Poetry review: ‘milk and honey’ by Rupi Kaur

‘milk and honey’, Kaur’s debut poetry collection, is one of few commercially popular works of poetry in recent years. This is not to say that no other significant or impressive collections of contemporary poetry have been published, but rather that no other has achieved such global popularity. Upon publication, ‘milk and honey’ sold over 1.5 million copies, defying expectations of modern poetry’s popularity. In an age favouring easily digested thriller novels and celebrity biographies far above verse, this collection of poetry is certainly the exception to the rule.

Yet ‘milk and honey’ is looked down upon as unchallenging ‘Instapoetry’ by some critics, popular largely due to following modern poetry’s expected aesthetic. With its use of lower-case letters, abstract sketches, and free verse, I can understand the initial skepticism. However, this form of intellectual elitism disregards entirely the hugely widespread popularity of ‘milk and honey’. Kaur’s second work (‘the sun and her flowers’) is due to be published in October this year, and defiantly continues to be publicised on Instagram rather than more traditional channels of media. It remains unclear, however, whether Kaur’s work signals a genuine revival of reading poetry, or, as critics imply, is simply an anomaly prized only by Instagram users.

Whether long-term or not, ‘milk and honey’ is undeniably popular. Perhaps this is due to Kaur undercutting the impersonality of a modernist aesthetic with accessible, simplistic language. Kaur does not subscribe to the belief that poetry must be difficult to be meaningful, championing a direct and inclusive register that unites her personal experiences with the reader. Combining a first person perspective with the repeated second person pronoun ‘you’, Kaur further bridges the gap between her poetry and her audience. She forges a link that causes the reader to imagine themselves not only as author, but as muse. Pointing beyond the page at ‘you’, Kaur rejects the division of the reader from the writer, assimilating her own experiences, memories, and subjects with her audience.

This work rejects the stifling, mausoleum-like canon of literature, embracing a sense of flux and uncertainty.

This is not a collection of works that attempts to be impersonal or ‘above’ the common reader. Even its form disregards conventional titles that show division or separation. Aside from its four chapters – ‘the hurting’, ‘the loving’, ‘the breaking’, ‘the healing’ – there are no other distinct divisions between works, just as there is no division between author and reader. Instead, the poems may be read as the reader chooses, be that individual works, linked installments, or long form poems. A fluidity that perhaps imitates the original form of Kaur’s work – Instagram – permeates this collection and gestures towards the future of modern poetry’s publication. In a modern era of movement and connection, this work rejects the stifling, mausoleum-like canon of literature, embracing a sense of flux and uncertainty.

Kaur’s work, then, is one that rejects traditional structures and customs of poetry. Yet its content and subject has a timeless resonance. Perhaps this is surprising for a writer who has such a twenty-first-century background and perspective: a migrant to Canada from India, initially publishing her writing on Tumblr and Instagram, actively raising awareness of taboos on menstruation and sexual abuse. However, its themes of love, femininity, anger, hopelessness and survival prevent ‘milk and honey’ from being categorized into a single time period of writing. Instead, expressing herself through fluidity and simplicity, Kaur communicates what seems like battle cries, universal truths, and ancient charms. Her writing rings with core phrases that have a timeless sense: ‘you were so afraid/of my voice/i decided to be/afraid of it too’. Yet it is evident throughout ‘milk and honey’ that Kaur has learnt to be unafraid of her own expression, of mixing her culture’s classical traditions with her twenty-first-century upbringing.

‘milk and honey’, from a distance, is easy to criticise as simplistic, or trying too hard to attain modernist obscurity. Yet becoming closer to the text – digesting its meaning, comprehending its contours and patterns, understanding its nuances – reveals its far more significant purpose. Kaur adapts to the fluidity of the modern age whilst retaining a sense of heritage, culture, and power. This is not poetry to become half-remembered on a dusty shelf as a ‘modern classic’, but to be read out loud, written in texts to loved ones, and learnt by heart. In order to understand poetry’s future engagement with a modern audience, Kaur’s work must be read and appreciated.