture revolutions of punk, rave and the Sixties.”
Sharmilla Beezmohun, who runs the live speaking events company Speaking Volumes, agrees. Often when people talk about poetry, she argues, they are speaking of “a rarified canon… But there is a world beyond the usual literary establishment.
“The poetry establishment has not been that open to women coming in. Poets like Carol Ann Duffy and Jackie Kay have fought battles over a long time and they have enabled young women to feel today that they can give it a go. Certainly, the current climate is very encouraging to young women and there are lots of female voices being heard.”
And if you want to get started as a poet?
“Just give it a go,” says Young, who argues that the spoken-word scene is more democratic than most other areas of writing or performance.
“You don’t have to have studied an instrument or have particular studio skills to get the work out there,” he says. Whether you’re an amateur or an English grad “you still have the same chance at success”.
What are you waiting for? It’s time to get writing.
The insta-poets you need to know
Need to know: After reading For Women Who Are Difficult To Love, Beyoncé used Shire’s poetry to staggering effect in her visual album, Lemonade.
Find the work: Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth (£4, Mouthmark) is available to buy online.
Need to know: The former model’s poetry makes even the darkest, most vulnerable aspects of human existence seem beautiful, with tales of depression, relationships, anxiety and self-care.
Find the work: Her collection Bone (£9.99, Penguin) is out now.
Need to know: Exploring everything from beauty ideals to ugly intimacies of relationships, this poet, filmmaker and model isn’t afraid to confront difficult subjects.
Find the work: The collection Smear (£10, New River Press), edited by Bellamacina, is out now.
Need to know: The Canadian hit headlines after Instagram removed ‘visual poetry’ showing her bleeding through her pyjama bottoms.
Find the work: Her anthology The Sun And Her Flowers (£12.99, Simon & Schuster) was released in October.
Need to know: The New Zealander behind poems such as Keats Is Dead So F*** Me From Behind deals with love, darkness and Nineties sitcoms with surreal wit and emotion.
Find the work: Her first published collection Hera Lindsay Bird (£9.99, Penguin) is out now.
Need to know: The writer and burlesque artist looks at womanhood and self-esteem. She also does rap battles under the moniker ‘Shonda Rhymez’.
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Words: Fiona Wilson, Lizzie Pook
Main image: Sandrachile