Poetry can be an acquired taste for some people, a type of love-hate relationship. I’m sure we all can recall those times in English class when we had to come up with haikus and other short poems that made no sense: You either got it or you didn’t.
I was always the odd one who loved poetry and prided myself on understanding the deeper meanings some of the authors were trying to incorporate. As time went on, poetry took the back burner to my life. When I had spare time to explore the newest publications in literature, I usually stuck to novels.
I can still remember when Rupi Kaur first wrote “milk and honey” in 2014. She gained mainstream popularity and became known as an “Instapoet,” or someone who publishes short verses or stanzas on social media. Its immediate success saw the poetry collection on The New York Times Best Seller list and resulted in the collection being reissued by Andrews McMeel Publishing in November 2015.
Due to the universality of its themes, it appeals to readers everywhere and addresses issues that all women can relate to. I decided to read the book this past month, completely unprepared for what it was truly about.
“milk and honey” is a self-published compilation of short poems which explore the raw emotions of human experience. Kaur’s collection of prose investigates a variety of themes, including love, loss, trauma, healing, femininity and migration.
The titular name is a biblical reference to Exodus 33:3, where God promises to provide the Israelites a “land flowing with milk and honey.” As shown in the first poem, Kaur equates milk and honey to kindness: “how is it so easy for you/ to be kind to people” asks a man, with Kaur’s response as “cause people have/ not been kind to me.”
The novel is stylized as “milk and honey,” incorporating Kaur’s culture through her writing style. She purposefully writes in lowercase as a way to honor her culture by paralleling Gurmukhi script. The style reveals an equality of letters that reflects her worldview and allows her work to be accessible.
The book is split into four parts: “the hurting,” “the loving,” “the breaking” and “the healing.” Each chapter focuses on an individual theme, dealing with a type of pain and growing from that experience.
Roughly every other page, there is a hand-drawn sketch by the author herself, representing the themes, characters and situations described in each poem. In some cases, the poems are written around or even within the sketches, forcing the reader to examine the interplay between text and image.
The first chapter, “the hurting,” depicts events of sexual assault and rape. In these poems, a narrative begins to emerge: The speaker, like so many women before her, has been abused by her father, her uncle and various men in her life.
“the hurting” primarily focuses on the speaker's experiences of abuse, offering insights and confessions as she reflects on the repercussions. The speaker recognizes that many other women in her family have been subjected to similar experiences and are taught to be subservient to men.
Over time, she internalizes the lessons her father has taught her, repeating to herself, “i am nothing.” This abuse has lasting effects on her self-esteem, her relationship with her father and the way she perceives the world. Her love life is also haunted by her past sexual experiences. In the last poem of this chapter, the speaker says, “i flinch when you touch me/ i fear it is him.”
The second chapter, “the loving,” is a shift in the novel which focuses on the speaker’s adult relationships with men. The opinion she has of herself and her body is irrevocably shaped by her father’s actions and words: “the closest thing to god on this earth/ is a woman's body,” because “it's where life comes from.”
She carries this wisdom with her in her adult life, thinking of her body as a place of beauty, complication, longing and pain. She falls in love with a man she recognizes as “the type/ of man i'd want to raise my son to be like.”
This new loving relationship has a profound effect on the speaker. She associates it with safety, taking comfort in the sound of his voice and the touch of his hands on her skin. The final poem in this section takes the form of a long prose to emphasize the underlying narrative of their relationship.
“the breaking” is the third and longest chapter of the collection. It recounts the breakup with her boyfriend, who was mentioned in the previous chapter. Following this, Kaur focuses on the generality of relationships with men. In one poem she writes, “did you think I was a city.../ don’t come here with expectations/ and try to make a vacation out of me.”
The speaker directs her pain by speaking out against the sexism and misogyny that teaches men to think of women as property. She refuses to be diminished, claiming she broke up with him because she was tired of feeling “anything less/ than whole.” The final poem in this chapter reads: “the way they/ leave/ tells you/ everything.”
The collection ends on a more positive note, as the final chapter is titled “the healing.” A majority of the poems in this section consist of aphorisms — statements of general truths — like “do not bother holding onto/ that thing that does not want you” or “accept that you deserve more/ than painful love.”
The aphorisms help the speaker to heal from the grief and trauma that was inflicted on her. The speaker realizes that healing is a process and can only be achieved when she looks within herself for the answers. She states: “i'm learning/ how to love him/ by loving myself.”
The first step in the healing process is acknowledging the fact that one is broken. She is able to find strength in herself and in the fellowship of other women: “our struggle to/ celebrate each other is/ what’s proven most difficult/ in being human.” She understands that her experiences are not uncommon and that women must empower themselves to fight misogyny.
The ending of this book is powerful and really resonates with the speaker when she thanks the man who “split [her] open,” because it forces her to write her story and find her true voice as a poet and as a human.
Kaur’s poetry is written with such truth and emotion. The book teaches you that life is filled with terrible and heartbreaking moments, but within those moments you can find great things. There is so much meaning and emotion behind every word.
As Kaur stated: “‘milk and honey’ takes readers through a journey of the most bitter moments in life and finds sweetness in them because there is sweetness everywhere if you are just willing to look.”
This short collection reminded me of why I love poetry, and how it can really emulate the experiences of being human. It’s an uninhibited, passionate exposure of life in its natural state. As mentioned before, poetry is not for everyone, but I urge you to give Rupi Kaur’s words more than a cursory glance to see how it is so much more.