On brand, Rupi Kaur
After months of listening in on Kaurophobia, I’m out of patience with any person—or website—trying to riff off her to establish their own intellectual identity. Rupi Kaur does not need me to defend her. Not just because her first book Milk And Honey sold 2.5 million copies worldwide. Or because she has 2.4 million followers on Instagram and her performances run to packed houses. Not even because her second book, The Sun And Her Flowers, debuted at No.1 on The New York Times Best Sellers list in October. I can hear you say: Having a large audience is not a mark of merit. A greater marker of Kaur’s success is the ability of the 25-year-old from a Toronto suburb to command both universal love and envy.
Earlier this year, for instance, a writer pitching stories from a literature festival asked if there were any speakers that enticed us “but no—not Rupi Kaur. I couldn’t,” she said. Babe.com recently published a quiz: Is this a Rupi Kaur poem or some shit we made up? (I fared reasonably well, 8/10). Her long-form critics belong to the same camp that otherwise celebrates women’s agency and Charles Bukowski, whom it is now fashionable to admire.
I attended Kaur’s last performance as part of her India tour in Mumbai with a colleague who had worked in publishing. We went because we were curious about the Rupi Kaur phenomenon and came away concluding that this was an evening exceptionally well spent.
Kaur has the demeanour of a sexy, slow rapper. She’s an informal diva—she’ll say bless you to an audience member who sneezes. While her overuse of floral metaphors can be borderline frustrating, she has tremendous stage presence, with just the right degree of vulnerability.
Kaur has said in past interviews that she was around 18 while writing Milk And Honey, which is why she feels connected to her audience of largely millennial girls; part of a sisterhood. The audience in Mumbai was largely female, but not all millennial. Halfway in, she called an audience member on stage, linked her arms affectionately around her neck, and together they read alternating lines of a piece. Her take on her parents’ immigrant experience—her father is a truck driver, her mother a homemaker—and particularly her mother’s navigation of a new landscape, drew the most applause. Over an hour and a half, the audience giggled, laughed, clapped, snapped fingers (she asked us to), swooned, sobbed, cried. Two pieces, Broken English and Advice I Would Have Given My Mother On Her Wedding Day, were standouts. In the latter, her advice to her mother comprises, “When your mother dies/ fly back for the funeral/money comes and goes/a mother is once in a lifetime.” I was overwhelmed. There were women crying around me. To dismiss Kaur’s impact on this vast majority is to view culture from a vantage of extreme arrogance.
Rated as a “poet” whose concerns stand the test of time, like Bashō or Khayyam, she will fail. Rated as one who makes you shift perspective—à la W.H. Auden or Rainer Maria Rilke—she will fail. Rated as one you would quote to a friend on a happy Saturday morning—à la Frank O’Hara or Wendy Cope—she will fail.
The problem lies precisely in judging her through those constructs. Rupi Kaur is her own brand with her own narrative of success. If you rate those poets by the parameters that define Kaur, it is they who will fail.
Rupi Kaur is an exercise in formatted aesthetics. Business schools should make a case study of her. She’s a pop star in couture, putting as much care into her visual identity as she does in packaging and presenting her spoken word pieces. She has a personal stylist who dresses her in Dior, Prabal Gurung and Proenza Schouler, among others.
Part of her success is that it is hard to define and hence hard to copy. When is a poet not a poet? It is a question that the British poet Rebecca Watts’ disdainful commentary on the success of young women such as Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur prompts us to ask. She says “the new poets are products of a cult of personality”. It is a poor analysis. What was Virginia Woolf’s prose if not personality? But Kaur doesn’t mind. In an interview to PBS in January, when asked if it hurts when her poetry is critiqued for being more therapeutic than real poetry, she said, “No, not really... And it’s because I never really intended to get into the literary world. This is actually not for you. This is for that, like, 17-year-old brown woman in Brampton who is not even thinking about that space, who is just trying to live, survive, get through her day.”
In the performance in Mumbai, she forgot the words of a poem, apologized and started again. It’s part of brand Rupi Kaur to be relatable, whereas relatability has never been the mandate for an artist. Don’t brand her as something she’s not and judge her by it. Stop hating yourself and calling it contempt for Rupi Kaur.
Anindita Ghose tweets @aninditaghose