About a year ago, my friend Martha was in town for a weekend and invited me over to have dinner with her and her mother. We eventually arrived at the topic of poetry, at which point Martha’s mother brought up Rupi Kaur and how much she’d liked her book, Milk and Honey. Martha revealed, in not so many words, that I do not particularly like Kaur or think especially highly of her and her contemporaries’ work. I could almost see Martha’s mother’s heart sink when I begrudgingly confirmed that it was true: I was not fond of Rupi Kaur.
I tried to defend myself — it’s just not my taste / I’ve only ever read excerpts of her book while paging through it in the ridiculously sparse poetry section at the Barnes & Noble / I just don’t like the tone it sets for Poetry At Large — but ultimately all I did was shove a dozen more feet in to my mouth. Martha’s mom thought Milk and Honey was a good book, and I was a guest in her house sitting at her kitchen table explaining why a book I admittedly hadn’t even read cover-to-cover was “bad” or “an affront to poetry,” like some kind of pretentious asshole.
I don’t like feeling like a pretentious asshole, so this week, I finally got my hands on a copy of Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey and read the whole thing — every vague illustration and even-more-vague one-liner of it. And I’ll start by throwing Rupi Kaur and her fans a really hollow sort of bone: Milk and Honey is not a bad book. There are even at least a couple of lines that I found inventive, or at the very least personally poignant (“i know i / should crumble/ for better reasons”).
The word I would use to describe this book isn’t “bad” but “familiar.”
Reading Milk and Honey is like reading the journal entries and Tumblr text posts of my teenaged self, my first forays into relationships and their traumas, my first clumsy swipes at the patriarchy, the humble (but so, so tinged with hubris) beginnings of forming my own identity. As I read, I kept having this recurring thought that my younger self would have really gotten a lot out of this book. That my younger self had these same thoughts and convictions and often wrote about them in similar ways, feeling at once desperately alone (ha) in my tendency toward introspection and galvanized by how alienated/ “unique” that introspection made me feel.
And I think this is a core reason why Rupi Kaur gets a lot of shit — she writes in the voice of a young woman, and we love to trivialize the things young women think and feel.I can imagine a fifteen, sixteen, seventeen-year-old version of myself reading this book and feeling, finally, vindicated by the experience of reading poems about things that I’d always felt but not yet found the words to articulate (“you tell me to quiet down cause / my opinions make me less beautiful”).
The problem is that for me, an adult with a meager amount of life experience and at least a small shred of self-awareness, a lot of the powerful truths Kaur lays down in Milk and Honey feel kind of flat to me. There aren’t really a lot of “mic drop” moments — though there are a lot of attempts at them. This isn’t to say she doesn’t touch on important topics —Kaur writes a lot about sexual assault, relationships and emotional abuse, the importance of self-love and forcibly taking back space in a world that demands you stay quiet and pretty for its consumption.
For the most part, the way she addresses these topics feels insincere, or if sincere, then at least not fully honest.
I consistently found myself wishing Kaur would risk complication and show a little more of herself. Maybe she isn’t ready to further trot out her traumas in intimate detail, but even outside of that subject matter, there are plenty of opportunities where Kaur could have offered a little more than prescriptiveness and empty platitudes.
There is one moment, a poem called “how we make up,” that almost gets this right, where she touches on the way small rifts begin to form in a relationship. But even there, I wished she would just go a little more personal. Tell me something only you can tell me, Rupi Kaur. Tell me how you stopped wearing this one sweater you used to love because he once said it made you “look like a mom,” or how he always spoke in this pedantic tone that started to grate on you. A lot of Kaur’s poems in Milk and Honey employ the General You or use prescriptive, generalized language in lieu of saying something that might momentarily flash us her cards. She even, as the ultimate display of insincerity, censors the word “fuck” — no letters at all, just a full-blur “****” — despite touching on erotic imagery in a variety of poems. I can’t think of amore succinct illustration of Milk and Honey and the ways it falls short — its outward appearance of earnestness that is suffocated for fear of being messy, the way it betrays its own urge to be vulnerable and take up space.
Ultimately, there is no point where Kaur seems at all aware of this contradiction, where she entertains the idea that the more interesting poem isn’t “your loneliness is a sign that you are in desperate need of yourself” but “how the fuck am I supposed to wade toward myself through all of this loneliness?” And because of that, her book begins to evoke the feeling of reading the Facebook shares of a person who is messy and makes terrible decisions IRL but bases her brand on scolding others into Putting Themselves First. Perhaps this review is best summed up by the third-to-last poem of Milk and Honey, “to all you young poets,” where Rupi Kaur once again floats down from the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy to impart a valuable lesson:
“…it’s about how honest
you are with yourself
Well said, I think.
Kat Giordano is a poet (1%) and massive millennial crybaby(99%) from Pennsylvania. She co-edits Philosophical Idiot (https://www.philosophicalidiot.com/books) and works for a law firm somehow. She is also the author of many highly embarrassing social media meltdowns. Her poems have appeared in Occulum, Ghost City Review, Awkward Mermaid, The Cincinnati Review, Rat’s Ass Review, and others. Her debut full-length poetry collection, The Poet Confronts Bukowski’s Ghost, is available now.