The Rise of the Poetess

Poetry’s reputation in modern society is, to put it mildly, terrible.

Poetry? Who even reads that anymore? It’s too confusing, too difficult, and always too long or too short, too cliche or too nonsensical. It doesn’t rhyme — wasn’t that, like, the whole point of poetry in the first place? Wouldn’t you agree that a poem is just a song, but less interesting?

Besides, why write poetry when no one reads it? Why not try your hand at writing fiction? Then you’d at least have a chance of success!

“I, too, dislike it,” Marianne Moore wrote of poetry in the early twentieth century, and this declaration has haunted us poets ever since. No one likes poetry, the voice says. Not even poets!

And we poets know our place — we don’t sit at the popular kids’ table with the novelists and those damn YA fiction writers. No — we eat our lunch on the outskirts of the cafeteria, sandwiched between the flash fictionists and the prose poets (at least we’re slightly more popular than them), and across from some group that writes the other obscure form of literature that only writers read (hi, creative nonfictionists).

Worst of all, we’ve heard the rumor: poetry is dead. And, if not dead already, then definitely dying. Sigh. As if we weren’t angsty enough.

Some people argue that poetry deserves what it’s gotten. That it’s allowed academia — and academia’s corresponding MFA programs and literary journals (which seriously lack diversity) — to define the genre, to turn it into an elitist form of literature read only by the people who can afford to put the time and money into studying it.

And, in a lot of ways, they’re right: poetry has gotten what it deserves. Academia produces MFA students, who will eventually run the nation’s renowned literary journals and publishing houses, and who will therefore eventually decide what is and isn’t worthy of publication. And, usually, what’s worthy of publication is writing that feels like it would be stamped with an MFA badge of approval — writing that feels academic in nature, more or less.

(Not that “academic” is inherently a bad thing. But it is a bad thing when “academic” is synonymous with a curriculum that emphasizes a mostly white, mostly straight, mostly cisgender, mostly male agenda and calls it an education. Which it too often does. This is a problem not only in MFA programs, but also in higher education as a whole.)

And, while modern day fiction has grown to encompass a wide range of genres, poetry has yet to do the same. Fiction separates its “academic” genre (literary fiction) from its “everyday” genres (young adult fiction, science fiction, romance novels, etc). Poetry, however, has not expanded in such a way — and because of this, the average reader assumes that poetry’s singular nature is highbrow and unrelatable.

So it should come as no surprise that poetry’s audience has, for years, been largely academic, and even more specifically, that the audience of poetry has been largely other poets. Which hasn’t exactly led to average readers picking up poetry collections in their spare time. Which hasn’t exactly led to the expansion of the genre, and has underscored the question all poets have asked themselves at one time or another — is poetry dead?

I’ll say this: sure, poetry is dead. If by which you mean that poetry by mostly elite, mostly white, mostly straight, mostly cisgender, mostly dead men is dead.

Because if you ask bestselling poetess Rupi Kaur’s nearly one million fans whether poetry is dead, the response you’ll receive is a resounding NO.

Kaur and her poetess compatriots — Warsan Shire, Nayyirah Waheed, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Amanda Lovelace, Sarah Kay, Alicia Cook, Ijeoma Umebinyuo, Upile Chisala, and Lang Leav, to name a few — are transforming the landscape of poetry into an intersectional feminist revolution. And they, along with their readers, are sounding their barbaric yawps across the rooftops of the world. Or, in other words, they’re letting everyone know that poetry is doing just fine, thank you very much.

And this very-much-living, breathing, pulsing poetess movement is bucking expectations of academia in favor of returning poetry to its roots. Poetry predates literacy, and it was an oral tradition long before it was a written one: back then, poetry was used to tell epic tales, to pass family histories down from one generation to the next.

While some of these poetesses practice spoken word poetry (Kaur and Kay, for example), others do not. However, their aesthetics on the page reflect poetry’s beginnings as an oral tradition: colloquial language, personal narratives told through sociopolitical frameworks, simple storytelling techniques, and relatability.

