Tea is So Much Healthier Without Milk and Honey and So is Literature


Cicely Williams, A & E

I love modern literature because I am able to see a young woman of colour rise to success on bestseller lists. I detest modern literature because lazy, unoriginal writing is too often justified by relatability and a cutesy aesthetic. And so arise my complicated feelings towards Rupi Kaur’s popular poetry collection, milk and honey.

Kaur’s fame found her in 2015 after she protested Instagram’s deletion of her self-portrait that featured a small amount of menstrual blood. She reposted the photo with a caption containing the line, “i will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be okay with a small leak,” a message that I wholeheartedly agree with. She received mass support from followers, and her poetry collection milk and honey, which contains poems of similar feminist themes, blew up, being hailed as a must-read for all women. Its message of female empowerment, I agree with. It’s literary acclaim as far as the actual writing is concerned, I do not.

The poems are bland and unoriginal, tending to resemble either advice that anyone with a respectable mother figure has heard before (“you mustn’t have to/ make him want you/ he must want you himself”), or the diary entry of a rejected preteen (“he isn’t coming back/ whispered my head/ he has to/ sobbed my heart”).

The collection has just over 200 pages, but the poems average about five lines in length, and I can’t help but imagine the trees that could have been saved if the editors had fit a few more poems on each page. Of course, then it wouldn’t have sold half as many copies because the black and white, hyper-modern, minimalist look accounts for the majority of its appeal. I doubt there’s a single copy that hasn’t been photographed next some flowers or a cappuccino to be later posted online.

I would like to clarify that it is not simply the miniscule length of each poem that I am critical of, nor is so called “micropoetry” anything revolutionary, and it is certainly not copyright of Rupi Kaur. Veteran novelist and poet, Margaret Atwood’s early poetry collections such as Power Politics (published 1971) and You Are Happy (published 1974) contain poems of similar length and are also of an unstructured style. However, the goal of micropoetry is for the limited lines to contain as much meaning as a lengthy poem through careful syntax and use of poetic devices. They should still be able to be annotated and discussed. Margaret Atwood achieves this; Rupi Kaur does not. Let’s compare. The first poem in Atwood’s Power Politics reads:

you fit into me
like a hook in an eye
a fish hook
an open eye

She uses a powerful metaphor and vivid imagery. The use of irony is ingenious, and the abrupt ending contributes to the poem’s impact because the reader is left with a horrid image and no resolution. The following is from milk and honey:

to be
to be

In this, Kaur’s message is clear, but she does nothing except state it. There is nothing ambiguous, no decipherable reasoning for her line breaks (in what world is “is” an entire line of poetry?), no meaning in her words except for a simple, unoriginal opinion that she doesn’t even attempt to prove.

My largest issue with milk and honey is the same issue I have with astrology, fortune tellers, and motivational speakers. All of these survive by preaching generalities. They make people feel acknowledged, represented, and special by speaking of the banal normalities of humanity to which everyone (or at least their target audience) can relate. Ironically one poem in milk and honey reads:

it’s about how honest
you are with yourself
and you
must never
trade honesty
for relatability

I do not want to believe that it is Kaur’s intention to use universality to sell books, but that would leave the alternative conclusion to be that her work is simply lazy. Kaur’s poetry thrives off its wide reaching sentiments rather than offering an original perspective, which many other talented modern writers do to much less recognition.

So by all means, enjoy milk and honey for its simplicity and comforting sentiments, and hail it for its empowering message in regards to women, but understand that the presented ideas are not original to the author, and rather are derivative of other women who probably phrased them more eloquently.