Keep Calm and Kauri On

Since Rupi Kaur and her contemporaries first came into being, people have debated whether their writing should count as poetry.

when we first met
i had no idea
that i would become
so attached

(@lesliebpoetry on TikTok, from her book getting over you)

Whiners (like me) might protest: “This is just a sentence with line breaks, and the line breaks aren’t even that interesting!”

Yet I must admit, part of me digs whatever’s happening here. Sure, it’s easy to chuckle or gawk at writing like this when you’re feeling great about your life. But damn if it doesn’t hit hard when you’re going through a rough breakup. Here are some emotions I’ve seen described by fans commenting on these pieces:

Exploring the Kaurian Phrase

Most of Kaur’s poems aren’t really (or at least primarily) poems — poetry is just a useful metaphor that lets people take them seriously. Unlike traditional poetry, they don’t rely on sonic qualities to impress the reader. Their primary function is that of a meditative focus. A mantra or a prayer.

I’m calling these pieces “Kaurian phrases.” I define a “Kaurian phrase” as a short, enjambed text describing a relatable emotion. It may have other poetic qualities, but it doesn’t need to.

So then why do Kaur and her contemporaries insist on their work being called poetry, and not “stylized relatable emotions”? Because the association between the poem and the Kaurian phrase helps us take the Kaurian phrase seriously in a way that “relatable thoughts” does not.

Borrowing the aesthetics of poetry

A short poem on an empty page is similar to a lone painting on a gallery wall. We pay attention to it because its presentation connotes importance. This works better as you make the negative space bigger and the art smaller. Think about it: you could fit a dozen Kaurian phrases on one page of a book. But if you did this, you’d read them one after another with no pause for reflection. It can be hard for us to sit with a thought, especially a painful one (and Kaurian phrases often explore pain). If there is somewhere else for our eyes to go, they will move there. We avoid a constructive emotional reckoning at all costs. But by leveraging poetry’s printing norms, every Kaurian phrase can end with a hard physical stop: the end of a page. “Here is a single idea,” it says. “Don’t go. Sit with it.”

Kaurian phrases as narrative tools

And what happens when we meditate on the messages presented by Kaurian phrases? When we see our own private experiences voiced by someone else, we feel connected to the social fabric. These experiences are often things like:

It’s no surprise that these are often the subjects of Kaurian phrases, which phrases function as mythopoetic synchronizers. By reading (and thus thinking) “The irony of loneliness / is that we all feel it / at the same time”, we ground ourselves in a broader narrative and community. We find that instead of our loneliness ripping us out of the order of the world, it situates us neatly within it. We find that we have been saved a seat at the table, that in fact we have always been sitting there. Kaurian phrases have an almost-explanatory power. They validate typically-isolating experiences as part of the greater human experience. Like a warm nod from a stranger after a day alone, the Kaurian phrase’s recognition of the reader helps that reader ground themselves in the world.