Books Articles

Properly modern poetry

Who says verse needs to be old and stuffy?

Who says verse needs to be old and stuffy? Meet the new generation of poets taking the internet by storm with lines that are both powerful and totally relatable

“No more will I sit on these cold toilet lids, no matter how embarrassed I feel as she sips. Because in this country of billboards covered in tits, I think, I should try to get used to this.” Hollie McNish is staring into the camera, hoop earrings dangling above her shoulders. She’s a writer and she’s speaking in verse to you – and to millions of others – about breastfeeding in public. She is a poet, but she’s not speaking from a book and this is not an English lesson littered with distraction. Rather, she’s speaking from her YouTube channel. She’s speaking the truth. And people are listening.

Gone are the days when poetry conjured images of a dusty old book, posturing on a shelf but regrettably unread; now, McNish and a new generation of writers are redefining poetry for the internet age. It’s fresh, funny – sometimes harrowingly so – dark, warm, sometimes unpolished and always accessible, and it doesn’t play by the rules. Welcome to the Internet Poet’s Society.

McNish, who you might know from the latest Nationwide bank advert, is leading the way, and she’s in good company. Her viral poem Embarrassed, a defiant takedown of society’s attitudes towards women, has accumulated more than 9 million views. Meanwhile, New Zealand poet Hera Lindsay Bird became an overnight success when she published one of her punching, blunt, confessional-style poems, Keats Is Dead So Fuck Me From Behind. It gained over 50,000 page views when it was published on the Spinoff website in July this year, and Bird became one of New Zealand’s best-known poets.

Patricia Lockwood, dubbed the poet laureate of Twitter, shot to fame in 2014 when her poem Rape Joke resonated with many and instantly went viral. R.M. Drake, aka Robert Macias, a self-made so-called Instapoet, found himself seventh best-selling poetry author on Amazon, nestled between the likes of Sylvia Plath and Edgar Allan Poe after his snapshots of prose, presented on grey paper with a quaint typewriter font, attracted 1.6 million followers to his profile.

Meanwhile, the likes of Kate Tempest, a Mercury Prize nominee and winner of the Ted Hughes Poetry Prize, and Caleb Femi, who was this month announced as the first-ever young people’s laureate for London, are only getting bigger, and speaking to new generations of would-be poets in ways that have never been previously reached. One writer postured that poetry’s current popularity could mean it has the potential to enjoy a resurgence on a scale that has not been seen since the Victorian age.

And what makes it so brilliant is that the poets taking the internet by storm aren't always polished in a traditional sense, but they don’t have to be either. They’re speaking to a global audience about issues that matter – politics, like in Kate Tempest’s Europe Is Lost poem, or policing women’s bodies as we saw in McNish’s Embarrassed and her funny analysis of Bums in popular culture. They’re talking about sex, making jokes, speaking out in a darkly comic, heart-rending, crowd-pleasing, shareable, lyrical way.

What this new poetry often – remarkably – manages to achieve where all else fails is cutting through the noise. Poems themselves, now infinitely shareable, become individual mini-forces for change; a voice we can elevate or add our own to. And, in the current economic, political and social climate, where women’s bodies are censored on Instagram but politicians can openly say they’re there for the taking, the noise is pretty deafening. No wonder it’s these new literary masterminds we’re all listening to.

Subscribe modal