On Thursday, I opened my Facebook notifications to the latest post on Princeton Memes for Preppy AF Teens, and gasped. The moment had arrived. Someone had officially called the “Rupi Kaur meme” a meme. A new form of Internet-y goodness finally arrived, pinpointed and categorized.
The Rupi Kaur meme works just like the mocking Spongebob or grumpy cat meme: input a popular idea or widespread feeling that would otherwise in its repetitive simplicity be considered jaded, output a snazzy new way to grab the Internet’s attention. In the broadest sense, the Rupi Kaur meme follows the poetic style of Instapoet Rupi Kaur (Instapoet: someone who primarily publishes their work to Instagram and other instant-views platforms). Rupi Kaur memes mimic Rupi Kaur’s breathless line breaks, haiku-like simplicity, include a doodle, and sign off with Rupi Kaur’s name.
Yet the Rupi Kaur meme strays from the traditional meme (to a greater extent than being a different artistic medium). In the traditional meme, one takes an image that excites a pretty singular response from its audience—a relatable facial expression, a laughable character from a movie at a particular instance—and tags it with a few words to make the image relevant to a specific occasion or idea. The image without the text, standing alone, has meaning.
This is limiting for the meme’s author, who thinks “I want to express a wide, pervasive common feeling” but then must search the database of their mind for a popular, culturally relevant image that would match their feeling. If the image is not fitting, what they wish to convey is lost. (It can be the difference between a hundred and a thousand likes on our Princeton Memes for Preppy AF Teens Facebook page.)
Contrastingly, the Rupi Kaur “meme” gives its memelord author complete freedom. The Rupi Kaur meme begins as a blank slate, the shell of a poetic-form-and-doodle. Take the Rupi Kaur crosswalk meme as an example. Everyone knows it is nigh impossible to cross the road at the intersection of Nassau Street and Washington Road. I cannot think of an image and caption that would accurately illustrate this specific struggle—can you? Where traditional meme forms are silent, the Rupi Kaur Meme speaks.
In Rupi Kaur’s poetic style, humor finds its perfect niche. Live standup comedy needs breaths and spaces and timing to have its full effect. Written humor employs as much of this as possible by stretching the boundaries of syntax and willy-nillying formal language. With its spacing and line-breaking and quaint self-conscious doodles, the Rupi Kaur meme is an abbreviated way to achieve the same effects. The sentence “It would have been an A at Harvard” is so much more entertaining spaced out in a meme.
And for Rupi Kaur, to have her poetic style and her name turned toward comedic purposes? It is paradoxical: on the one hand, you obey Rupi Kaur’s style, mimic her poetic form, sign off with her name—the doodles and breathtaking line breaks would have no power without Rupi Kaur’s name—and she is in this way exquisitely untouchable, revered through this flattery-mimicry. On the other hand, the meme creation is your own. Her poetic style, her habit of including a doodle, her name, is the puppet; you are the master.
Is it fair of us to twist and parody Rupi Kaur’s poetry? Rupi Kaur opened her work up to two forces when she self-published and proliferated via social media (primarily Instagram). First, she has come head-to-head with the wishy-washy “intellectual property” battle that many young minds and inventors face today: There is no way to legally stake a claim over an idea, or in this case, a poetic form.
Second, Rupi Kaur’s work proliferated on social media instead of intermediary platforms. It went straight from author to audience, bypassing the winnowing of literary journals or peer criticism. As a result, her work sounds “young,” overly simplistic, to me, like a cliché quote one could come up with singing in the shower. Most poets have tons of “nice lines” written in their notebooks, but the ones recognized by reputed literary journals do not send their work out until the “nice line” has been developed into a complete poem. Self-publishing allows one to take an unfinished piece of work and slap it on a page, call it art.
If we all tried our hands at poetry, the product of our early poet years would more or less look like Rupi Kaur’s. When people mimic Rupi Kaur with Rupi Kaur memes, it is because Rupi Kaur’s language is a universal language. She is the preservation of first-feeling, first-language, first-workings of the mind.
If memes take something that is universally relatable in order to efficiently and novelly convey an old idea, then naturally the Rupi Kaur meme is an extension, an evolution, of that need. In its accessibility and universality, Rupi Kaur’s poetic form fits the meme agenda perfectly.
The “meme-izing” of Rupi Kaur’s work has been good for her. Being so public has helped her sell 1.6 million copies of her first book and push out a second collection that just hit the shelves last October. For every new meme, there are five curious and kind souls who stumble on Rupi Kaur’s Instapoetry, enjoy its accessibility, and buy her book.
Rupi Kaur has become such a hot commodity that I would compare this meme phenomenon to something that has happened to popular artists like Taylor Swift. Swift and others remain indifferent to the pirating of their songs because it boosts home sales on iTunes and Spotify. Or one can compare the “meme-izing” of Rupi Kaur’s work to Starbucks baristas spelling customers’ names wrong in order to help Starbucks gain free photo publicity. Something that appears negative to one’s image (criticism, botched name-spelling, meme-izing) can actually boost one’s popularity and feed into monetary profit.
For this particular Rupi Kaur phenomenon, is there something inherently wrong with that? We enjoy the shell of the Rupi Kaur meme, the humor it offers. In return, she enjoys the proliferation of her work.
On a more cynical day, I, salty ex-poet, might crab on about it all, asking if this tradeoff is what today’s digital age has come to, and if the future of poetry has come to this, but today—at least for now—I’ll sit back and let the memes do the work.