Whatever She Is, She Is Not Nothing
by Carl Watts


Illustration: Craig Small

Our cultural life is a churning of album reissues, critical editions, posthumously published manuscripts, and much-needed reassessments of pretty much anything. It’s a pop-culture manifestation of Paul Mann’s argument, in The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde, that the increasingly academic nature of the avant-garde has resulted in the perpetual “recuperation” of margins. What was once deemed inferior, uninteresting, or just uncool can inevitably be recontextualized and relocated in our ever-assimilating repertoire of stuff. Mann characterized this dynamic as “the production of a death-theory, a seemingly inexhaustible discourse of exhaustion,” but today it seems more like just life.

I sometimes wonder how far we can follow Mann’s line of thinking—will this phenomenon someday extend to discourses of racism or other bigotries? Less hard to imagine is a widespread rehabilitation of poetry as a popularly read genre. While few would argue that this has occurred, the form has found new popularity thanks to accessible writers who take cues from social media. Rupi Kaur—whose work I’m not exactly a fan of—has been at the forefront of this movement, having sold more than eight million books and been translated into over forty languages. These aren’t just poetry-world heights: Kaur is a star by any standard.

Kaur also seems to be undergoing a recuperation close to that discussed by Mann. While her greeting-card verse hasn’t gotten much critical attention, there are indications of a turnaround. Visible among tangential remarks and social media following lists—if not as many direct statements—this gradual warming to Kaur matches her straightforwardly signifying style, which remains free from the aloofness that, in the popular imagination, characterizes poetry. Instead, Kaur’s work expresses a participatory element that I think remains unique to poetry and its readerships, even at a time when the literary arts seem less lucrative or sustainable than ever.

Kaur’s work has been described by Giller Prize-winner Souvankham Thammavongsa as demonstrating that “[e]verything I had ever been told about [poetry], she proves it’s not true, you don’t have to be that or go that way.” “Whatever she is,” Thammavongsa continues, “she is not nothing.” There’s certainly something to this singularity-in-simplicity. Kaur’s debut, Milk and Honey (2014), especially reflects and narrates this learning process by deconstructing the fundamental stylistic conventions of lyric poetry. Here’s what I mean:

i can’t tell if my mother is
terrified or in love with
my father it all
looks the same

One doesn’t find those popular understandings of a line as grammatical unit or “a breath”—even the sense of a pause that would be signified in prose with a sentence break or semicolon (“my father; it all”) is collapsed. The lines are arranged not for a trained eye, but to achieve the baseline status of just being identifiable as a poem.

This lack of convention has prompted some takedowns. UK poet Rebecca Watts included Kaur in her 2018 critique of the valorization of accessibility and honesty at the expense of craft and “intellectual engagement.” Watts’ critique channels a markedly British form of identity-politics backlash—she views the trend as sustained by a “middle-aged, middle-class reviewing sector” that is “terrified of being seen to disparage the output of young, self-styled ‘working-class’ artists,” subsequently linking this to a transatlantic trend of finding value in demographic representation over actual writing.

But Watts also inadvertently explains the appeal of poets like Kaur. Her lament over the death of expertise includes the caveat that “In other contexts, elitism is not considered an evil in itself. We frankly desire our doctors, hairdressers, plumbers and sportspersons to be the best: to learn from precedent, work hard, hone their skills and be better than we are at their chosen vocations.” I agree that hard work and sharpened skill matter when it comes to hairdressing and plumbing. But I also think poetry is different—not in that anyone can do it, but in that the expansive quality that attracts precisely this engagement is part of what matters. We know that today’s poetry is mostly for people who write poetry. Whatever you think of Kaur’s poems, she exists as part of this same world; her wide, educative appeal shows that poetry’s self-contained nature isn’t the same as elitism.

So while the marginalized-identity dynamic probably helps—a 2017 profile in the Guardian points to Kaur’s being “a young woman of colour in a world where white, male delectations are treated as the definitive barometer of taste”—what seems a more likely reason for her success is her verse’s unpretentious, social-media-oriented forms of address, as well as her arrangement of these elements into book-length offerings that beckon to prospective readers and writers of poetry. For example, Kaur’s work is downstream from older-millennial revolts against the selfie. One such moment that sticks in my mind is the faux 2013 controversy in Rolling Stone, recycled by Pitchfork, in which Vampire Weekend singer Ezra Koenig (b. 1984) complained,

I think that anybody who’s anti-selfie is really just a hater. Because, truthfully, why shouldn’t people take pictures of themselves? When I’m on Instagram and I see that somebody took a picture of themselves, I’m like, “Thank you.” I don’t need to see a picture of the sky, the trees, plants. There’s only one you.

