Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Or would you rather take the road less traveled by? This is the way the world ends… I don’t know what I’ve become, but I know that anywhere is safer than here.
Oh, did you not recognize that last one? Among the William Shakespeare, the Robert Frost, the T.S. Eliot, did the final words of “Home” by Warsan Shire throw you off? Her poetry is just as impactful as “The Road Less Traveled By” or “The Hollow Men” – except instead of being studied in literature classes, her words are featured in Beyonce’s “Lemonade” visual album.
Shire’s “Home” is a poignant poem written in 2017 by a Somalian refugee about the journey asylum seekers take when fleeing a war-torn country. The work was published, like most modern poetry, online.
Through a Tumblr post lamenting a lost loved one, a Notes screengrab on Twitter detailing thoughts on another black man’s heedless death, or an impassioned TikTok video about the impact of climate change, poetry’s reception has stepped back from the center stage it had been in Homer or even Edgar Allen Poe’s time. Now, poetry has spread across the far reaches of the internet, so that even someone without any interest in the literary form can stumble across it.
For example, TikTok user @madelineaford, a makeup and fashion influencer, had been getting a lot of comments on her videos regarding “pretty privilege” and men suggesting that working harder on a personality negates the purpose of “looking pretty.” In response, Ford read Shay Alexi’s 2016 spoken-word poem, “Song of the Prettybird,” in a relevant and captivating delivery. Not only did she bring Alexi’s words to life with flawless execution, but she also became the character as she wore a full face of makeup and a low-cut pink ensemble as she said the words, “Pigeon man wants pretty bird to pretty bird until pretty bird fulfills ideas of prettiness.”
That two-minute, twenty-seven-second video got 5.6 million views and nearly 11,000 comments, including from verified users like musicians Madison Beer and Vials. The original poet’s work gained 33,000 views.
Spoken word is not the only kind of poetry that has gained popularity in the last decade: “Instapoets,” a name for a writer who uses minimalist fonts and art to post short poems on social media, can get thousands of likes and follower counts into the millions.
Perhaps the most famous of these is poet Rupi Kaur, whose poetry journey began in performance and then moved to Tumblr. In 2013, she began posting her work to Instagram, where her enjambments about love, abuse, and being a woman of color started out by getting an average of 3,000 likes – now, her poems receive around 150,000. A serif font accompanied by a black-and-white, hand-drawn image illustrated by the author herself catches the eye of casual social media scrollers, reaching an audience that would never have never sought out a verse on their own. Today, Rupi Kaur has 4.4 million Instagram followers, including stars like Shawn Mendes and Blake Lively.
So the literary critics of social media poetry must be asked: Would Lord Byron have 4.4 million Instagram followers, or would today’s readers scroll right past the long-form iambic tetrameter of “She Walks In Beauty?” Would TikTok users stop to hear Walt Whitman perform “Oh Captain! My Captain!” or would he be dismissed as another clout-chasing white man?
Poetry has had to change and adapt over the years to accommodate a new generation of consumers. The truth is that if a modern poet wants their work to truly be read and appreciated, they have to post it online. Whether the poem is about current affairs, like Warsan Shire, or is visually remarkable, like Rupi Kaur, contemporary readers are looking for contemporary poems: which includes the way the poem is written and the medium through which it is presented, in addition to the content itself. Though modern poets may not be analyzed in a classroom, their words can be just as impactful to society and culture as “The Odyssey” was to Ancient Greece.
Anyone can be a poet today, with free vehicles of distribution via social media, and is no longer something only read and written by the wealthy. It is also evident that the next generation is still interested in poetry, if TikTok comments and Instagram followers are anything to go by.
So what’s next, after social media poetry becomes a thing of the past? Only time will tell, but one thing is certain: humanity will always need poetry to express the soul, no matter how the words are consumed. So when it comes to undermining the importance of poetry in modern society, Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” says it best: