I first heard about Kaur’s poetry on a BookRiot podcast. Hosts Rebecca Joines Schinsky and Jeff O’Neal were trying to figure out how a book of poetry by a debut author could be selling so well. Milk and Honey now sits at Number 3 on the New York Times paperback trade fiction list. It has been on the list for 28 weeks. Bestselling poetry is so rare The Times doesn’t even have a category for it.
What gives? Was it a brilliant word-of-mouth campaign? Something smart on social media? BookRiot’s hosts asked listeners to leave comments to help them figure out the mystery.
Milk and Honey began life as a self-published volume in November, 2014, according to information at Kaur’s elegant website. Impressive sales led to a deal with Andrews McMeel Publishing on October 6, 2015.
The book comprises four sections titled the hurting, the loving, the breaking, and the healing. The poems are spare, raw, and real. Many of the poems do not have titles. In the ones that do, the titles appear as the last lines of the poems. There is little punctuation.
The second poem of the hurting section begins with “the first boy that kissed me / held my shoulders down / like the handlebars of / the first bicycle / he ever rode / I was five”. The following poem is superimposed on a line drawing of a woman’s naked body, the words centered between her legs:
you / have been / taught your legs / are a pit stop for men / that need a place to rest / a vacant body empty enough / for guests but no one / ever comes and is/ willing to / stay
Things brighten in the loving section. Listeners to my Kindle Chronicles podcast will no doubt enjoy a short poem titled “the perfect date.” It appears above a line drawing of someone reading a book and states, “nothing is safer / than the sound of you / reading out loud to me”.
I love most of Kaur’s poems, because they seem genuine. The ones that disappoint lack originality and the element of surprise. Here is an untitled example: “love will come / and when love comes / love will hold you / love will call your name / and you will melt / sometimes though / love will hurt you but / love will never mean to / love will play no games / cause love knows life / has been hard enough already.”
Something about that poem reminds me of my romantic youth, when everything in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet seemed guaranteed to melt the girl I was wooing. The prose poems of Gibran had an aura around them that I’m not sure would withstand a look back, now that I am 66. I see from Wikipedia that The Prophet will enter the public domain in 2018. I may take another look then.
Meanwhile, the poetry of Rupi Kauer has touched me today. I am grateful to the BookRiot hosts for pointing me toward Milk and Honey.
I am sure the author is pleased with the number of books she has sold. But I also suspect she is telling the truth when she writes in a poem titled “to all you young poets” that art “is not about how many people / like your work.” No, your art “is about / if your heart likes your work / if your soul likes your work”.
Well said, young poet!