Unpopular opinion: I don’t like the minimalist poetry that’s all over Instagram and Tumblr and is now being turned into books.
I’m talking about those 3-7 line pieces that usually talk about love, loss, and womanhood.
I’m not against the things they talk about. I’m not against poems posted on Tumblr or Instagram. I’m also not against short, minimalist, or experimental poetry. There are plenty of beautiful poems that fall under those categories.
What Beyoncé Won’t Say on a Shrink’s Couch (Morgan Parker)
what if I said I’m tired
and they heard wrong
said sing it
The opening line of Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth (Warsan Shire):
I have my mother’s mouth and my father’s eyes; on my face they are still together.
What I am against are the poems that are so easy to read that they become emotionally inaccessible. The ones so focused on “the message” and trying to be witty that they become vague abstractions or clichés. When these poems do include something concrete, the images are often recycled ones I see everywhere else on Instagram.
The taste of salt, honey, water, and mango have been shoved in my mouth so often that I don’t understand what they mean to the specific writer or what they add to the poem.
Perhaps my disdain for this kind of poetry stems from the fact that I study writing and am taught to be critical of what I read. But even before I started college, I knew something was wrong when I read these poems and felt nothing afterward. This is not the same reaction I have to the poems I read in class or even to the two above. Those poems punch me in the gut because, even though they’re saying something I know already, they say it in a unique way while still making me feel like wow, they hit that feeling right on the spot.
Neither of the poems I listed above is hard to read.
But both do require some amount of effort to think about. They’re not the most accessible things in our minds simply because they aren’t relying on what we’ve already heard.
Isn’t that what poetry is all about? Expressing the inexpressible through creative images and comparisons.
Isn’t poetry the expression of your entire working memory (initial thoughts, reactions, clichés, images) all combined and revised to make something original? The difference between bad and good poetry is the deliberation after all of your instinctive writing in order to get the point across more powerfully.
William Carlos Williams, known for his experimental and minimalist poetry, has a famous phrase that goes, “No ideas but in things.” That is also the first thing they teach in poetry classes: focus on the concrete to ground your abstract ideas. Don’t rely lean on clichés. The phrase, “sweet as honey” means nothing when it’s used too often. My poetry professor, Jericho Brown, often says in class that a poet’s goal is to write something so accurate that it becomes the cliché.
The lack of originality with these poets is further evidenced by the fact that we can’t even tell what’s plagiarism and what’s not anymore. The poems all say the same things in the same way, and in the same format (lower caps, no punctuation, title at the bottom like a signature, minimalist sketches to the side). When poetry is supposed to take your voice, the fact that everyone sounds the same is disheartening.
I can’t deny the fact that this type of poetry is so popular.
My guess is that the way we use social media is the reason for this. We go on Instagram to scroll quickly. When we’re forced to like, comment, read, and absorb so much on our newsfeed, we experience media overload. We don’t have much time or energy to read long captions or complex poetry. Instagram poets offer the perfect solution by giving us short, easy poetry that still makes us feel like we’re reading something deep.
My point here isn’t to shut writers down or say the only poetry that should be written is difficult poetry. My real issue is the fact that these minimalist poems are treated as top-notch while other talented writers like Rita Dove, Adrienne Rich, and Solmaz Sharif (who are all well-known in the writing world) are overlooked by the mainstream.
I’m happy people are at least reading and being impacted by words. It’s time, though, to move on to better writing.
We need to embrace poems that get at the crux of humanity and make your stomach churn.