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“Being Accessible is a Bad Thing”: An Evening With Rupi Kaur

Jun. 28, 2022 at 3:10PM

“I want to apologize to all the women I have called beautiful before I’ve called them intelligent or brave” begins one of Rupi Kaur’s poems as she stands in front of a crowded audience in Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater. It’s a warm spring evening, you can feel the humidity hanging thick as the anticipation builds in the historic room. Kaur has us captivated by her relatable awkwardness, her nervous humor, and poignant words. We snap, clap, cheer, hoot and holler, laugh, and cry along with the woman who has brought us all together. Though she says she’s nervous, Kaur looks at home on stage, like she was born to speak her poetry out loud, line by line and verse by verse.

We sit enthralled—my friends Donna, Jared, and I—as she reads published poems from all three of her books, Milk and Honey, The Sun and Her Flowers, and the most recent, Home Body. And performs spoken word poems set to music with a colorful collage of photos and her artwork in the background. It’s a moving performance, with an ending I wasn’t quite expecting. For all of the love Kaur gets, she also gets a lot of hate.

Rupi Kaur, if you don’t know, is an Indian-born Canadian poet. She writes short, free-verse poetry that has been an inspiration to many—especially young women. So, I was a bit taken aback when I found out that she also happens to be highly unliked in the literary world and on the internet. Mostly for being too over the top and for not having any literary merit attributed to her work.

But, maybe you already knew that, and I’m simply behind the times. What I do know is that I went into that event an admirer and came out a fan. Now, if you’re not a fan, before you groan and click off this article, hear me out. You don’t have to like her work; everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But, do you dislike her work because you actually don’t like it or do you just feel compelled to hate on her because other people do?

Seeing Kaur in a Bookshop

A quick Google search will tell you that Kaur rose to fame on Instagram and with her debut book, Milk and Honey. She’s been dubbed an “Insta-poet” or a “Tumblr” poet—the type of poems you see overlaid on a dramatic photo of flowers or a sunset.

I admit I was a casual reader of hers. I had only read her debut work before going to the show. I knew of her from other women I had spoken to, women I respect. I first picked up Milk and Honey in a small bookshop in Belfast, Ireland while studying abroad. Some of her words, along with those of the poet, Amanda Lovelace, brought hot tears to my eyes, because I found them simple and relatable. I was a broke college student on the other side of the world, my debit card had been stolen, and I didn’t know if my credit card would see me to the end of this trip. I bought those books anyway.

I remember seeing her poems and artwork shared on social media, retweeting and sharing a few I related to, even though I didn’t follow her social accounts, personally. When I first heard Kaur was going to be in Milwaukee, I had an overwhelming desire to go. And I’m glad I did. Sitting in that theater, surrounded by like-minded people isn’t something I get to experience often. In fact, I live surrounded by people who have harshly different opinions, views, and interests than I do. It’s isolating and soul-crushing. I imagine trying to find your footing among other literary giants can be just as soul-crushing.

But, events like poetry readings, live Moth storytelling, and concerts are an escape from my mundane, isolating community. Here, I feel like I can breathe and relax. And I think, from what I could tell anyway, that’s how Kaur felt about being on stage too. I found the way she used comedy to hide her anxiety extremely relatable. It’s like the joke, “Did you have a healthy childhood, or are you funny now?”

When she talked about the anxieties of being a firstborn child, I related to it. I too, as Kaur wrote in a poem, have laid awake at night with the anxiety of wondering how I could contribute to my family’s income so that we weren’t poor—even though I was nine years old. When she spoke of sexual harassment, I related to it. Just two nights before the show I was told I wasn’t pretty enough to be sexually harassed—even though I have been sexually harassed for as long as I can remember. Especially as a bartender.

Not a shift goes by that some inappropriate comment is made about my body. At the height of the pandemic while working with a mask on, I was told that wearing a mask all the time must mean I’m comfortable wearing a ball gag. I stopped wearing low-cut shirts because I get asked to flash my tits all the time. And the constant touching. Touching my ass, touching my stomach, touching my shoulders. There’s three feet of bar between me and everyone else and those select few still worm their way into my personal space.

But it was my friend Donna that related to Kaur much more. Donna was born in India and immigrated to the United States when she was six. Similar to Kaur.

“I've been a fan of Rupi Kaur's work ever since I read Milk and Honey,’’ Donna says. “I remember picking up the book as soon as I saw her name on the cover. As an Indian woman, I felt like I never really read any popular poetry books created by another fellow South Asian.”

An interesting tidbit I found while doing research for this is that Kaur chose the surname “Kaur” for her pseudonym because it is the surname given to all Sikh women who were trying to break free from the caste system.

