lower case confessional
home body by rupi kaur
I wrapped myself up in a blanket, lit a scented candle, and brewed me a chamomile tea. I breathed slowly, trying to be taken in by what was in the book. I was left unchanged. Home Body is… not great.
Rupi Kaur is the most successful of a wave of self-published instapoets. Her works have sold over 8 million copies and been translated into 40+ languages. Home Body is her third collection.
Instapoetry is called that because it emerged on internet platforms like Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter, where space limitations and short attention spans produced a new kind of bite-sized poetry.
Rupi Kaur’s poems are short and accessible, often no more than a line or two. They’re arranged into four sections, roughly by theme. While each poem stands alone, the four sections give the sense of an overarching story of a young woman’s journey of self-discovery, doubt, and personal growth.
The Rupi Kaur “aesthetic” is lower-case confessional: smooth, graceful, effortless, balanced. Sometimes the poems have titles, which (usually) come at the end. Sometimes they don’t - it’s all good, man. Sometimes they accompany sketches which look a little bit like a schoolchild’s doodles.
i have to honour my mind and body
if i want to sustain my journey
This is a typical Rupi Kaur poem accompanied by a typical Rupi Kaur drawing: a girl lying down, with flowers growing out of her body. Another poem about community has a sketch of a flower where the petals are the heads of people lying down in a circle.
Occasionally the drawings are a bit too doodly and look like something out of Napoleon Dynamite. When they’re meant to be serious, there’s a bit of mood whiplash. After reading a series of poems about the troubles of a poor immigrant family, you turn the page to this poem:
our elders are not disposable
With a wrinkled old woman drawn below who looks like E.T. I agree with the message, but I did chortle.
Every word matters in poetry, especially in this ultra-sparse form where even the distance between words feels big and a single linebreak is unusually loud. Cliché and sentimentality are death-sentences, yet that’s what every poem in this collection hangs upon.
Take this poem about friendship:
nothing can replace
how the women in my life
make me feel
I’m sure we can recognise this feeling. But instead of conveying this feeling by exploring it with creative language or by describing a friendship, we are simply told the emotion and left to feel it. There is no warmth to this poem. Its words are empty sentiments, their natural rhythm chopped up by puzzling linebreaks.
Very occasionally, Kaur turns away from overjuiced emotions to focus on more concrete images:
give me laugh lines and wrinkles
i want proof of the jokes we shared
i want sunspots as souvenirs
for the beaches we laid on
Here the “wrinkles” and “sunspots” of growing old serve as “proof” of the laughs and friendships one enjoyed in their life. Growing old is given dignity, the impefections of the human body grace. This is - dare I say it - good poetry.
But then Rupi Kaur goes on auto-pilot and the clichés takes over. She compares those wrinkles to “the roots of a tree that grow deeper/with each passing year”. The narrator concludes by hoping for the world to “take me by the hand/and show me what it’s made of.”
Many of these poems are consolations for the weak or abused or marginalised. Their message can be summarised as: don’t ever think there is anything wrong with yourself, you are always fine how you are, no exceptions:
if you tried
and didn’t end up
where you wanted to go
that’s still progress
Failure isn’t progress though, is it? This poem only makes sense if you make up some extra event or layer of meaning, such as the narrator realising they didn’t need to go where they thought they did, or learning something through their failure.
Sometimes a poem will start to betray the narrator’s anxiety to the reader, before bricking up any genuine vulnerability with a good dose of narcissism:
i’m not going to pretend
to be less intelligent than i am
so a man can feel
more comfortable around me
the one i deserve
will see my greatness
and want to lift it higher
i want someone who is
inspired by my brilliance
not threatened by it
i’m not afraid of failing
i’m afraid my potential
might set the world on fire
“My greatness”, “my brilliance”, “my potential/might set the world on fire.” In another poem we’re told “i don’t care about perfection”. None of the vulnerabilities claimed in these poems are believable, because they only ever serve as set-ups for predictable aphorisms.
By shedding itself of the perspectives and conventions of “normal” literature, confession offers the reader an unfiltered look at the subject; finally we get to see it for what it is, in all of its unguarded honesty.
When aesthetic posturing and literary celebrity dilute that, we get what Christopher Lasch calls “anti-confession”, a self-indulgent writing style that simply trades guardedness for obscurity. By hiding behind careful affectations, the narrative self tightly controls how it is perceived. Such writing ultimately hides more than it reveals.
This is exactly what social media is like: the obsessive pruning and preparing of the face we present to other people. Given Kaur’s origin as an Instapoet, it’s no wonder her poems have the same performative feeling as that of an influencer trying to sell you yoga pants and protein supplements.
