by Tim Sweeney
You’ve read it, seen it posted and re-posted, you may have “liked” it, and hopefully you haven’t bought it, because you could get more fulfillment and inspiration from a box of chicken lo-mein and a fortune cookie. I’m talking about Instagram poetry. More specifically, I’m talking about the parasitic relationship between new Instagram poets and feminism. You’ve probably seen the pen names, mysterious and slick-initialed: r.m. drake and r.h. sin, r.m. broderick, and j. ironword. I have one: r.u. kiddinme? In the wake of feminist Instagram sensation Rupi Kaur, these new Insta-poets have latched on to a profitable niche and they’re trying to bleed it for all its worth. As if guys need to pillage one more thing in this world, please, don’t let it be feminism. These men have honed their craft, which isn’t poetry, nor feminism. No, their craft isn’t in the business of writing genuinely, it’s in the business of extracting money from their target demographic. They play the women’s empowerment song like a cheap cover band, not one original note, serenading naïve girls’ thumbs to dance on the “like” button, seducing dollar bills from their wallets one lifeless line at a time.
Their formula is alarmingly simple and stylistically genius. It is mostly cheap women’s empowerment clichés disguised in a convincing veneer. All it takes is worn-out typewriter font placed haphazardly on white paper, kissed by a cheap lipstick stain or cigarette burn and a meticulously planned splotch of red wine spilled in the right-hand corner to add a romantic sense of spontaneity, an immortalized moment of staged imperfection. It’s all about the aesthetic. It’s pseudo-inspirational quotes dressed up in a butchered Jack Kerouac skin-suit. We all know there’s nothing sexier than a hipster alcoholic nearly burning his apartment down by passing out with his pomade bangs draping over a half-lit American Spirit. But the truth is that there is no hopeless New York City romantic, no sharp-jawed starving artist in a Brooklyn flat type-writing for the perfect girl to quietly find out she’s brave and beautiful because he told her so.
The truth is probably closer to this: a marketing genius in sweatpants on his Macbook, he’s drinking Arnold Palmer and eating Frito Twists, there are 5 Reddit tabs open and he’s chuckling as he uses an analytics app to track his 2 million followers on Instagram. He brushes some crumbs off his bed, opens whatever app generates vintage typewriter font, and begins his next million-dollar masterpiece. It takes him a whole of two minutes. He’s entered the powerful and contrasting descriptors into his mad-libs style poetry template. “She” is now a storm-cloud in the distance. “Her” tears are torrents of rain. The template is never wrong. It’s generated something beautiful, something bold and inspiring, something eight words long that’s already been written in a thousand middle school girls’ diaries. The difference is that those girls actually meant it. This guy just sells it:
With so much style, it doesn’t much matter the content: the subject matter is the same over and over: the broken girl who got strong, the right girl who got wronged, (wait, is that a poem, can I be rich too?). The anonymous female protagonist is always referred to as “she” or “her”, always finding her power in contrast to the regretful rantings of a heartbroken man who wasn’t smart enough to see that she was a hurricane in blue jeans and a tattered shirt. I’ve lost count of times she’s been described as fire and lightning. Empowering? No, in fact, so many of these cliched poems are the very opposite of women’s empowerment- they’re condescendingly cheap, and insultingly empty.
I’ve pondered the prevalence of the third person narrative that is seen throughout nearly every poem. Why is it always a second-hand experience written by an omnipotent man who knows exactly what “she” needed? Then I realized the answer was simple: these are guys who have never experienced the condition of being a woman, and they aren’t willing to put true empathy or thought into envisioning the struggles of that experience. As a result, their poetry is a shallow distillation of women’s struggles based solely on all the old Hollywood tropes: a woman’s fulfillment is hinged on finding a good man, a woman’s happiness is relationship based, and “she” ultimately needs a man to tell her how akin she is to tornadoes and lightning before she believes it. You’ll be hard pressed to find one of these guys writing a poem about the wage gap, rape, trafficking, or reproductive rights. They just don’t have the same ring as thunderstorms and wildfires. Oh, and I suppose they might be topics that take actual thought and bravery to write about.
Now, this is going to be a mouthful, but bear with me: I’m not blind to the irony that I am a man writing about what women should think about men writing about women. Any person is entitled to be inspired by whatever they like. But I won’t watch these guys get rich while degrading both poetry and women’s empowerment without saying my part. These poets are the literary equivalent of a handsome guy showing up to a feminist rally ready to agree with anything a girl says if it means he gets her number. Hell, he might even tout off a couple choice names he googled an hour before, and has some good one-liners prepared that hint at an original thought. You might like how he looks, you might even agree with what he says, but if it’s not genuinely coming from a person then what is it worth? The only thing genuine about these poets is that they truly, whole-heartedly, want your money. I suppose you could say that about any poet who puts his book on a shelf, but the difference is that honest poets are giving you something true from themselves in exchange, not selling you what you want to hear. Last year, Insta-poet “r.h. Sin”, the flagship poet of this movement, rose to seventh on Amazon’s overall book sales. He’s far outselling Poe, Thomas, Cummings, you name them, he’s crushing them.
Here’s a complete poem, in its entirety, from one of Sin’s best-selling collections:
“One day she’ll bury the memories she made with you”.
I hope I can do the same with my memories of you, r.h. Sin, and all the copycats like you, and I hope your customers can too.