Honesty in Poetry: A Reflection

Lovina J. Paje
October 25, 2022

In Note to Self(Publish), I mentioned poetry being my least-read genre, which is ironic. I’m an author whose first book ended up being a collection of poetry

However, with the power of introspection on my side, perhaps I was able to craft a whole poetry book thanks to those arduous lessons in high school Advanced English. Somehow, someway, I think I knew what I was doing, but I digress. Katie, in Poetry: Rapid Readings, expresses a similar sentiment. While high school wasn’t the best place to appreciate poetry, I agree with her that language conventions serve more as suggestions rather than rules, and poetry is a wonderful medium for expressing our vulnerabilities.

So, in the past month or two, I decided it was time to get into reading poetry. Perhaps this is a reflection of being a poet myself, but I can’t help but think of the author’s context and the reasons for their writing. Poetry is deeply personal and is very much a product of who we are. It’s hard to write what we do without first being honest with ourselves about what we want to create.

That being said, starting any new genre can be daunting. You can never know what to begin with. Nevertheless, I stuck with a few popular names and titles, most of which will likely sound familiar. Here’s what I think of them.

Milk and Honey; The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur 

the day you have everything / I hope you remember / when you had nothing.

Since the rise of ‘instapoetry’ and the publication of her debut, Milk and Honey – Rupi Kaur has been in the public eye for some time. However, I’m not quite sure if the criticisms I hear about her work are all that well-intentioned. Kaur, being both a woman and South Asian living and working in a Western country, receives a lot of different kinds of criticisms for her work. There is the combined sexism and racism, and then the specific sexism that is experienced when being South Asian and vice versa. Simply, Kaur’s writing is good and it is complex because of who she is.

I see a lot of these criticisms on Instagram, scrolling through comments, or online, reading reviews. I’ve had a few conversations about Kaur’s work with fellow bookworms. The consensus seems to be that she’s a good writer, and we leave it at that. However, I think her context as a South Asian woman, a woman of colour, makes it easy for people to either undermine her work completely or give it seemingly unnecessary praise. While neither extreme is constructive, I think it’s important to note that the way someone’s work is received can be reflective of who the creator is. 

Despite this, as a Southeast Asian woman myself, I am of the firm belief that regardless of these extreme criticisms, Kaur’s writing is powerful. I imagine for her, this might’ve been one of the very first times she was comfortable enough – and safe enough – to explore female sexuality and mental health. Not just safe mentally and emotionally but physically, too. Oftentimes in non-Western cultures, discussing these topics is taboo. 

Moreover, it takes a different kind of strength to be publicly vulnerable about the suffering your family and ancestors have experienced due to colonisation and oppressive governments. I also imagine she knows very well that she’s in a privileged position to speak about these topics openly. 

I do wish her writing about the South Asian diaspora and Canadian-specific immigration issues had a little more visibility online. I found those ones a little more heart-wrenching and painful, but otherwise, I love her work. 

Rating: 4 stars. 

Swimming Lessons by Lili Reinhart

It is a privilege to know you / in such a way that no one else does. To be someone else who sees / your intimate self so completely.

Similar to Rupi Kaur, Lili Reinhart has also been in the public eye for some time. Truthfully, I only know Reinhart from Riverdale (which I haven’t watched but have heard plenty about how the show apparently never ends). I recently watched her movie, Look Both Ways, but otherwise, I don’t know much about the actress herself. My comments here are merely assumptions. 

Comparatively, where Kaur is known for being a poet, Reinhart is known for being an actress. The universal nature of social media means that the public is quick to judge celebrities no matter what they do. When a celebrity chooses to branch into something different, i.e. write instead of act, they can be branded as inauthentic. 

Despite this, it’s very difficult to be authentic and true to yourself when so many aspects of your life are publicised. Even when writing poetry, being a celebrity may very well bring in a different set of complexities when it comes to pubic image.

As someone who is not in the public eye and struggles to stay true to myself (even when publishing on a smaller scale), I really do admire her courage to publish her own set of poetry to the world. I don’t think there’s any way you can write poetry without confronting some of the darkness inside you. It’s refreshing to journey alongside Reinhart’s miseries and dreams, and to see that by the end of it, she’s reserved some hope for herself. I love her for it. 

I think the best thing about her work is it is painfully honest. It doesn’t shy away from her pain, and I can feel it seeping through the pages. Reinhart’s introduction to Swimming Lessons feels like a personal address. Every poem after feels like she’s writing directly to us in the hopes that we can take something, anything, from her words. I can definitely say I did, which is one of the reasons why I enjoyed it. 

Another bonus is if I can relate to the poetry, it’s always a win for me. While it felt a little cliché at times, it was easy to digest. Though, maybe someone should ask Lili Reinhart if she’s okay.

I’d recommend Swimming Lessons to anyone who wants an introduction to poetry. 

Rating: 3.5 stars. 

Sea of Strangers by Lang Leav

It is the mark of a great poet to write words that feel as though they have stood witness to your most intimate memory of love.

I was first introduced to Lang Leav by someone on Wattpad (so long ago that I don’t know when; I’ll just let this legacy die, but I digress), but it wasn’t until this year that I had actually gone and bought some of her books. I’d already read September Love (and Katie talks a little bit about it in Poetry: Rapid Readings), which I enjoyed, but I think I liked Sea of Strangers a bit more. 

Similar to Swimming Lessons, Lang Leav gives us a brief introduction to Sea of Strangers. Poetry is already personal by nature, but receiving an introduction from the author makes it just that extra bit intimate, like the author is directly talking to us. Like all the poetry I review here, Sea of Strangers is brutally honest as much as it is profound. 

At times, it feels like Leav is teaching us a lesson. Her words are direct, straight to the point. She is telling us what to do, where to go from here, how to process our feelings. When Leav writes, she’s telling us to grieve. She’s telling us to move on. She’s telling us to celebrate, to be joyful, to mourn. She is telling us how to move forward, and we, as the reader, we must listen.

As I was reading, I felt as though I was sucked into her words. I was listening at every turn, following her footsteps, waiting for her to tell me what I should do next. At other times, I almost felt confronted. It was like we, the readers, we became the medium through which she was speaking to someone else. Suddenly, the perspective shifted. No longer were we walking alongside Leav as she powered through her grief. Akin to when we watch something through the window, we were watching Leav triumph through her heartbreak. 

I’ve used poetry as an excuse to talk to people indirectly (whether they see the poem as irrelevant, it’s always about the cathartic writing experience). So, it was interesting to notice that shift and change on the page, even if it wasn’t an entirely conscious choice. Or maybe the author in me is reading too much between the lines. 

Regardless of Leav’s intentions when writing Sea of Strangers, I enjoyed every single word of it. Like every other author I’ve reviewed here, her words are powerful.  

Rating: 4 stars.

Honesty in poetry: the best policy?

To understand the conventions of a genre, you must read it thoroughly (I’ve heard that from tutors and my own research, but also from Ciara’s article, Writing Beyond Coursework).

Therefore, branching out and pushing myself to read more poetry has been such a fulfilling experience. I get to immerse myself in other’s emotions, and I can track the way they’ve used or defied language conventions to create their work. Consequently, I can use this inspiration in my own work in the hopes to create something beautiful.