#NationalPoetryMonth: Rupi is the new Rumi

We are in the midst of a poetry renaissance, and it's all thanks to the internet. Poetry never really died, but it did kind of disappear for a while, lurking in the shadows of English classrooms and on dusty bookshelves. Often its relationship with social media was limited to the occasional ee cummings quote pinned to a "Poetry" board on Pinterest, or a badly edited photo on Facebook of something Rumi may or may not have said. 

But times have changed. Now, if you search for "most popular poets" on Google and scroll through the list, after you pass about 30 black-and-white photos and illustrations of a bunch of dead (mostly male) poets whose names you probably read one time in English class, you will eventually come across a very modern photo of a young woman who was probably born in the same year that the most modern poet on the list died (with the exception of Maya Angelou). This woman is Rupi Kaur, and she helped bring poetry back to life.

At the age of 22, Kaur published her first book of poetry: Milk and Honey. Her poetry debut took the internet and the publishing world by storm. She and other so-called Instapoets, such as Lang Leav, Nayyirah Waheed, Warsan Shire, Tyler Knott Gregson, and r.h. Sin took over bookstores everywhere, largely thanks to social media. In a world of 140 characters or less, these poets are finding a way to be heard.

Milk and Honey, published in October 2015, has been making the bestseller list for over two years. Kaur's second collection, The Sun and Her Flowers, was published in October of last year, and has done just as well, if not better than Kaur's first collection. According to The Canadian Book Market 2017, 93.45% of poetry books sold in 2017 were paperbacks. Of poetry books sold in this format, the top 10 were all by millennial poets:

  1. The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur
  2. Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur
  3. The Princess Saves Herself in This One by Amanda Lovelace
  4. Love Her Wild: Poetry by Atticus
  5. Whiskey Words and a Shovel I by r.h. Sin
  6. A Beautiful Composition of Broken by r.h. Sin
  7. Whiskey Words and a Shovel III by r.h. Sin
  8. Depression and Other Magic Tricks by Sabrina Benaim
  9. Adultolescence by Gabbie Hanna
  10. Whiskey Words and a Shovel by r.h. Sin

Looking at print book sales in Canada over the past five years (as tracked in BNC SalesData since the week ending March 24, 2013), Milk and Honey ranks at #13 in terms of units sold, with The Sun and Her Flowers not far behind at #21. Since BookNet began collecting sales data (October 2005), Milk and Honey comes in at #84.

When we compare the top 10 poetry books since BookNet started collecting sales data in 2005 until the year before the publication of Milk and Honey (2005-2014) against a similar list including the years afterwards (2005-2018), we find some incredible things.

Top 10 Print Poetry Books (2005-2014)

  1. The Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen (TP) πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦
  2. The Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen (HC) πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦
  3. Love Poems by Pablo Neruda
  4. The Iliad by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles
  5. The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles
  6. Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney
  7. Stranger Music by Leonard Cohen πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦
  8. The Essential Rumi by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
  9. Paradise Lost by John Milton, edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon
  10. The Divine Comedy by Dante, translated by Allen Mandelbaum

Top 10 Print Poetry Books (2005-2018)

  1. Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦
  2. The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦
  3. The Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen (TP) πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦
  4. Love Her Wild by Atticus πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦
  5. Love Poems by Pablo Neruda
  6. Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen (HC) πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦
  7. Chasers of Light by Tyler Knott Gregson
  8. A Beautiful Composition of Broken by r.h. Sin
  9. Whisky Words and a Shovel I by r.h. Sin
  10. Whisky Words and a Shovel II by r.h. Sin

First and foremost, so-called Instapoets have completely knocked all literary classics from the list. Homer, the Beowulf poet, Rumi, John Milton, and Dante β€” all poets who have been celebrated and studied by scholars for hundreds of years β€” have been bested by the powers of Instagram (for now, at least).

Furthermore, Canadians love reading Canadian poetry! Hooray! Both lists are topped by notable Canadian poets: Leonard Cohen, Rupi Kaur, and Atticus.

As a whole, poetry sales in Canada were up by 185% in 2017 compared to 2016, according to our report The Canadian Book Market 2017. Poetry made up a solid 1.01% of all print unit sales in Canada, whereas in 2016, poetry only represented 0.4% of the market. To give these percentages some context, during poetry's slowest week in 2017, 3,907 books were sold, whereas during poetry's slowest week in 2016, only 1,715 books were sold. 

Poetry sales have increased dramatically in the last two years, in no small part due to Kaur's book sales. The Sun and Her Flowers came out around the time of this spike in 2017's sales, during which time sales of Milk and Honey also saw a boost.

Unit sales by week (2013-2017) β€“ Comparable stores*

The red line indicates the on-sale date of The Sun and Her Flowers (03/10/17).

* Excludes some retailer sales; refers to a subset of consistent retailers used for year-over-year comparison.

Obviously, with success comes criticism. Instapoets have received a lot of backlash from "real" poets who don't think that Instapoets are able to offer anything substantial to the world of art and literature. Instagram poetry walks a fine line between accessible and overly simplistic, with a style that makes it an easy target for keyboard critics everywhere. Some critics argue that Instapoetry is "artless" and is giving poetry a bad name. But isn't what qualifies as "good" art a century's old debate that is ultimately unwinnable? And this debate almost always comes after an artist starts making a lot of money for their work.

At the same time, some critics have embraced Instapoetry and have used it to promote their own work. Whether you like it or hate it doesn't change the fact that Instapoets have made poetry mainstream, giving poets everywhere new hope: it is possible to make a living as a poet. At least for the time being.