By Jennifer Rodrigo
We’ve come a long way from staring at a double-ruled question paper at an exam asking us to describe the imagery in a poem, nudging us to think of its content, mood, speaker, and structural technique.
“Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.” (Robert Frost)
“If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss” (Rudyard Kipling)
was carefully laid out for us hungry minds to feast on, tear apart, and put back together.
Today, it would seem, most would like their poetry presented to them in a tiny square on a small screen – Instagram. What of rhyme and metre? What of rhythm? Some of these words displayed on pretty backgrounds attempt to reach for “educating” within this evolving form of creativity while others do not. But neither is discarded. The following is enthused, intrigued, and accepting. Are we being too lenient? Or are we opening the doors to something greater?
Instagram poetry, although scoffed at by some, is here; and it is here to stay. It’s also here. Here in Sri Lanka.
I spoke to Andre Howson and Dilshan Senaratne, both of whose works of art on this photo and video-sharing platform come recommended by friends.
Andre Howson, also known as @bearded.bard on Instagram, works in the creative content industry, and spends part of his free time on stage and the rest dabbling with words.
“Instagram poetry is basically poetry that’s bite-sized. It needs to be short, it needs to be concise, and it needs to be relatable so people can connect with it, and share it, which is the whole point of Instagram anyway,” shared Howson, adding that the concept, however, is not new. Not every piece of writing, he thinks, has to be the Iliad. “A haiku is the perfect example of this.”
Whilst he doesn’t have a favourite Instagram poet himself, Howson thinks there are several classical and modern writers whose work translate well to Instagram.
“Instagram poetry in Sri Lanka is still in its infancy,” shared Howson, adding that he feels there’s potential, especially for trilingual poetry, although he himself follows no Sri Lankan poets on Instagram.
Contending the whole term “Instagram poetry” and how it’s sometimes thought to be considered lazy, Howson shared that Instagram is merely the medium. “So, just like any kind of poetry can be lazy, so can poetry published on Instagram. The challenge with poetry published here is that it has to be remarkably concise. So you have to be less lazy, in that every single word counts.”
Poetry to Howson is a way of expressing complex emotions or thoughts or experiences in a way that retains its complexity, but also explains itself. “It’s often difficult to explain things in bare-bones prose. At least not quickly. But poetry marries the complexity with artistry. It’s a creation, an expression, and a sharing all in one.”
One of the reasons why Instagram poetry is popular is its relatability – the lack of convoluted language or complicated form being the reason. Howson isn’t sure he agreed with this. “There are fewer convoluted sentences, for certain, because one has to be conscious of space. But form can be complicated, and so can the experience being related. It is, however, easily shareable, which is why celebrities themselves share Instagram poetry and how Instagram poets become famous. The ease of sharing, the conciseness of it, the use of graphics with words; these are things that make Instagram poetry so popular.”
“I would argue that Instagram poetry is relatable only because it’s current,” said Dilshan Senaratne, Head of Marketing and Corporate Communications (SL and APAC) for Virtusa Corporation and an avid reader in his free time, who shares his works of art on @dilshan.senaratne. To Senaratne, poetry on Instagram doesn’t need a definition that is outside of any other form of poetry. “The poetry hasn’t necessarily changed except in very small structural aspects, the method of delivery has changed,” he observed.
Senaratne continued that Instagram and spoken word are the two dominant mediums in which the current generation creates their poetry. “It’ll be hard to find someone writing a sonnet in this day and age. As for the lack of convoluted language and complicated form, again, I think that is the language we speak right now, and it’s only just very current. There is plenty of space for someone to write a very convoluted piece of poetry on Instagram, the medium allows it; but nobody really does because it’s not current. We don’t make black and white movies today for the same reason we don’t write ballads on Instagram.”
Senaratne finds some of Tyler Knott Gregson’s early work and some work from Atticus to be his favourites. “I think Rupi Kaur has done a splendid job establishing her niche.
It’s unfortunate that I don’t have a Sri Lankan poet I can name here,” he admitted, adding that Sri Lanka doesn’t have as many as he’d like to follow. “I think Sri Lankans have some very real potential and the texture of the experiences of Sri Lankans is very unique and interesting. Those would be the reasons I would like to follow a local poet, but I can’t name someone from that perspective.
However, @hyphen.schern is a refreshing channel that I follow. The pieces are very graphic, extremely crisp, and I think she has a great understanding of written structure and word choices.”
As for the Instagram poetry scene here in Sri Lanka, Senaratne thinks there is some raw talent around. Whilst he does come across some pieces that really impress him, he does think there’s room for improvement. “As someone who found early footing in my career as a writer, I hope writing and poetry will take off as a more popular career avenue as well as artistic pursuit in the coming years.”
Instagram poetry is often scoffed at as being “lazy poetry” or “gateway poetry”. I asked Senaratne what he has to say to that. “I’ll agree and disagree based on why that criticism is directed at Instagram poets. On one hand, I agree because some of the poets who have found great success on Instagram certainly have the potential for fuller, more comprehensive written works. On the other hand, I disagree because the mode of delivery of art shouldn’t be the reason for criticising said art. It’ll be quite absurd to criticise Shakespeare for preferring to write sonnets and tragedies or to criticise a painter for using oil paints. Those are all just mediums, the real question is ‘how good is the art?’”
Poetry, to Dilshan, is art and art to him is anything that can make a viewer or an audience see something and stop to think about it. “We go through life so quickly and with very little attention paid. Anything or anyone that can steal a few seconds from that pace is an artist or art in my opinion.”