The selfie as worthwhile endeavour seems to be the consensus, but what about the quieter people who don’t fit? Kaur (b. 1992) is uniquely positioned to recalibrate this angst in a way that accommodates contemporary poetry’s niche market. Down to the design of her print editions, she fuses this perennial anxiety with the social elements of the internet. Kaur’s poems are selfies for people who are uncomfortable with selfies.

This progression from reading to writing to publishing is built into the format of Milk and Honey. Its first untitled section of text that is recognizable as a standalone lyric poem (following the epigraph and before the table of contents) reads,

my heart woke me crying last night
how can i help i begged
my heart said
write the book[.]

An educative element manifests in the form of the print book and the reader’s progression through that book, creating a social-media-time Künstlerroman—a novel that traces the growth of an artist, often culminating in the fictional protagonist’s transformation into the author herself. If the only people who read poetry are poets, Kaur’s poetry might be for people just opening up to that possibility.

This dynamic of participation and writerly growth is nothing new in Canadian poetry. Rob Taylor’s contributor reflection in Beyond Forgetting: Celebrating 100 Years of Al Purdy (2018) brings it into clearer focus. Taylor states that Al Purdy was the first contemporary poet in Canada he discovered: “His poems, and his personal history, made me believe it was possible that a Canadian kid with no immediately discernible talent could eventually make it if he worked hard enough.” Taylor’s What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation, also published in 2018, is where one finds Thammavongsa’s praise. Kaur “is not nothing” in that she “means something to me because once when I had mentioned I was a Canadian poet, I was told, ‘That’s nothing.’ I was so humiliated for having thought myself one and then humiliated because I didn’t say anything back because of the possibility that maybe it was a valid point about me.” Thammavongsa suggests that Kaur’s poetry deconstructs the mores of good taste and is thus anti-elitist. Kaur is for people who don’t explicitly make the leap into “I want to be a poet” the way Taylor and his readership do. Her poetic practice resonates with their contemplation of whether they could write poetry—a process that begins with the question of whether one can read poetry.

Hence the journey in Milk and Honey: from hailing social media’s sensitive rebels, to initiating potential readers and subsequent writers of poetry, to demonstrating with the unfolding form of her books her attainment of the position of published author. Kaur makes frequent use of familiar prose and dramatic techniques to gently ease readers into the concept of “poetic” language:

you whisper
i love you
what you mean is
i don’t want you to leave

She reverses poetry’s complicating role, using the medium to demystify distinctions between what we want and what we need. The poems fumble, for what might be the first time, with identifiably poetic language, expressing their linguistic discoveries in the almost-metaphor that bubbles up from stale wordplay:

the night after you left
i woke up so broken
the only place to put the pieces
were the bags under my eyes

Another of Kaur’s devices is her “signing” of poems. Several pages into Milk and Honey, a poem featuring a discussion with a therapist concludes, “- midweek sessions,” the line set off from the poem’s body and working like a title. Subsequent signings are aphoristic or imperative (“- be patient”); some summon conceptions of a participatory readership as much as corny togetherness: “- 7 billion people,” “- to all you young poets.”

The final poem’s signature refers to its own situation in the book format, starting “you have made it to the end” and ending, “- a love letter from me to you.” The insistence on authenticity of voice hails a readership of novice poets with whom an epistolary format could be expected to resonate. The book is also foregrounded as a saleable product—an authentic print object, one of which readers might someday themselves produce. Its paratext, with explanatory sections signed “about the writer” and “about the book,” elucidates its themes using the same proto-poetry of the book proper: “milk and honey is a / collection of poetry about / love / loss.…” It’s both a book-club list of discussion questions and more of Kaur, tying things up for us before we close the volume.

Kaur’s second book, The Sun and Her Flowers (2017), continues the progression with quirkier pieces that register as real poems—ones that, isolated from their context, would likely be recognized as such even by a critic like Rebecca Watts:

even if they’ve been separated
they’ll end up together
you can’t keep lovers apart
no matter how much
i pluck and pull them
my eyebrows always
find their way
back to each other


The combination of irreverence and earnestness and the recognizable lyric craft of the line endings (separated / together / apart, always / way) have come full circle from speaking-to-the-people rule-breaking to poetry as rarified practice, without losing the half-wrought quality that has made Kaur resonate with so many people.


