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Noble Amateurs

Insta poetry and the politics of emotion.

Anna Kiernan

Does an action need to be recorded on a smartphone to exist?

By Anna Kiernan

Ambivalence, a prerequisite for the kind of moral ambiguity that has historically formed part of how we define literature, is often absent from interactions on Twitter and Instagram. Tweets by novelists such as J K Rowling and Margaret Atwood and posts by Insta poets, from Rupi Kaur to Atticus, are consumed and shared with a seemingly insatiable appetite by their fans and foes, which serves to promote their books or projects. The notion that the author may have grappled with challenging situations and emotions in order to sort them into some sort of coherent narrative fit for a reader to consume connotes a satisfying sense of them having earned the reader’s attention – an increasingly desirable outcome in an attention economy.

A poetry renaissance

As William Davies points out in his article ‘How feelings took over the world’, “If politics and public debate have become more emotional, as so many observers have claimed, this is as much a reflection of the speed and relentlessness of current media technologies as anything else.” The frequency and velocity of digital communication is, Davies suggests, better suited to an emotional response than a considered rational one. The preoccupation with feelings is closely connected with identity politics, insomuch as that, as Francis Fukuyama suggested in an article titled ‘Against Identity Politics’, “Social media and the Internet have facilitated the emergence of self-contained communities, walled off not by physical barriers but by shared identities.” Certainly, the subject of siloed communities online shielding us from the extremities of our political antithesis has formed the subject of numerous laments in the aftermath of left-liberal lows such as the election of Trump and the UK’s vote to “leave” Europe.

"The frequency and velocity of digital communication is, Davies suggests, better suited to an emotional response than a considered rational one."

These tendencies are also played out in the microcosmic world of literature online. As one author told me, “Twitter lends itself to overly simple, fixed oppositions that aren’t particularly useful.” But while this is a feature of Twitter, it is less so on Instagram. Gabriella, whose @sighswoon account who has more than 93,000 followers on Instagram explains: “Twitter seems more hype-based and news-based, all about sharing opinions and standing by them. Instagram is more playful and is about aesthetics and images and inspiration.” Put simply, Instagram could be seen as an upper to Twitter’s downer. Digital engagement prompts emotional responses partly because of the pressure to communicate, to comment, to respond fast, to be considered relevant. There is a sense of restlessness in how we use social media, of discomfort at being distracted, of furtive online activity taking place in the liminal space between doing what we feel we are supposed to be doing, such as working or spending “real time” (often still valued at a premium in terms of the presumed quality of engagement) in the analogue world.

Simplified storytelling has become a contributing factor in the growth of the poetry market during this period of technological determinism, with Timothy Yu, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison noting that, “In the mainstream press, the primary theme has been ‘how Instagram saved poetry.’” In 2016, Wired, a California-based magazine that focuses on how emerging technologies affect culture, economics and politics, shouted the headline, “DON’T LOOK NOW, BUT 2016 IS RESURRECTING POETRY.” Citing an exponential rise in engagement with poetry after the presidential election in the States in 2016, writers such as Saladin Ahmed and Claudia Rankine’s fervent poems became the go-to online aphorisms for the collective fallout of the liberal left. According to Pandell, engagement with over two days, on and immediately after the election (November 8 and 9 2016, respectively) rose significantly, with more than 550 people tweeting poems (compared to typical engagement statistics of 80-100 people tweeting links to its poets and 70-100 retweeting those links).

The neurological effect of social media activity is integral to building communities online and is a contributing factor in the success of literary influencers such as Rupi Kaur.

Wired’s data-based inferences were newsworthy partly because they were iconoclastic. After all, poetry books don’t usually sell in sufficient volume to generate a profit. In The Adaptation Industry: The Cultural Economy of Contemporary Literary Adaptation, Simone Murray describes this in Bourdieusian terms as the “loser wins” phenomenon, in which, “the less successful an artwork is in market terms the more it accumulates cultural esteem, and vice versa.”

The neurological effect of social media activity is integral to building communities online and is a contributing factor in the success of literary influencers such as Rupi Kaur, who has 3.4 million followers on Instagram (and follows no one). According to Mauricio Delgado, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University, dopamine is released when a new alert is received. Delgado goes on to state that, “Often, if you have the earliest predictor of a reward – a sign of a social media alert, like your phone buzzing – you get a rush of dopamine from that condition stimulus.” Add to that the aura of authenticity generated through the artfully open discourse around physical and emotional challenges and vulnerabilities which are communicated through images, text and sound (by way of spoken word recordings) and the appeal of such all-encompassing communication strategies (in terms of both the senses and the 24/7 timeframe for sharing), particularly for those in search of quick-fire philosophical consolations in challenging times, become clear.

