Friends Kalliope and Lyra have a few things in common: they’re both designers who study graphic design and art in Indiana, and they’re both 23. They’re also both anonymous poets on TikTok, posting their work to thousands of followers every day.
“I decided to be anonymous online because it allowed me to be more open and vulnerable,” Kalliope says. “I could write whatever I wanted without fear of negative backlash in my personal life.”
For most people, poetry is something that they only interact with back in a classroom setting, but on TikTok and Instagram, poetry is very much alive and well. Poets like Rupi Kaur and Morgan Harper Nichols are racking up millions of followers on Instagram for their clean aesthetic and short form prose. Instagram poetry, as Lyra explains, is more direct than the old-school, academic poetry you might have studied. “It’s a lot shorter than I feel like most poems are, and it gets to the point,” she explains. “A lot of people can connect and relate to it, but it doesn’t really have the flowery like metaphors and the kind of the rhythm that old school academic poetry has.”
Brett Lauer, from The Poetry Society, says that poetry’s presence on social media is just another evolution of the art form. “After 9/11, there was a poem that went viral over email. Now there are these Insta-poets, and now that TikTok has become popular, young people are posting there. It’s a natural progression.” With accounts like @poetryisnotaluxury on Instagram garnering over 500,000 followers, the reach of social media surpasses most traditional avenues. “Compare that even to the subscribers of the New Yorker’s poems,” Lauer says. “All of a sudden you have way more eyes on the work.”
For Lyra, sharing her poetry online has been a hobby since she was a teenager, posting on her Tumblr account. Last August, she decided to take her poetry from her onto TikTok. “It was kind of like the call of the void. Like, I could just write stuff on TikTok, and no one would really see it. And that kind of continued for probably about five months. And then suddenly, one of my poems went viral.”
Kalliope was inspired by Lyra, and began posting at the beginning of May. Since then, she’s watched as her online poetry community grew, but not without some backlash. “I’ve received and overwhelmingly positive response from the audience about my poems resonating with them, specifically some of my poems about healing and growth, and seeing people comment that they’re ‘getting there’ has been so great to see.”
Like all online communities however, sharing your work online opens the door for criticism and criticism, or in the case of social media, lots of hate. “Of course, I also get the comments that like, ‘This isn’t poetry, this is horrible,” Kalliope explains, “but when you weigh it against all the positive comments, it’s easier to palate.”
Lyra says that the hate comments always come back to that point: that what they’re posting shouldn’t even count as poetry. “I’ve had people reach out and just tear me apart and say, ‘This isn’t real poetry. You have to go through all these publishers and agents,’” she explains. “Things aren’t how they used to be because of social media. A lot more people can get involved in poetry, typically a lot of young women and young writers. A lot of old school poets, from the 1800s and 1900s, are what most people kind of bring up to me as ‘real poetry.’ And a lot of that was men, typically white men who had connections.”
Social media is one way to make the art form more accessible and equitable. “I think in the last couple of decades, women didn’t really have that connection, because that wasn’t really what we were supposed to do, it wasn’t what women did,” Lyra explains, “Instagram poetry in general, like that term, has just given people more freedom to actually be able to connect with an audience, even if it’s not through like the more traditional streams.”
Jen Benka, the President & Executive Director of the Academy of American Poets, wholeheartedly agrees. “So many of the critiques of poetry on social media are about how poetry shouldn’t be performative, or how social media has made poetry too simple,” she explains. “But the comparisons aren’t helpful. This is a community of energized, creative young people creating and expressing, and that is of unbelievable importance, and overwhelmingly positive for the culture at large, particularly in this time.
For Benka, who has seen an increase in interest in poetry in the past two years, poets today are struggling with the same questions we all are struggling with. “Will this world make it? We’re experiencing a once in a century global health crisis, pushing back against the status quo and racial injustices, and poets are using language for that power. The conversation about whether or not what they’re doing ‘counts’ as poetry is not a helpful conversation, we need their dreams and their imagination!”
The power of social media in creating a diverse audience and community is also a huge positive, Benka explains, introducing many people to artists of color who have traditionally gone unseen. “Poets of color at the helm of change, we’ve known this for years,” she says. “There is a huge power in sharing directly with an audience, and creating an audience as an artist. More and more, there are different options than the traditional channels of publication, and that is not a bad thing at all.”
Lyra, who is still debating whether or not she’ll ever use her real name on her work, is set to self-publish a collection of her work in the winter. “There is a big shift happening, the rules are changing to something a little bit more open and free” Lyra explains. “Really, just doing whatever you want to do with your writing, and then having it be accepted by whatever audience loves that kind of work. That’s the freedom we need.”
This article was featured in the InsideHook newsletter. Sign up now.