The rising ubiquity of social media in today’s ‘always-on’ (or always-online) lifestyle has seen an unprecedented rise in contemporary poets publishing their work online. Through social media apps Instagram and Twitter, I find that a large number of posts present me with small, bite-sized nuggets of poetry. In a society that is increasingly seeking an immediate, direct and, more importantly, brief exposure to literature, it makes me question: is this form of poetry good for us? Is it ‘good’ at all?

With the constraints of a small Instagram screen comes the need to ruthlessly cut words from one’s verse, thus the term ‘micropoetry’ is born. Is this the death of the Ginsbergian Howl; pages and pages of dense poetry that takes an age to get through but also settles in your thoughts for days, weeks, years? Is it the same with Twitter, with the 280-character limit? Poets these days are having to conform to an eerily specific word count, so as not to spill over into a new Tweet or post. And what’s more, they are having to say exactly what they want to say in such a constrained, little snippet.

Such a popular trend in digital literature has, unsurprisingly, become extremely polarising. The journalistic debate about the validity of these texts has seen writers both commend and condemn the trend. Some, such as Sheila Marikar, have seen digital poetry to qualify ‘merely window shopping’ which can be both true and not. If a reader, such as myself, were to be introduced to an Instagram writer, (Rupi Kaur is a great example to use given her now international acclaim) the likelihood of me searching for and subsequently buying their book is heightened. Although I am a poetry reader by nature, a fellow Instagram user may also be tempted by an easy-to-read but suggestive phrase they see on their feed, coupled with a nice simple line drawing, right? Is this the new way of advertising poetry to the younger generations? Since the publication of Kaur’s first book milk and honey in 2015, digital media poetry has become a dominant force in the literary market. In fact, BookScan reported that poetry sales in 2017 were twice what they were in 2016- so people really are reading more poetry.

That said, you could also argue that Instagram poetry, which on the whole tends to propagate clichés about modern, unrequited love and heartbreak, forges a new superficial way of reading -- scrolling. Should we be using social media as a tool for advertising and exposing the classics: the great works of literature? Or should we try and move with the times? With often suggestive phrases that, at times (not always), constitute nothing more than a fusion of motivational quotes that you would not be seen dead reading in a newspaper horoscope, but have no problem thumbing through on your Instagram feed, it likely begs the question: is this poetry even ‘good’? I think the better question is whether this poetry is having a negative effect on modern readers. My answer? No. Any reading is good reading. If you’re scrolling through your feed and photos from last night (wild, right?) merge with r.h.Sin’s words to the wise or Elvira Sastre’s bilingual expressions, you never know, something might just strike a chord.

Think of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen for example. Although not Instagram poetry per se, Rankine’s work shares the aesthetics and artistry of much digital poetry. Also, if you search ‘#claudiarankine’, you will find a plethora of readers’ posts sharing Rankine’s work with other users, who will then become readers. With a merging of linguistic and visual forms, Citizen has been groundbreakingly successful since its publication in 2014. In Rankine’s account of racially-charged interactions and micro-aggressions in modern America, the non-traditional poetic style highlights the ways in which the digital space is becoming a useful site from which to project societal concerns.

I would argue that finally, writers are beginning to shrug off the “struggling artist” ideology and, rather than move to Paris and live off half-stale baguettes, simply write. Roland Barthes wrote about ‘art for art’s sake’ and in many ways I would say that we are re-entering a new kind of Romanticism, where poets are publishing their work for free, available to all with internet access. Even more interesting is that some of these poets (i.e. @nayyirah.waheed and @elvirasastre) have published their work in print, and yet continue to produce new material online for their loyal readership. 

This is a two-way street too. Not just any Tom, Dick or Harry could approach a publisher with one stanza and sit back, waiting to be published and sell-out in Waterstones. But with social media, the digital space can be anyone’s and everyone’s writing desk. That isn’t to say that everybody should write poetry with publishing in mind - there are bound to be some awful lyricist’s out there - but the point is that we can write. The freedom afforded by social media means that we are all at liberty to write outside of the boundaries of traditional publishing processes. Regardless of previous experience, whether you have a BA in English Literature or you did an evening class in Creative Writing, to write poetry for social media, internet access is your only need. 

In this way are we entering a new era of digital age poetry. We are becoming less and less concerned with the aesthetic expectations laid out in the Western canon, although The Odyssey and Hamlet will always be great works of literature, it is now time to adapt the concept of a prestigious work to the age of digitality and social media. And get reading.