Shakespeare, Meet Instapoets: Poetry in the Social Media Age

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day …”. Back in 10th grade when my high school teacher drilled those lines into my brain, he just smirked and said: “one day they will become useful”. I am not the one to judge whether this article is their purpose fulfilled but I do want to acknowledge their significance with which they have travelled through the past centuries. Shakespeare, just like Heine and Emily Dickinson, are names that have shaped our understanding of poetry. Iambic parameter, enclosed rhymes, and couplets are still odd but distant acquaintances to many of us. So, if you pair this knowledge with today’s modern developments, especially social media, one might assume that it must be filled with modern-day-emoji-fanatic Shakespeares and Frosts. But instead, Instagram poems to many seem like an empty shell compared to their traditional counterparts. 

In 2017, almost 50 percent of sold poetry books were those of so-called Instapoets. The mysterious online poet Atticus—when saying that he is mysterious, I mean it in a literal sense, he wears masks to his book signings—has grown into one of the leading Instagram poets, with celebrities, such as Emma Roberts and Karlie Kloss, following him and supporting his content. So, it would make sense to take a closer look at his poetry. One of his most famous poems reads “’I don’t believe in magic’, the young boy said. The old man smiled. ‘You will when you see her’” (2017:76). 

The Oxford Dictionary defines poetry as a work “composed in verse of some comparable patterned arrangement of language in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm” (2019). Applied to Atticus’ poem those characteristics may be considerably hard to find. Although it speaks of the distinct emotion and desire for a woman, the text itself is not specifically structured but rather reminds of lines quoted from a book. 

The poet’s style reminds one of that of a dreamy novel writer, rather than a poet invested in structure, rhythm, rhyme, as well as the content. An overall pattern can only be found when looking at his first poem selection Love Her Wild in general, in which the old and the young man seem to be a reoccurring pattern. Where do you draw the line between a quote and a poem? 

In his first book, Leave Her Wild, Atticus published what comes closest to a traditional poem. 

It reads as following: 

What of the butterfly, 

the one I love to chase?

The old man smiled

Love her 

he said

but leave her wild,

and the old oak tree I love to climb?

Love her, he said, but leave her wild

and the wolf that cries to the old joke moon?

Love her, he said, but leave her wild

and the horse that loves to run with storms?

Love her, he said, but leave her wild.

And what of her, 

the one I love most?

And the old man smiled.

Yes, he said,

you must love her too

but leave her wild

and she’ll love you.

(2017:225)

Unlike most of his rather quote-like poems, this one shows a clear structure. Almost reminding of a play, the poem bounces back and forth in the conversation between the old and the young men, with six out of twelve lines beginning with love and and, guiding the narrative of the poem which consists of the young boy asking how to love wild animals and his older and wiser counterpart asking him to admire them but leave them wild. The only time the poem varies from this pattern is in the beginning, in Atticus introduces the pattern and the end, in which he introduces the girl. The girl is compared to an animal, free and wild of spirit, which cannot be captured but has to be admired from afar. Even then the phrase “love her but leave her wild” is maintained and only slightly changed. 

One may consider this a patterned arrangement of language, which, however, still does not show a specific rhythmic pattern or rhyme scheme and owes its distinctive style to the repetitive pattern of six lines. Nevertheless, this poem is by far one of Atticus’ most well-known ones with people repeatedly getting it tattooed on their bodies. Why is that so? Claire Fallon states that “[t]he poetry might be bad, but it is too inoffensive and nonspecific to alienate. Anyone can see themselves in Atticus’ poetry, and what they’ll see is a slightly heightened version of themselves” (2018). Especially females see themselves by Atticus’ lines that acknowledge them as wild, loving and mysterious beings, that turn men’s heads just by breathing. 

