Almost 2,400 years ago when Plato conceived of his ideal republic, he banished poets from it. Poets, who then included a range of performing artists, were outliers and misfits, Plato said. They filled people’s heads with nonsense, hence were not to be trusted. The reputation stuck.
Over two millennia later, ask any trade publisher in India, especially in the English language industry, about their poetry list, and the response is usually prefaced with mournful apologies. Poetry doesn’t sell (like most literary genres these days, one is led to believe); it disappears into the black hole of the publishing universe, where self-help, romance and mind-body-spirit form the most luminous constellations. Yet, oddly enough, against all good sense, the appetite for writing poetry remains insatiable. Publishers, big and small, also lament that they are flooded with manuscripts of poetry. The market forces may all be conspiring against it, but poetry remains stubbornly alive—as a private pursuit, secret pleasure, or a vehicle of social commentary. And now, thanks to the internet and social media, it doesn’t have to depend on a publisher’s whim to find its way into the world.
The revolution launched by the Instagram poets of Canada, the US and the UK—Rupi Kaur, Atticus, Nayyirah Waheed, Nikita Gill, and others—has hit India, too, in the last five years. Social media poetry is not only influencing the overall publishing landscape but also the way we read, write and think about poetry. Performances of spoken word poetry are a rage across the urban landscape, mostly drawing in young audiences, who are likely to be weaned on bite-sized verse arranged artfully on insta-squares. Popular Indian poets on social media, such as Akhil Katyal, Harnidh Kaur and Priyanka Paul (also widely loved for her illustrations), have followers in the thousands, a bulk of them millennials. Their huge “success” online seems to have demolished the last bastion of “gatekeeping” in poetry. Once the preserve of the literary elite, poetry is now a free for all.
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