“Kaur is the name of every Sikh woman,” she told Elle Magazine. “—brought in to eradicate the caste system in India—and I thought, wouldn’t it be empowering if a young Kaur saw her name in a bookstore?”

When I followed up with Donna, she told me that she thinks it’s empowering that Kaur chose it as her surname. “I think Rupi’s effort to continue the tradition is honorable and empowering,” Donna says. “It helps celebrate the success of Sikh women while continuing to break down traditional societal dividers like the caste system.”

Everyone’s a Critic

A quick Google search will tell you that Kaur rose to fame on Instagram and with her debut book, Milk and Honey. She’s been dubbed an “Insta-poet” or a “Tumblr” poet—the type of poems you see overlaid on a dramatic photo of flowers or a sunset.

She made an interesting point. Is Kaur disliked because so many young women consume her works? Historically, young women’s interests are often looked at as silly or not worth garnishing any respect— something that still holds true today. Those things, like popular music and films, tend to garnish a lot of hate online. Funny enough, it was thousands of young women who fell in love with the Beatles, and now they’re considered one of the greatest bands of all time.

I’m not saying that Kaur is the greatest poet in the world. She isn’t Sylvia Plath or Maya Angelou or Emily Dickinson, but she isn’t trying to be. I do think there is value in poetry regardless of who is writing it. Poetry is deep and emotional. I applaud those who are brave enough to share those parts of them. Kaur is writing for herself and for those who connect with her words. Just because it happens to be young women doesn’t mean there isn’t any value to it.

As far as her punctuation, if anyone would have bothered to read the “about me” section on her website, she fully explains her stylistic choices.

“When I began writing poetry, I could read and understand my mother tongue (Punjabi), but I hadn’t yet developed the skill set to write poetry in it. Punjabi is written in either Shahmukhi or Gurmukhi script. Within the Gurmukhi script, there are no uppercase or lowercase letters. The letters are treated the same. I enjoy this symplicity. It’s symmetrical and straightforward. I also feel there is a level of equality this visuality brings to the work. A visual representation of what I want to see more of within the world: equallness.

The only punctuation that exists within Gurmukhi script is a period—represented through the following symbol: | So in order to symbolize and preserve these small details of my mother language, I ascribe them within my work. No case distinction and only periods. A visual manifestation and ode to my identity as a diasporic Punjabi Sikh woman. It is less about breaking the rules of English (although that’s pretty fun) but more about tying in my own history and heritage within my work.”

There is a lot to unpack when it comes to poetry and whether or not Kaur’s work has literary merit—a major criticism she faces. What is literary merit? I know it’s a term my AP English teacher used to throw around in high school when she scoffed at genre fiction (any sort of sci-fi, fantasy, crime, etc. … ) and how these genres could not compare to literary fiction. It’s also the term my writing professors in college used to laugh at because books with considerably high literary merit don't sell well. They used to tell me the publishing industry was kept alive by genre fiction and cookbooks. Again, don’t get me wrong, I love a classic.

But for those of you still wondering, according to

“Literary merit is the quality shared by all works of fiction that are considered to have aesthetic value. The concept of ‘literary merit’ has been criticized as being necessarily subjective, since personal taste determines aesthetic value, and has been derided as a ‘relic of a scholarly elite.’”

Hmm … like Instagram aesthetic? I digress.

I understand the importance of literary merit to some people. I’m not out here promoting trash books or anything. But, Kaur sells books and thus does her part to keep the publishing industry alive. She also encourages people to read, and don’t we want people to read rather than doom scroll on their phones? 

Overall, it doesn’t matter if you don’t like her. People still do. People still buy her books and go see her perform live. They did that with Harry Styles, too. Now, I wasn’t a One Direction fan but, after Harry Styles released his solo albums, and I realized how much respect he has for not only his young fans but for women and people in general, I really started to pay attention. His concerts are fun, uplifting, and yes—full of young, screaming girls. 

“Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music—short for popular, right?—have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy?” Styles said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “That’s not up to you to say. Music is something that’s always changing. [There are] no goal posts. Young girls like the Beatles. You're gonna tell me they’re not serious? How can you say young girls don’t get it?”

If you really think about it, it’s not so strange that young women would be attracted to someone who promotes being kind not only to yourself but to others as well. Someone who respects them. Aren’t these the idols we want people to have? 

Just because Kaur’s poetry doesn’t fit your idea of “art” doesn’t mean it isn’t art. What makes art so great is that there’s something for everyone.

About the author

Monica Cull

Monica is a writer, editor, weekend warrior, and professional concert goer.