I once heard someone describe this book as ‘hipster’ poetry, and I can see why. It discusses a lot of mainstream issues: love, relationships, sex and feminism, but from the author’s personal, sometimes dark experiences. Milk and Honey was written by young Canadian author Rupi Kaur and has been incredibly popular in the book world lately. Kaur, you might recall, is the young woman responsible for the photo essay that explored menstruation taboos. When she shared one of the photos on Instagram, it was deleted, proving the exact point that Kaur was trying to make: “A majority of people, societies, and communities shun this natural process. Some are more comfortable with the pornification of women, the sexualization of women, the violence and degradation of women than this. They cannot be bothered to express their disgust about all that, but will be angered and bothered by this” (Kaur, Instagram post, March 24, 2015).
I fully support what Rupi Kaur stands for and what she’s trying to do with her work, and I think Milk and Honey is very relevant to today’s society for the exact reasons Kaur mentioned above. But is it good poetry?
Since I’m not very familiar with how to analyze or review poetry, I sought out the help of my best friend, Tess Lund, who has a double major in English and Writing. She gave me a little lesson in poetry and after a quick flip through and analysis of the first few poems, she informed me that no, Milk and Honey in her educated opinion, is not the amazing piece of poetic literature everyone seems to think it is. After hearing her reasoning, I have to say I agree.
Back in school, poetry always seemed intimidating because most of it seems too flowery, too abstract, too boring, or too unattainable to understand and connect with. I really want to know more about poetry though, and be able to review it. I finished this book in one 25 minute sitting. I was quite proud of this accomplishment thinking wow, I can enjoy poetry! I really liked Milk and Honey not only because of this accomplishment, but because I really understood the purpose of the content and could relate to it. However, I still didn’t know how to analyze or review it.
First, Tess gave me a very short overview of how poetry is supposed to work. Poetry is all about creating images and comparing things to each other within the story. Good poems are made up of both abstract and concrete images and use metaphors to compare and project emotion onto concrete things. There are two parts to a metaphor: the vehicle and the tenor. The tenor is the meaning of the metaphor, and the vehicle is the image chosen to express that meaning. Typically the tenor comes first and is often in the title of the poem – although, none of the poems in Milk and Honey have a title, so it’s a bit harder to identify the tenor.
But Tess pointed out from her flip through of Milk and Honey that many of the poems don’t have a tenor at all anyway, which is partly why she concluded Milk and Honey to be not as great as everyone thinks. For instance, the very first poem (left) is quite short, containing only three stanzas, six lines in total, and only one image: “milk and honey dripped/ from my lips.” Tess explained that the dripping milk and honey is the vehicle, but there’s no tenor anywhere else in the poem – nothing literal to connect it to in order to understand what the poet means by the image. And so you’re left with a few lines of something that you don’t quite get – and that’s not the effect a poem should have.
The second poem (right) is much better Tess informed me, and is a good example of the correct and effective use of a tenor and vehicle. The vehicle/image is the bicycle handles. The tenor/meaning is the way in which the boy places his hands on her shoulders, and this is what the image is being compared to. As the poem develops, there’s this idea of being controlled, driven around in order to get the man somewhere else – just like using a bicycle to get somewhere. And like the bicycle, the poet feels used and hollow afterwards. It’s a much more effective, sobering poem as we truly understand how the poet feels with regards to her first sexual encounter. But the depth in this poem does seem to be a one off, as most of the other poems seem to be more like the first one.
Other than Milk and Honey’s questioning use of tenor and vehicle throughout, the book has a few interesting stylistic qualities to it, like the incorporation of the minimalistic drawings and the story-like layout of the four main sections The Hurting, The Loving, The Breaking, and The Healing – you really get a sense of a real, ongoing experience that someone’s been through as you move from poem to poem and section to section. The other interesting thing about Milk and Honey is that all of the poems are written in free verse. Tess explained that sometimes free verse can be sonic to produce sounds, but basically there is no purpose to the amount of syllables chosen, unlike a haiku or a sonnet or limerick. I thought the free verse worked well for the most part as it leant a more modern approach. However, this combined with the tenor-less images in most of the poems made the majority of the book read like Tumblr posts with the recurring theme “Woe is me.” Poetry that’s self-pitying, Tess explained, tends to lend itself to sentimentality, which often has repetitive themes and images already, so it’s not super original or ground breaking literature.
However, despite all of that, I have to say hats off to Rupi Kaur for accomplishing publication at such a young age (22!) and for discussing some very dark, intimate experiences about feminism and sex. Even though Rupi Kaur is still a young poet, she certainly seems like an up-and-coming voice in modern poetry and feminism, and Milk and Honey is definitely a valuable read for everyone, both men and women, teens and adults.
I learned a lot from my experience with this book – it showed me that poetry doesn’t have to be stuffy and flowery or abstract and unintelligible, and that is isn’t just for the ‘high-brow’ readers of society (maybe I’m super old fashioned for thinking that but for some reason that’s how I always saw poetry! I’m sure I’m not alone…). I think this type of ‘hipster’ poetry would do well to be introduced in high school English classrooms as a way to keep students educated and interested since let’s face it – most teenagers dread the poetry unit in class to some degree, but perhaps poetry in the style of Milk and Honey would shake things up.
I was also pretty lucky to have Tess’s awesome poetry lesson to help me review this book. She’s the best teacher I know; her explanations were easy to understand and gave clarity to my thoughts on Milk and Honey – I’m even inspired to try my own free verse poetry someday – something that’s alway intimidated me. If you’d like to know more about Tess, who teaches English and Creative Writing, you can check out her website here.
Otherwise, I’d love to know your thoughts on this book. Please share below!