So maybe it is not the poetry itself but the schemes that make social media poets so appealing to the younger audience. Everyone likes content that they can resonate with. The concept of so-called echo chambers is nothing new (Von Nordheim, 2016). Therefore, it is not surprising that artists, like Atticus and Amanda Lovelace (The Princess Saves Herself in This One), writing of love and empowerment, but also heart break, loneliness and general life experiences, such as death and mental health, appeal to a broad audience that see their own emotions mirrored in those of the authors. There is no better outlet to publish this form of content than social media. People use social media to access material they connect with, content that in one way or another resonates with them and their life situation. Throw easily digestible poetry, in the form of a-three-or-four lines into the mix, and those poems will be considered as masterpieces. 

After all, social media is a form of freedom. Users can be whoever they want to be. In a world where you are expected to fit in, the Internet gives you the chance to stand out. People get the chance to speak freely of how they feel and think and others will understand. Atticus does not need a distinct identity to make others feel something. We don’t need to know what Rupi Kaur (Milk and Honey) looks like to know that she is helping females all across the world to feel empowered. There is something magical about the unknown. Similarly, everyone can have a voice. Fallon considers the literature industry to be mainly white, so poets like r.h.sin and Samantha King Holmes (We Hope This Reaches You in Time) may not have stood a chance if it wasn’t for their big Instagram community. 

Although this phenomenon seems to be driven by technological changes, it does not stop there. Despite many considering books fossils from ancient times, they are just as valid today as they used to be decades ago. The only difference is where you might find those modern poetry books. Although they are oftentimes stocked by big book retailers, such as Waterstones and WHS, they are just as commonly found in stores, such as Urban Outfitters and Anthropology, stores known for its clothing. One may relate that back to, on the one hand, a simply growing market for this type of literature, but it also proves the market of this form of literature to be fairly young, since Urban Outfitters is mostly appealing to teenagers and young adults between 16 and 30 years of age. 

Altogether, we may see modern Instapoetry as a two-edged sword. It is up for individual interpretation to decide whether the change in tone and structure may or may not be a loss for literature. Poets, such as E.E. Cummings did not seem to like rhyme schemes either, after all. However, we do have to acknowledge that with poetry sales rising by 12 percent each year (Sontz in Fallon, 2018), these new developments are bringing a form of literature back to life that many people would consider to be confusing, incomprehensible and complete nonsense. So, if Instapoetry can close this intimidating gap and simultaneously give people an outlet to connect with and over their emotions, whether that is on or offline, one may argue that its achieving what every form of poetry aims for: It makes people feel.  

Sources:

Atticus (2017) Love Her Wild. London: Headline Publishing Group.

Fallon, C. (2018) ‘Instagram Poetry Is a Huckster’s Paradise’, Culture and Arts in Huffpost, 3rd October [Online]. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/instagram-poetry-atticus-duncan-penn_us_5bb2df2de4b0ba8bb2104b1b?ri18n=true&guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly9jb25zZW50LnlhaG9vLmNvbS9jb2xsZWN0Q29uc2VudD9zZXNzaW9uSWQ9M19jYy1zZXNzaW9uX2UzNzYzNjg4LTRiNTYtNGZlMC1hZTU1LTc5ZWIxNzUzMzY2MCZsYW5nPWVuLXVzJmlubGluZT1mYWxzZQ&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAABYukPN5t8OBwQGsgqURpn38zAcu-CsjYG1LKUGSVyqQB5DSvtLOtpIMB0KiejMbh9PJ3oUe27_uGLm07H8DLtWS_Fc21i5MxXojvPS4WyJgfIh3BgD3p7MKtCvWs9zRX_sSvykGh__z8oxLvF-A8-3CDKvuIOEh-6Oq3JwOSoBp (Accessed: 16th November 2019). 

Oxford English Dictionary (2019) Poetry, N.. Available at: https://www.oed.com/viewdictionaryentry/Entry/146552 (Accessed: 16th November 2019). 

Von Nordheim, G. (2016) ‘Poppers Alptraum’, Digitales and Forschung aus 1. Hand section in European Journalism Conversatory, 2 August. Available at: http://de.ejo-online.eu/digitales/poppers-alptraum (Accessed: 16th November 2019).

— Julia Ramrath