When Rupi Kaur tries to address these psychic frustrations, she merely turns them back on their presumed causes: capitalism, sexism, racism, toxic boyfriends, etc. From solipsistic traumas, we are suddenly catapulted into pithy takedowns of massive, impersonal socio-political forces that are too vague to ever really be convincing. The result is a kind of moral vertigo.
At worst, these tensions are resolved in poems that sound like absurd power fantasies:
my body renews itself in waves of ocean and blood
Elsewhere the narrator deifies herself as God; cunnilingus is a tongue “swimming towards salvation” and sex is “transcending to heaven.” This kind of imagery is a cheap shortcut for serenity. These poems come to us from a thoroughly desacralised world in which religious words have no real mystery to them:
i want you so deep
we enter the spirit world
Exalting the vagina like this is absurd. God’s dead, and I’m not going to waste my time attempting to seriously contemplate Rupi Kaur’s holy pussy.
For the most part, love is treated as little more than sexual pleasure. It is typified by two extremes: dominance (rape) and self-indulgence (masturbation). While the importance of the impersonal bonds of kindness, family, and community is mentioned, we never learn how love can grow out of them, and romantic love is always treated with suspicion.
It’s tempting to think of the narrative “I” in these poems as being Rupi Kaur herself. This may feel more natural because Kaur is something of an icon, and many of these poems - especially the ones about grappling with literary fame and the migrant experience - mirror her own life. “I thought I had to become like a popstar or like an actress to get here,” says Rupi Kaur, reflecting on her newfound celebrity on the Jimmy Fallon show.
I think it’s a mistake to do this. There are many shortcomings in reading literature that way, not least of which is the simple fact that authors aren’t always writing about their own lives. By reading literature like this, we are limiting it to a simple social purpose: accessing the literary celebrity of our favourite personalities. It’s no more different than reading their Twitter feed.
The more subtle use of first-person perspective is in the narrative “we”. Rupi Kaur uses this in an open-ended way that makes it seem like the poems are the collective exhortations of a voiceless mass. Hence a poem about rape gives a voice - and therefore power - to all those who have been raped.
It’s a literary device with promise. It reminds me of Māori speeches, songs, and karakia, where plural “you” and plural “we” are used to include in the address spirits of people not physically present, but attached in some sense to the location around the speaker, who speaks from, through, and for them.
Home Body could have played with this sense of perspective, perhaps by subtly shifting the narrative “we” within and across poems. Alas, the poems are too short, and the words within them wound too tightly around the aphoristic punchlines that always conclude them.
I’m the kind of grumpy guy that would probably unthinkingly agree with the assertion that poetry is dead, predictably locating its death sometime before I was born. Asked to seriously justify my position, I would have to admit that I don’t think instapoetry is the death of literature, as some have called it.
New media opens up new forms of art and expression. These may not be comparable to the old forms, so of course we’ll be disappointed if we try to hold Home Body next to The Iliad or Mill on the Floss or Shropshire Lad. Instapoetry could still excite or move us in its own way though, so why shut out the possibility?
Numerous changes in the way we read and write have brought about many shifts in literature, from serial newspaper novels to pulp fiction journals to mass paperbacks. In the internet years there have been new kinds of writing like creepypasta, hypertext fiction, fanfiction, choose your own adventures, roleplaying, and keitai shōtetsu - “cellphone novels”, short works of fiction composed on cellphones, most popular in Asian countries.
The possibilities may intrigue, but the reality - what we actually get in works like Home Body - is far too much like social media, in a bad way. The poems are sound bites, cultural memes, and trite wisdoms I’ve already heard literally a billion times before. They are like the millennial version of those inspirational posters you used to see in doctors’ offices, where Confucius quotes are overlaid on breathtaking photographs of Everest or the Matterhorn.
Home Body feels like a product. The experience on offer is a certain aesthetic: soft, feminine, flowing, balanced, pluralistic, all harshness and conflict and rough-edges smoothed back into the unity of all things through love and growth and personal development. Home Body only produces this effect by its dinky drawings and lower-case letters.
But at the end of the day, Home Body is poetry, and a poem is its words. Take away those visual elements. Take away the autobiographical dazzle of a young, assertive, minority woman, take away those things which aren’t the poem itself, and the words you’re left with drip across each line break like porridge. They are tiny nothings you consume in two seconds and then forget. There are no surprises to be found here, no words that reorder the world in their beauty, no hard-sought-after truths.
If you want the same thing, but better, I recommend doing yoga outside on a warm morning. Here you go: