My Thoughts on the “Cult of Noble Amateurs” Article

After some deliberation, I finally decided to read the infamous “anti-Instapoetry” article penned by Rebecca Watts in the PN Review back in February 2018. As someone who has already turned to the Dark Side, (aka, has already become an Instapoet), I knew from the get-go that I would disagree with many of author’s assertions. However, I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to read what criticism is out there so one may intelligently defend the genre.

Watts’s review was so scathing and wrought with raw emotion that it was difficult for me to take seriously.  The language used was something I would expect to see in a personal blog post such as this one, not in a professional journal/magazine.  Watts could have at least tried to give the illusion of a balanced view in the beginning and then offered her arguments one by one to illustrate that her eventual contempt for the Instapoetry genre was more than justified. Instead, she starts off the article with this.

“Why is the poetry world pretending that poetry is not an art form? I refer to the rise of a cohort of young female poets who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’ – buzzwords for the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft that characterises their work.”

Already Watts is painting herself into a corner by claiming she is in a privileged position to dictate what is and is not art. I would take her more seriously if she framed her argument by explaining why Instapoetry is bad poetry, rather than try to pin an impossible definition on art and poetry. To be frank, the image that came to mind was a petulant child. By starting off so strongly and negatively, she immediately becomes an easy target for accusations of literary snobbery. She could have easily avoided this obvious lens of elitism and given more credit to her criticisms by engaging with the material in a calmer fashion. But therein lies the problem.

“I was supposed to be reviewing it [the poetry], but to do so for a poetry journal would imply that it deserves to be taken seriously as poetry.”

She is so condescending towards Instapoetry that she cannot even bring herself to engage with it, for better or for worse, as real poetry.

A large chuck of Watts’s article consists of comparisons to the darker power of social  media and how that power aided Donald Trump in winning the American presidency.

“Twitter co-founder Evan Williams registered his dismay at how social media platforms were helping to ‘dumb the entire world down’, lamenting specifically the role Twitter played in Donald Trump’s election victory.”

We should be afraid of the power social media has to normalize dangerous ideologies such as white supremacy and chauvinism. However, the use of Instagram to promote “bad poetry” is not on my short-list of precursors for an impeding dystopian society. Watts tried to delegitimize the large following that some Instapoets have garnered by comparing the consumption of Instapoetry with the evil forces that mobilized the masses to vote an outrageous candidate into office.

“The ability to draw a crowd, attract an audience or assemble a mob does not itself render a thing intrinsically good: witness Donald Trump.”

To be fair, Watts is not the only one to connect these two phenomena. In Ariel Bisset’s #poetry documentary, UCLA Professor Johanna Drucker also brings up Trump in relation to the “honesty” and “accessibility” of Instapoets.

“Rupi Kaur is a benevolent and benign example of a phenomenon that we have in the most socio-pathological form in our current government…because we have the Tweet President. That is truly dangerous and truly destabilizing and truly terrifying because there is no constraint between the thumbs, the screen, and the broadcast. So…you know…give me Rupi Kaur any day!”

I am in full agreement with Professor Drucker that having no filter or gatekeeper in the Instapoetry scene is not the same as someone like Trump using social media to treat the presidency like a reality TV show. To make this suggestion weakens her position significantly, at least in my eyes.

Back to Watt’s article. Watts paints herself as the martyr that is prepared to call out Instapoetry for what it is, unlike others who are too paralyzed by political correctness to speak out against the sloppy genre.

“Whether socially or as a writer, admitting pride in an attitude of slobbishness is a way of shielding oneself against criticism or condescension. Yet McNish needn’t worry. The middle-aged, middle-class reviewing sector is terrified of being seen to disparage the output of young, self-styled ‘working-class’ artists.”

For as strong as the popularity for Instapoetry has been, the literary criticism condemning it has been just as strong since its inception. To suggest otherwise would imply that she is in the minority, which she most certainly is not.

There is good poetry and there is bad poetry. There are some Instapoets I like, and there are some that I don’t. This has to do with personal style and nothing to do with their decision to showcase their poetry on the “common” platform of Instagram. To brand the majority of Instapoets as suffering from the same stylistic issues and that those issues are unquestionably linked to social media is lazy and uninspired.

After becoming an Instapoet myself, I know firsthand that, despite the shorter length, Instapoetry is not just vomiting out whatever comes to mind. Sometimes it takes me days to think of something I deem worthwhile. I take it just as seriously as my longer poems. Hopefully in time the stigma of Instapoetry will ebb further away.

Instapoetry: Renaissance or Death of a Genre?

Several days ago I watched Ariel Bisset’s superb documentary about the new trend of poets posting their work on social media, particularly Instagram. They’ve been branded “Instapoets,” and their work inspires both love and hate. Love from the thousands or even millions of followers that these Instapoets can boast, and hatred from the long-established academic, literary communities who view this watered-down accessibility to poetry as a death of the art form itself.

This documentary was timely as I’m currently in the midst of writing my first collection of poems. As I get a clearer understanding what the writing and publishing world looks like in 2019, I find myself digging deeper and deeper into the wider debates of traditional versus self-publishing, print vs digital, and literary vs. commercial. So what are my thoughts?

Personally, I am not one to lament the death of quality, to bemoan that literature is dying or to whine that the commonality of social media robs the art of what little merit it had. When it comes to literature, I’ve noticed that I tend to be quite socialist. I don’t complain that a poet was able to get such as massive following on Instragram even if I personally dislike the poet’s style. I don’t question the poetry’s right to exist or the poet’s decision to use social media as a means to market their art.

As I consider this issue I cannot help but recall a quote from the Pixar Disney film, Ratatouille, where the quasi-villain Anton Ego, a grim food critic, gives his moving monologue at the end of the film.

But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and the defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, and the new needs friends.

New art, and the new mediums people utilize to share it, will always meet resistance from those that feel they are losing power to the “nouveau riche.” It is a common reaction to change, especially for change that is seen to not serve one’s self-interests.

There is no doubt that some criticism comes from a degree of snobbery and jealousy mixed together. I read one Medium article where the writer can’t help but hate Instragram poetry after all the hard work she has invested in writing “legitimate” poetry only to have it passed over for what she perceives as sub-par four-liners. And it’s hard not to feel her pain, to watch someone you see not doing the hard work and yet getting all the credit.

That’s her opinion and she and other like-minded individuals are entitled to it. But for myself I would rather spend my time thinking about what I could do to make myself better, how I might incorporate the style/strategies of Instapoets without compromising what I believe to be quality poetry. Alas, it is always easier to tear someone else down than try to pick one’s self up again.

As Ariel states in the documentary, we seem to have made peace with the fact that there are both literary and commercial categories of fiction, but not quite for poetry, and I think this debate will continue until a new orthodoxy of poetry dominates the current one.