The Dilemma of #Instapoetry
By Alessia DegraeveDecember 8, 2023
What changes—what is gained or lost—when we place a poem on Instagram, that prison of meaningless scrolling? Does a poem lose its sacredness when posted on a social platform? Or, does Instagram poetry gain new resonance, urging us to pause our scrolling, to dissect, and to reflect? Does Instagram poetry help or harm our contemporary engagement with poetry?
Part of what I find so interesting about these questions is that they require us to contend with a contradiction inherent in discussions of poetry. Poetry is sacred and rigorous. I think of Louise Glück, who said, “‘Poet’ must be used cautiously; it names an aspiration, not an occupation. In other words: not a noun for a passport.” Yet, poetry is also necessary, and universal—Audre Lorde says, “Poetry is not only a dream or vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives.” Can poetry be simultaneously sacred and quotidian? I think so.
In a LARB interview, Elizabeth Metzger spoke with @poetryisnotaluxury, the anonymous owner of one of the most popular Instagram poetry accounts ever. It’s wonderful to see such a large, quantifiable number of people engaging with poetry, especially amidst the inescapable anxiety that poetry is dead, or dying, or already extinct.
The project of @poetryisnotaluxury is an extension of Lorde’s argument—poetry is a necessary part of the way human beings contend with being alive. The account is titled after Lorde’s essay of the same name: “I think Audre Lorde should be required reading,” the account owner said to Metzger, “just reading the title ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury.’ Think about what those five words are doing. It’s the thesis for life—a simple way of saying that we need art to survive.”
If @poetryisnotaluxury were a physical space, the account owner said, it would have a stage. “I thought of a stage because I want there to be a place of performance and ceremony inside of a community center,” they said. “I suppose IG is sort of a virtual stage. It has become such a place of community and performance.”
If Instagram is a stage, are there times when poetry becomes performative? Or when participating in, reposting, and sharing poems becomes a kind of disingenuous act of signaling a relationship to an elitist literary community? Poetry is an art form that’s become tied to the academic institution—those who can study, write, and share poetry are often those who have access to higher education. On Instagram, does poetry become recontextualized as a symbol of belonging to an in-group of the literary elite?
There are times when Instagram strips poetry of its authenticity, its ability to be a raw product of human experience. Social media’s fixation on the quantification of “likes” perpetuates a space centered around the idea of likability. I spoke with Maggie Millner, a poet who has restricted her own engagement with social media for this reason: “It’s a very dangerous thing, I think, for a poet to sort of build into their process the anticipation of the desire to be liked and the anticipation of people’s approval,” Millner said. “When I’m really working on a poem, I am thinking of it as a sort of aesthetic object with its own center of gravity and its own integrity, and I have aesthetic goals for it that feel to me actually totally orthogonal to whether or not someone would heart it on Instagram.”
The dilemma of Instagram poetry speaks to the dilemma of social media as a site of simultaneous connection and isolation. In the contemporary age, everyone has access to one another. But the version of each other we have access to is constructed, performed, and controlled. How does poetry, what Lorde calls “the distillation of experience,” exist in a platform predicated on filtered experiences?
“If part of what poetry has maybe built into it, or part of what it’s especially conducive to, is a kind of arrested relationship to the flow of time, that might be sort of antithetical to the nature of scrolling,” Millner says. So, how do we reconcile the fast-paced, quantifiable likability of social media with poetry, an art form that seeks to dilate time, to get us to read slowly, deeply, and carefully?
Millner suggests that the merit of Instagram poetry might lie in its ability to be a gateway into the art of poetry—a kind of first invitation to join the conversation, a tradition thousands of years in the making. “If poetry—or we might call it lyric utterance—if lyric utterance is a medium on which a kind of selfhood gets programmatized and performed in ways that it otherwise can’t be, then Instapoetry seems to me a way to begin to explore notions of individual selfhood and identity,” Millner said.
At its best, Instagram poetry is a community—a space for generative exploration and poetic exposure for those who may not encounter poetry anywhere else. At its worst, it’s performative—a space for virtue signaling and vacant verse. Instagram poetry, like social media, is as wonderful as it is terrible.
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