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Any discussion on Instagram poetry, whether in popular or academic publications, tends to usually focus on two themes. First, how the popularity of poetry on social media rescued a moribund form and breathed new life into it. In India, much of the vitality of poetry on social media comes from poets finding a space to address gender, caste, religion and other concerns with greater success than earlier. By success, I mean finding a larger audience than before – and, in some cases, opportunities to monetise or publish. The other theme is whether such poetry has any craft – is it “good” or “bad”? Or: is it poetry at all?
Definitions of poetry are, of course, notoriously elusive – and determining quality even more difficult. “Good poets” also often write “bad” poetry. Perhaps the best reaction to the phenomenal popularity of Instagram poets was provided by British-American poet Kazim Ali in his essay on Rupi Kaur: “What do I think of Rupi Kaur? Well on the surface of it I’m mildly annoyed that I gave so many years to learning craft, reading deeply, doing everything I could to become a better poet because it seems that all it takes is some superficial musings, some pretty okay (honestly) drawings, and one (admitted awesome) photo to go viral and make you the most famous poet in the world, and maybe of all time.”
Karuna Ezara Parikh is no stranger to popularity – on social media or in the world outside. The former TV anchor, model and activist has nearly 85,000 followers on Instagram, and poems she shares – often in white text on black background – are followed and liked by thousands. In India, where English poetry is mainly read by the poets themselves and published by small, independent presses, such numbers are enough to provoke jealousy, expressed through a bohemian, artistic disdain for popularity.
Parikh addresses this in the introduction to her recently published debut book where stories gather (Noida: HarperCollins, 2021): “In an age when ‘Instagram poets’ are ubiquitous, and the discussion about their popularity and merit intermittently but consistently flares, it is terrifying to put out one’s work.” She writes about the difficulty of distinguishing between good work and bad, between sincere poetry and insta-gratification. She says it makes her sceptical about her own poetry, which might be very popular online. Parikh calls it, very cleverly, “the heart’s gimmick”.
There are some examples of these gimmicks in where stories gather. Take for instance, ‘Monsoon III’ and ‘Monsoon IV’, a part of a series of poems on the season. Both are rather short; the first one reads:
If there’s a word for ‘lover of rain’
replace it forever
with my name
And the second one:
You have rain outside and a window to watch it through.
You have no business not being in love with the world.
These are the exact sort of cliches that horrify any poet or lover of poetry. One wonders what kind of editorial guidance Parikh had. A good editor would have asked her to not include these in her book (and also quietly remove them from her Instagram page).
Thankfully, however, such examples are few. The book is divided into eight parts, with the poems arranged without any obvious structural reason – such as song cycles or metrical or thematic distinction. Parikh’s subjects are vast – from the usual broken heart to Paris ravaged by terror attacks or Delhi destroyed by ill-thought-out architectural cosmetic surgeries. For instance, ‘Write About What Hurts’, written in response to the Indian government’s Central Vista project that will lead to the demolition a few much-loved structures in the national capital:
Let us not speak now
of the letter, once handwritten and kept, informing
of Mangal Pandey’s death or access that memory
of a boy you once loved, taking your dove hand to his
on the damp grass where grown men lithely blew rainbowed
soap bubbles as slippery and fast disappearing as our oil.
The image of the historical letter, stored away in an archive that might become a victim of the Central Vista plan, and a memory of two lovers is brought together by the ephemeral, momentary soap bubbles. This is a compelling imagery of transience, and the desire of the poet to capture some of it.
Such imagery, however, is unfortunately rare in the book. And without any metrical tools to provide scaffolding, the poems often threaten to collapse upon themselves. All the poems are either in prose or free verse – but the free-verse lines are really prose lines broken up at random. They are easy to access but difficult to remember.
Uttaran Das Gupta’s novel Ritual was published in 2020; he teaches at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat. Das Gupta writes a fortnightly column on poetry, ‘Verse Affairs’, for The Wire.