On her first article for One Quart Magazine, Sonja Pyykkö finds Rupi Kaur’s book 'milk and honey' shallow and banal although people love it.
Some books seem to live only from the hype. milk and honey, a collection of poems by the millennial online feminism superstar/poet/photographer Rupi Kaur, is definitely one of those books.
For those of you who don’t spend your entire lives obsessing about books and social media, let me quickly recap her story. Kaur first became an internet phenomenon in 2015, when Instagram banned her photography series of menstruating women doing everyday things – the most circulated image featured the artist herself lying on a bed with small bloodstains on her pyjamas and sheets. Some three months later, Andrews McMeel, a publisher specialised in comics, colouring and cookery, released her originally self-published debut, milk and honey. Now, one year after its release, milk and honey has become a global bestseller in a time when even the most renowned poets have a hard time selling copies.
And make no mistake, milk and honey is a product of this age par excellence. Its stripped-down look, smooth black-and-white cover, and all lowercase set typography fit the aesthetics of internet culture perfectly. It is as if the book itself was written with a hand-held device that defies the punctuation and capitalisation of more traditional mediums, designed to be instagrammed with fancy filters in hip cafés (I know, because I did).
And make no mistake, milk and honey is a product of this age par excellence.
These images from milk and honey are widely circulated on platforms like Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest. It is somewhat symptomatic that her work is not shared as manually typed quotes (how old-fashioned), but as digital facsimiles of the book’s pages, each containing a short poem and a line-drawing illustration. They were first published on the artist’s own Instagram account, but have by now been endlessly multiplied and re-distributed on accounts of girls and women touched by her poetry all around the world.
They have become memes, severed from their original contexts, now a permanent part of the digital spaces of adolescent women everywhere.
This is, of course, a great achievement for any work of literature, and even more so for the poetry debut by a 23-year-old woman. This is also why I was hoping to like milk and honey, hoping that the hype wasn’t in vain, that I too, would be impressed by the sincerity of her words.
Don’t get me wrong – as a phenomenon of internet culture, milk and honey is a great success. But as a work of poetry, well, that’s another story. The 204-paged book may not look so massive, but for a poetry collection (and a debut one for that), it is the equivalent of two to three Joyce’s Ulysses’ worth of poems. Each of its four thematic sections, “the hurting”, “the loving”, “the breaking”, and “the healing”, contain a few good poems (like the often quoted “you tell me to quiet down cause”), countless mediocre, and even a number of terrible ones that any decent editor would have simply discarded.
Don’t get me wrong – as a phenomenon of internet culture, milk and honey is a great success. But as a work of poetry, well, that’s another story.
And, as if this wasn’t enough, the already too obvious meaning of each repetitive poem is first doubled by the accompanying illustration, and then tripled by a name that nails that meaning in place, and in effect, kills the very flexibility and ambiguity that poetry is supposed to live off.
I wish someone would have told Kaur that if she can say what she wants to with five words, she shouldn’t use fifty, that if she is capable of telling a story with one poem, there’s no point in writing ten.
milk and honey is proof that maybe it isn’t so wise to strike while the iron is hot. That maybe one should wait for the iron to cool down just enough not to be blinded by its heat. By working on the handful of good poems in milk and honey, Kaur could have published something lasting in a few years’ time. But by then, her “insta fame” would have probably faded, and her fans scattered.
Each of the sections seems to introduce a new problem with Kaur’s writing. The opening section, “the hurting”, details a history of abuse and neglect that seems so close, so personal that it hasn’t yet been transformed from the suffering of the individual into something more universal, lasting or relatable. The following section, “the loving” is filled to the brim with clichés of love and desire. Its sentimentality comes with a large dose of syrupy banalities; its sensuality is ruined by a grotesque amount of details. As far as clichés go, “the loving” is second only to “the breaking”. Cringeworthy and naïve, “the breaking” balances on that faint line between juvenile hubris and bitter self-pity, and fails to add a single original line to the countless ones written by lovelorn poets since the dawn of day. The closing section, “the healing”, can at best be characterised as “motivational aphorisms”.
Then again, maybe I am in the wrong by even trying to critique Kaur’s poetry by these rules. Maybe milk and honey is meant to be consumed in (literal) bits and pieces on one’s Instagram feed, the meaning easy to absorb and to share, instantly.
Maybe milk and honey is meant to be consumed in (literal) bits and pieces on one’s Instagram feed, the meaning easy to absorb and to share, instantly.
Like the endless motivational quotes typeset against impressive landscapes, milk and honey doesn’t aim at originality but thrives in the banal, the expected, the comforting.
And in a culture of extreme idolatry, a perverse worship of images, where one’s greatest possible achievement is to become “viral”, to be endlessly multiplied, to reach every corner of the world instantly, and to be forgotten just as fast, I suppose milk and honey has its place. Somewhere between the cat videos and gym selfies.