A year ago today I picked up a copy of Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey in a Waterstones in Cambridge. I read it cover-to-cover without sitting and — admittedly — without purchasing it. I was intrigued, but, when I closed it and placed it back on its display, I realized that the fascination I’d felt with Kaur’s poetry was no different than the sensual interest I might have felt for a moody text post on Pinterest or Tumblr.
Now, I am thrilled to see poets gaining recognition at this level. Miss Kaur’s books are New York Times Bestsellers and clearly they speak to a lot of hurting people. I am pleased to see them promoting empathy in their expression of sensitive subjects such as emotional and sexual abuse. However, as a literary critic, I must raise some concerns.
Are these poems surviving on their merit as well-crafted works of art? Or, conversely, are they selling because of their sensualism and apparent relevance? Can we expect them to endure the test of time to rest beside the Dickensons, the Frosts, Eliots, and Wordsworths?
Perhaps it is unfair to ask that final question. I like to consider myself a fair poet, but I am also realistic; I am no literary giant and my poetry will not likely be studied in schools or mounted on plaques. Still, though, I think it is a duty of discernment to consider whether modern poetry such as Rupi Kaur’s is actually succeeding due to its artistic merit or whether it simply appeals to the emotionalism and liberalism of the current age.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote:
Free verse is like free love; it is a contradiction in terms.
I understand the thrust of this statement. Free love denies the fidelity of monogamy, the bonds of family, and the commitment of friendship. An idea that sounds like the multiplication of a good thing (love), in actuality leads to a devaluing of its virtue. Without a sense of consent, commitment, and collaboration within a loving relationship, there is no security and envy, competition, guilt, and distrust will inevitably rear their ugly heads. Free love in this sense is no longer love.
Applying this idea to poetry is, on the surface, a pleasing parallel. Without structure, a poet might think she has more freedom. However, these very boundaries are what force creative problem-solving, clever turns-of-phrase, and focused expression. Shakespeare’s sonnets might have been written without their characteristic structure, but they would have become a formless, romantic soup rather than the noble, innovative works of literary architecture we know today.
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate” could never have endured had Shakespeare taken a more Rupi Kaur-esque approach and penned something along the lines of:
You were the summer
hot and wet:
Now, this is a poor translation between styles and it sorely abused the subject matter. But doesn’t it feel almost painfully forced? The lack of structure made the poem spineless, all emotion and self-expression and with no creative, rational thought or construction.
In this, I can understand Chesterton’s point. Without the commitment to structure and poetic rules, there is less of a chance of the poem making objective sense; it becomes too subjective to be understood and to endure beyond the self and those like that self. It becomes like free love: a delicious idea that is not built to withstand the hard truth that human beings crave consistency and order.
However, I do believe there is a unique beauty and purpose to free verse poetry. Free love in the sense of love without any sense of confines or commitment is certainly an idea doomed to fall into license, but love that operates solely by rules and requirements becomes legalism. The heart of it will either be poisoned by total freedom or hardened by lack of genuine affection.
This brings us to the idea of poetic license, which might more properly be defined as poetic love. For the love of the poem, a poet chooses to follow structure to support its subject, but also to deviate from that structure when necessary to support the poem’s affection. In this, both reason and emotion are given enough elbow room, and are brought into cooperation with each other. For the love of this literary art, we poets must carefully and intentionally choose where we will follow the rules to give our poem a sturdy skeleton and where we will bend them to make its flesh more alluring.
This can, believe it or not, be accomplished in both the strictest of sonnets as well as the most seemingly free of verse. However, sonnets must sometimes compromise an exact rhyme here or a little inflection there to avoid becoming mechanical, whereas free verse must invoke some sort of internal structure to prevent becoming a milksop.
I can think of no better example of this than T.S. Eliot, who is a master of metaphor and theme and uses both as unifying devices so that even the most abstract of verses retain a resounding echo of purpose, sense, and decision. There is not a half-hearted word or phrase to be found in Eliot.
For the sake of ease, however, I will use a collection of my own poems as an example. A few years ago, I wrote my first collection of free verse poetry based on the healings in the Gospel of Mark. (These can be found at https://inkarnationpress.com/2019/07/10/immediately-eight-poems-on-the-gospel-of-mark/)
As a dogmatic, conservative soul, I admit that free verse has always made me uncomfortable. (Sylvia Plath and I have just now started to get along, whereas good ‘ole Robert Frost and I have been childhood friends.) However, the sense of spontaneity — of utter brokenness being drawn back into wholeness and life — in these stories of healing demanded freer form.
Still, these are stories of disorder being reordered in Christ, so it would have been almost blasphemous to write them without any sense of structure. Stealing from the scriptures, I employed the recurring word “immediately,” as well as the inherent parallelism found in the gospel accounts to stitch my poems together and give them both arc and depth.
There is value in poems such as Rupi Kaur’s in that they provide their poets a way of healing, just as writing my Mark collection was an exercise in devotion and wholeness. However, what is lacking in these popular poems is a sense of internal unity and apparent structure. Themes of brokenness and resilience are found throughout, but is that enough? Within the individual poems, I only seem to find random line breaks and sentences that would have made more sense left in a single line and pasted across an angsty Pinterest photo. It seems that the raw thrust of Kaur’s emotion is the only thing keeping her books selling. And, just as in love, that first burst of emotion cannot endure. As in any relationship, mutual understanding and effort are what produce lasting love. It is the same with poetry, which is so often born of love. Without a skeleton, flesh will eventually fold away; it is easy to write superficial, fleshy verses, while constructing and beautifying a skeleton meant to last takes skill that I am yet practicing.
For instance, I scribbled this fleshy bit of poetry in the span of a second:
I never said come in
I’m not even sure what it’s about, but it feels sensual enough to sell if I were to slap a badly drawn broken heart on it. In contrast, to write a sonnet of brokenness is not only to express the hurt, but to rebuild it into something ordered and beautiful. A lament is a far cry from a complaint. (Consider the Psalms, which are authentic in brokenness, but continually return to order and trust.)
Poetry today is often used to express anger, sorrow, and ache and I do not want to devalue this vulnerability. It takes courage. It takes widening wounds to share them with others and this opens doors for empathy. In this, modern poetry such as Rupi Kaur’s is potentially helpful. However, art is — at least for the Christian — fundamentally about order; it is about expressing, but also recreating and reorganizing. Writing broken lines and hastily-scribbled complaints may have value as self-expression, but without returning — both literally and literarily— to a balance of emotion and reason, heart and mind, there is little hope for redemption in both poem and poet.