A few years from her debut, Kaur’s demonstrative apparatus is being replicated in more specific areas. John Barton has identified similarities between Kaur’s poetry and that of Billy-Ray Belcourt (Driftpile Cree Nation), an author who has found popular appeal as well as success in Canadian literature’s prize economy. Barton applies the doctrine of “NO FILTERS” to both writers. Describing Belcourt’s poems from This Wound Is a World (2017) as having “an impact so immediate they need only to be read once,” Barton argues that Belcourt’s seeming simplicity lucidly depicts the damages of settler colonialism and, in returning to family and culture, prevents his “academically gained intellectual apparatus” from becoming “mere theoretical badinage.”

Belcourt’s poetry often features an educative dynamic. Only instead of dealing in Kaur’s universals—parental discord, substance abuse, intimacy—Belcourt constructs his emotive reflections using the tools of critical theory. Jumping ahead to NDN Coping Mechanisms (2019), one finds much of what Barton praises in Belcourt’s debut:

Poets pledge allegiance to a country I don’t believe in.
A country is how men hunt in the dark.
A man I love but don’t trust kisses me
the way a soldier might press his face into
the soil of his old country.

But the passage illustrates that simple sentiment and complex intellectualism are not exactly opposing parts in Belcourt’s poetry. It’s from the book’s opening poem, “A Country Is How Men Hurt”—a title that alone assumes knowledge of the anti-nationalist sentiment informing much literary study in Canada, according to which the settler-colonial state is a violent project of domination that also masks the psychological deficits of those who enforce its boundaries. The language may seem impenetrable to someone who finds Kaur’s work appealing but is armed only with a high-school or vocational-school diploma. By the end of an Honours BA, however, it often rolls off the tongue, to educated people even functioning as a kind of shorthand for broader progressive values. To me, Belcourt’s poems read like tightly stylized, at times almost impossibly compact versions of a graduate student’s brainstorming session for a seminar paper.

Belcourt’s work is also demonstrative on the level of craft. “Treaty 8” is an erasure poem based on the titular document, the unequal treaty imposed in 1899 on the First Nations of the Lesser Slave Lake area of what is today central Alberta. Blocks of redacted text include within them revealed words and phrases. The first page, as rendered on my Kindle reader, features twenty-seven lines of prose, with a mere eighteen words surviving the redaction. Pulled out is the following: “THE LIMITS / OF // 1898 REPRESENTING // 1899 /// INDIAN / SUBJECTS / AND TO ARRANGE THEM WILL / THEM AND OTHER SUBJECTS / TO.…” Given that the words come from an explicitly political administrative document, the erasure seems to show primarily what it is an erasure might do—that is, highlight buried or insidious elements of a source text. It’s a “you can do it too,” but for the enterprising poet-archivist rather than the larger milieu hailed by Kaur.

Kaur’s newest book, Home Body, also uses more explicitly social-justice language, at times moving away from affirmation and into preachiness. I have a younger normie cousin who has not pursued a graduate degree in the humanities. While I’m not especially in touch with her, I’ve noticed through her social media posts that she was at some point interested in Instapoetry. I’m not sure how Kaur specifically has figured into this interest, but I can be reasonably certain that a poem like the following—

look for the women in the room
who have less space than you
hear them
and act on what they’re saying

amplify indigenous. trans. black.
brown. women of color voices.

—is not quite as in keeping with her interests. The mainstreaming of social-justice topics, along with the identity-based content scattered among her previous books, may mean that Kaur’s readership will remain intact. But it’s hard to imagine that moving further into Belcourt’s range of topics will widen her appeal.

It’s a contradiction that we find in the preponderance of graduate and creative-writing programs even when career opportunities are more limited than ever. With no sign that the average (working-class) person will improve their situation under whatever crueler neoliberalism emerges from the pandemic, all the young-ish reader can hope for is to be a success story—which maybe just means becoming famous. With progressive politicians and cultural elites having failed to present much of an appealing worldview or way forward, it’s encouraging that, as Kaur shows us, new generations of readers have come to envision the heartening as synonymous with the heartfelt. But this raises the question of whether the appeal of Kaur’s you could do it too may resonate as you too can be someone—a destination that, for younger people of most backgrounds, seems increasingly out of reach.

—From CNQ 110 (Fall 2021/Winter 2022)

Carl Watts teaches at Huazhong University of Science and Technology. He has published two poetry chapbooks, Reissue and Originals, and Oblique Identity: Form and Whiteness in Recent Canadian Poetry.

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