When Slam Poetry Turns to Slamming Poetry

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When the worlds of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture collide, clashes will always be inevitable. Presidents on Twitter, political campaigns fuelled by popular music, and even memes used as classroom props have all been topics of debate in recent years, but now it is time for the attack on so-called ‘social media poets’ that use Instagram and YouTube to further the reach of their work. Rebecca Watts’ recent article in PN Review has caused a swarm of interest since its publication, most of which calls her out for her one-sided condemnation of the work of Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur, who represent a cohort of young female poets. Watts’ argument criticises these extremely popular and talented modern poets as being the result of ‘social media’s dumbing effect’, suggesting that their worth is somehow less because of not only the way that they are written but the ways in which they are disseminated.

Watts describes this phenomenon as a cult of personality, which she laughably likens to Trump in an attempt to give her argument some sort of relevant gravitas. How can we possibly liken three bestselling poets, especially ones that bring poetry which reflects important social issues into modern day society and maintain its importance within a progressively less-enchanted readership, to a buffoonish politician that uses Twitter to spread childish messages of hate? The simplistic forms of many of the poems, which are a source of criticism in the article, have not been dumbed down either for or by social media, but have in fact enabled new voices in the literary canon which may have been previously silenced. Watts uses the term ‘accessible’ with negative connotations which suggest diminished quality; I believe we should use the term proudly. Literature is inherently changeable and this is its merit – no one says that Eliot shouldn’t have written The Wasteland because it broke away from tradition and instead it is seen as one of the most influential experimental texts in history.

At the route of this lies the question of what the point of poetry is. Or whether it even has a point, or even needs one for that matter. Watts concludes her essay by claiming it is the duty of poets to ‘safeguard language’ as if they are some kind of government agency for controlling public thought (her reference to Orwell becomes slightly off-putting at this point). Poetry has always been a medium of expressing emotion and social change and personal experience and love and sadness and whatever the hell the poet wants to express. In the same way that Trump’s use of Twitter exposes him for the idiot that he is, these women would not be successful if their art did not speak to millions of others and resonate with them in a way which measures success in a much more meaningful way than any supposed recognition of ‘good writing’. Just because some poems are small enough to fit in an Instagram post, this does by no means diminish their importance or beauty- I’m sure Watts would have no question of classing Pound’s two-line ‘In the Station of the Metro’ as real poetry. In fact, an example of Rupi Kaur’s shows this perfectly:

it is a blessing
to be the colour of earth
do you know how often
flowers confuse me for home

  • Rupi Kaur

This was posted on Instagram in December and has nearly a quarter of a million likes; if this isn’t proof that simplistic beautiful poetry that brings important social issues into the public eye is worthy to be seen as art, then I don’t know what is. Traditionalists who are opposed to change can say what they please, but it is clear that these so-called ‘social media poets’ are desirable, relevant, talented, and most importantly, are here to stay.


Beckie Doyle