The noble amateur

In 2018, a leading British poetry periodical, PN Review, published an article by Rebecca Watts titled “The cult of the noble amateur”. The thrust of the piece was that “amateur poets” publishing on social media were undermining poetry as an art form. Watts’ polemic began with the perceived tensions between popular and highbrow literary culture:

“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.”

The article seemed to be primarily concerned with testing out several poems through a critical literary lens. Watts’ assertion that “the current culture of reception [that focuses] on the author not the work” revealed a concern which is widely held (but not necessarily widely shared) by writers. In The Sacred Wood, T S Eliot wrote that, “the poet has, not a “personality” to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality.” Eliot’s view contrasts with the prevailing politics of identity, which are at the heart of the work of the most successful (commercially speaking) poets working now, from Hera Lindsay Bird to Nikita Gill. The characteristically informal and self-referential style of many Insta poets’ behaviour is at odds with the sorts of traditional critical/literary expectations put forward by Eliot, which Celia Hunt and Fiona Sampson contextualise in Writing Self & Reflexivity:

“For T S Eliot it was the poet’s responsibility to contribute to the ‘ideal order’ of the ‘existing monuments’ of the literary tradition, by simultaneously working within that order and modifying it by the creation of new work. Such a perspective advocated [as Watts does in her article] that there should be, “a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment…to something which is more valuable.”

The “state of impersonality” that Eliot presents can be read as being diametrically opposed to the contemporary notion of literary celebrity in general and digital literary influencers specifically, given that, at times, the loudest voices seem disinterested in the traditions from which literature has been constructed. But it also foregrounds the traditional literary establishment through the language of assimilation. The “state of impersonality” applies to the canon, and the canon predominantly consists of privileged white men.

Given this ideologically loaded context, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, on publication, Watts’ article attracted largely hostile attention on social media. In her response to Watts’ article, McNish rejected the suggestion that audience accessibility via digital platforms signified the demise of intellectual engagement and craft, saying, “I… find it really patronising… when social media is constantly spoken about as if it is ‘dumbing down’ the world.” This slip – surely she meant to say people – could be read as conforming to Watts’ suggestion that Insta poets may be somewhat narcissistic. After McNish posted a public response to Watts’ article on her website, a Twitter-storm ensued, in which the majority of comments defended McNish and attacked Watts, stating in no uncertain terms that she was jealous and/or anti-feminist and/or elitist (despite the fact that both McNish and Watts studied at Cambridge University, and Watts is a published poet who has alluded to the lack of female writers in the canon). Comments on Twitter such as “insulting, deeply personal… elitism printed in prestigious journal” by bestselling author Kerry Hudson generated more than 80 likes, while poet Nick Garrard described the piece as “an ugly little blast of reconstructed snobbery.”

"In a critique of one of Holly McNish’s poems, Watts suggests that “‘Plum’ the product not of a poet but of a personality"

The rather brutal battle of words on social media (a space that Rebecca Watts chooses not to frequent) revealed both the passionate fandom associated with confessional performance poets and the barely repressed rage of those readers (and often writers) who implicitly rejected the notion that criticism could be, well, critical, particularly when articulated by a woman perceived as intellectually elite.

Irrespective of one’s position regarding Watts’ discussion of Insta poets, spiking her article on the grounds that most poetry fans would disagree with her view could be viewed as overly censorious. Such furores have what is referred to in journalism and the law as a “chilling effect”; the discouragement of natural expression through the implication of legal sanctions, or – in this case – social media condemnation.

In a critique of one of Holly McNish’s poems, Watts suggests that “‘Plum’… is the product not of a poet but of a personality.” As Daniel Boorstin, author of The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America  put it, a celebrity is “a person who is well-known for his well-knownness” – rather like a personality.

The internet has muddied the clear water that separates art from commerce. Which is perhaps part of  Watts’ point, since the marketisation of subjectivity through Insta poetry isn’t necessarily a positive outcome for readers or writers with short attention spans or indeed for writing culture a (disparate, disintermediated) whole.

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