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Rupi Kaur’s Messages Are Commendable, But That Doesn’t Mean She’s a Good Poet

Feminism. Race. Abuse. Rupi Kaur churns out poems on vital and vivid topics. It has never been enough in poetry, however, to write a commendable message. Thousands of poets write the same commendable messages—whether in their bedroom, on social media, or in published pages. A good poet needs to write that message well. Elegantly. Fiercely. Boldly.

Rupi Kaur is not a good poet.

Okay, I’ll be fair. Poetry is subjective. A good poem to your neighbor’s high school teacher from the 80s might not be a good poem to your aunt’s sixteen-year-old dog sitter. There’s flexibility in the definition of a good poem—as it should be. Still, basics are undeniable necessities.

For example, your neighbor’s high school teacher from the 80s might enjoy chili cheese fries. Your sixteen-year-old dog sitter might delight in a pumpkin pie cookie bar. Either way, both munchers need edible food. Frozen earthworms are disgusting. Watered down leather is not preferable either. Despite an occasionally creative appetite, the general consensus is earthworms and leather aren’t good food. Good poetry is the same—it needs to be edible.

To be clear, I do not criticize you if you enjoy Rupi Kaur’s poetry. I do not look down on you. Still, when I read Rupi Kaur, I read a glorified and messy collection of words cheered on so thunderously by society that the words of other (perhaps more) talented poets are entirely unheard. I do not attack you if you applaud Rupi Kaur. Instead, I wish to introduce you to poets you might prefer to lend your cheers to.

There is no accepted standard of good poetry. There shouldn’t be either—poetry is personal and subjective. But William Wordsworth penned a definition that should be considered during the next reading of Rupi Kaur: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.”

i see you
and begin grieving all over again.

That is the poem. An entire poem by Rupi Kaur. Do you feel a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings? Do the words arrange themselves to express an emotion recollected in tranquility? If you answer yes, alright. That’s fair. But…really?

When I read this poem I experience nothing. The words are dull and unoriginal. There is no captivation or thoughtfulness in her words. Worse than being a bad poem, the poem is…nothing.

stay
i whispered
as you
shut the door behind you

The masses claim Rupi Kaur is revolutionizing poetry and increasing its accessibility—but is this poem any less boring than Sylvia Path? Firstly, Rupi Kaur expresses nothing exhilarating or profound. Secondly, she expresses this vague and uninteresting emotion terribly. “Shut the door behind you” is so poor of a metaphor it’s barely a cliché. The poem is so obviously devoid of thought or care that it inspires no thought or care in me as a reader.

Unlike Rupi Kaur, Nayyirah Waheed is a poet I delight in for her insightful pondering and elegant craftsmanship. Rupi Kaur, too, has admitted to using Nayyirah Waheed as inspiration—perhaps too much so. On Tumblr, Nayyirah Waheed addressed “issues of plagiarism. paraphrasing. and hyper-similarity” between her poems and Rupi Kaur’s. Whether Rupi Kaur truly plagiarized Nayyirah Waheed is a debate for another day. Still, comparing the work of Rupi Kaur and Nayyirah Waheed reveals the quality of work of both poets.

This poem is by Nayyirah Waheed:

if
the ocean
can calm itself
so can you
we
are both
salt water
mixed
with
air.

—mediation

This poem is by Rupi Kaur:

i am water

soft enough
to offer life
tough enough
to drown it away

-rupi kaur

To be fair, this is one of Rupi Kaur’s stronger poems. Still, consider the similar metaphors but contrasting quality. Which poem uncovers a deeper insight to emotions? Which poem holds a stronger arrangement of words?

Both poems are accessible. Might one be more thoughtful or deserving of praise?

This poem is by Nayyirah Waheed:

i bleed
every month.
but
do not die.
how am i
not
magic.

—the lie

This poem is by Rupi Kaur:

our work should equip
the next generation of women
to outdo us in every field
this is the legacy we’ll leave.

progress -rupi kaur

Again, both poems commendably bring a voice to feminism. Nayyirah Waheed breathes magic into her words and the whimsy of the poem is memorable and bright. Rupi Kaur, however, writes two statements. Her words do not capture the beauty of feminism on the same sphere as Nayyirah Waheed words do.

If you enjoy Rupi Kaur, do not desert her. But do not elevate her to the position of the only poet of color. I believe South Asian voices need the megaphone Rupi Kaur has. But one voice is not enough. I also believe African-American poets, especially Nayyriah Waheed, are deserving of the same megaphone. So pass the megaphone around a little if you can and listen to the poetry of Nayyirah Waheed and the hundreds of deserving poets in Rupi Kaur’s shadow. Whether you return to Rupi Kaur or not, you and poets of color will be better for it.

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Written by Becca Stevenson

Becca is a curious Indian-American book blogger perusing words and worlds. She's charmed by Jesus, diverse books, random acts of kindness, and 18th century politics. She'd be delighted to have a chat on twitter @beccaandbooks.