The definition of modern poetry these days is one that forces the average reader to ask: what is poetry even? Is it a strict scheme of rhymes and a rigid number of syllables? Or is it just a bunch of words spewed and shaped in bizarre ways? In the name of accessibility, have people distorted the very existence of poetry and the beauty it entails?
Good poetry make”
-Not Rupi Kaur, 2021
Modern poetry can be accessible and good. In this piece, I’ll make a case for good, accessible poetry by showcasing examples that are digestible without the flaws of Kaur-esque poetry. But before that, let’s discuss how contemporary poetry has emerged.
Some Well-Needed History on Modern Poetry
When I say ‘modern poetry,’ I’m not referring to Modernist poetry in the 20th century, but confessional poetry. This emerged in the 50s and the 60s. It focuses on individual experiences of people, taking a deep dive into our humanity, trauma, and desires.
Issues such as assault, suicidal tendencies, and mental illness are explored within such poems. They gained popularity partly as most of these topics are ‘taboo’, like discovering your sexuality. The aftermath of WWII and the Cold War brought a sense of despair. Individuals looked within themselves to find happiness, rather than focusing on societal issues.
Accessibility vs. Quality
I can’t deny that Rupi Kaur has made poetry accessible. However, most of her poems are underdeveloped and void of any interesting poetic techniques. A common critique is that her poems are mostly broken-up lines.
If we look at how language has evolved, it makes sense that the works of Shakespeare and Dickinson seem inaccessible. Thus, people assume all poetry is complicated. However, though Tolkien and Robert Jordan have incredibly different writing styles due to being from different eras, their works are technically sound.
Accessible Modern Poetry That’s Good: Examples
Conversations of Mental Health in Modern Poetry
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss”
Rupi Kaur is often hailed as an advocate for mental health, but I can name several poets with better poetry with the same themes. Langston Hughes’ ‘Suicide Note’ uses alliteration and enjambment – the technique of using unnatural line breaks – and is 3 lines long. It leaves you wondering if the narrator takes the jump. It is a profound exploration of how suicide feels ‘peaceful’ to someone who is depressed, with his deliberate usage of the words ‘calm’ and ‘cool.’
Mental health issues have been at the forefront of contemporary poetry. Poets like Sabrina Benaim and Neil Hillborn dig deep in expressing the brutality and isolation associated with mental illness. Benaim’s famous poem “Explaining My Depression to My Mother: A Conversation” portrays how trying to express yourself can seem like an insurmountable barrier; the ending lines “Mom still doesn’t understand. Mom don’t you see, neither can I?” haunts the readers long after the book has been closed.
Same Style, Different Depths of Meaning
“We have calcium in our bones, iron in our veins,
Carbon in our souls, nitrogen in our brains,
93 percent stardust, with souls made of flames,
We are all just stars, that have people names”
-93% Stardust, Nikita Gill
I’d argue Nikita Gill is the most similar to Rupi; she inspects many of the same themes of femininity, sexuality, heartbreak, and loneliness, but has a far wider range of techniques she uses in her work – incorporating various rhyme schemes and forms. Her use of enjambment and technique is noticeable, with meaning laced everywhere.
Leaving Traces of A Homeland
“You are standing in the minefield again,
Someone who is dead now
told you it is where you will learn
-Snippet from “Tell Me Something Good,” Ocean Vuong
Rupi Kaur has been criticized for not delving deep into her Indo-Canadian identity. In these cases, I turn to Ocean Vuong, my favorite poet. His poems dive deep into his Vietnamese-American identity, the repercussions of war, and his family history. Similarly, Warsan Shire’s poem “Conversations About Home (At The Deportation Centre)” reflects the racism faced by immigrants in a landscape that’s shifting towards anti-immigration policies.
Thus, as you can see, it is untrue that – to be ‘accessible’, quality has to be compromised upon. You can still incorporate myriad techniques; use innovative word choices. You can explore complex themes and complicated conversations with the simplest prose. At the end of the day, that’s what poetry should be – not a string of words with no semblance of meaning or grace in its verses.