Giving a fresh meaning to the notion of a poetry slam, the august poetry journal PN Review has published a stinging critique of the “rise of a cohort of young female poets” led by the likes of Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur, describing their work as characterised by “the open denigration of intellectual engagement and rejection of craft”.
Poet Rebecca Watts took to the pages of PN Review to lay out her disdain for “the cult of the noble amateur”, and her despair at the effect of social media on poetry. Highlighting the work of poets such as Kaur (whose debut collection Milk and Honey has sold more than 1m copies worldwide), Tempest and, in particular, McNish, Watts attacks the “cohort of young female poets who are currently being lauded by the poetic establishment for their ‘honesty’ and ‘accessibility’”.
Poets and readers have been divided on the rise of performance poets in print. Younger poets using social media to gain an audience – Tempest and McNish on YouTube, and Kaur on Instagram, where she has more than two million followers – have been dismissed as populist, while their often extremely autobiographical poetry has been variously praised as brave, or criticised as simple and solipsistic.
According to Nielsen data, these three poets have sold more than 275,000 books in the UK, with Kaur alone responsible for half of that figure. Both McNish and Tempest have won the Ted Hughes award for new work in poetry.
Citing lines such as Kaur’s “you should see me / when my heart is broken / i don’t grieve / i shatter”, Watts writes that “of all the literary forms, we might have predicted that poetry had the best chance of escaping social media’s dumbing effect; its project, after all, has typically been to rid language of cliche”.
However, she finds, “in the redefinition of poetry as ‘short-form communication’ the floodgates have been opened. The reader is dead: long live consumer-driven content and the ‘instant gratification’ this affords.”