Some of these books — Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, Waheed’s salt., Ijeoma Umebinyuo’s Questions for Ada — read like intimate, heartrending histories, handed down from mother to daughter.

Others — like Kaur’s Milk and Honey, Lovelace’s The Princess Saves Herself in this One, and Cook’s Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately — feel as though they’re secrets a friend is whispering in your ear.

Daley-Ward’s Bone and Upile Chisala’s soft magic. weave poignant images into their raw and vulnerable storytelling; Leav rhymes her lines in simple schemes, her melodies catchy and reminiscent of nursery rhymes recited before bedtime; Kay’s verses extend like magic from your fingertips, only to return and land on the tip of your nose.

Each poem stands alone, and yet these books are more than the sum of their parts: each poem builds upon the one before it to form a narrative of sorts. Unlike in most fictional worlds, where the details of the world are given to you, these books of poetry leave the details to your imagination: the poetesses give you a “dreamscape,” through which you can wander and fill with the details of your own life.

Yes — these books are relatable as hell.

And they’re also rebellious as hell. All you have to do is glance at the page to see that these poetess’ poetry is in rebellion.

It’s rebelling against centuries of being talked over, through, and around: these poems are short (sometimes even one line), but they’ve got teeth.

It’s rebelling against the hierarchical expectations of the English language: Kaur’s work — along with Waheed’s, Chisala’s, and Lovelace’s — rely solely on lowercase letters and minimal punctuation, bespeaking an equality of sorts — each word holds the same weight on the page.

It’s rebelling against rigidity: the poems use line breaks to soften the tension, to reflect the rise and fall of language, as though the poems are conversing with one another.

It’s rebelling against the limitations of labels: often the poetesses’ poems go without titles — instead they have more conversational “post-scripts” at the end.

And this rebellion, this sociopolitical poetry rebellion, is being led by women writers who do not have MFAs — some of whom do not have a college degree. These writers are immigrants, women of color, women who identify as LGBTQIA+, women of various backgrounds and religions and ethnicities.

It’s a significant moment because, while women (and still mostly white, straight, cisgender women) have always had a seat at the poetry table (think Sappho), we’ve never been the majority leaders, rule makers, and decision makers of the genre.

Until now.

And these poetesses are, without a doubt, succeeding. They’re even (gasp!) making money writing poetry. Something that has, before now, been nearly unheard of (unless, of course, you’re the Poet Laureate of the United States).

So, how’d they do it?

To start, they bypassed poetry’s academic gatekeepers by way of social media: they initially found popularity on Tumblr, Instagram, and other social media sites, before releasing their collections through Amazon’s self-publishing subsidiary, CreateSpace (and many have since been picked up by the publishing house Andrews McMeel).

Kaur and Lovelace, for example, began on Tumblr; both were later picked up by Andrews McMeel. Kaur has since become a #1 New York Times’ bestselling author, and Lovelace has since become the first self-published author to win the Goodreads’ Choice Award for poetry.

Success always results from a timely collision of things, and the rise of the poetesses is no different. Social media plays a central role, as does the continued acceptance and validation of the indie/self-published author scene. Mostly, though, their success comes from the bold, unapologetic nature of their work colliding with an audience who, especially in light of current events, is hungry for both empowerment and community. The poetesses seamlessly blend the personal with the sociopolitical; their writing demands diversity, inclusivity, and progress. It demands an overhaul of the rules that have traditionally governed the poetic genre. And their audiences, it seems, are demanding the same.

Of course, commercial success isn’t always the best way to measure art, and poetry is a shape-shifting, ephemeral thing. But regardless of whether you think that “the age of the poetess” is the best or worst thing to ever happen to poetry, it is heralding in something long overdue: the expansion of poetry into more than a singular, academic genre.

With more and more poetesses arriving on the scene, perhaps poetry will soon have enough diversity and momentum to adopt fiction’s genres: “literary poetry,” “young adult poetry,” and the like. For now, though, the rise of the poetess is quickly making poetry the protest art-form choice of our generation, and they’re doing it on their own terms.

They’re making poetry their own.