[Content warning: This article makes references to abusive relationships.]
After reading (and rereading) “Milk and Honey” over spring break, I can’t seem to understand the hype behind this book. I think that Rupi Kaur has some talent as a poet, but I think that this talent is buried under pages and pages of filler. I also think that Kaur lacks any sort of self-awareness as an author/artist. Her poetry rarely pushes its subject matter to gain any sort of knowledge from experiences, opting instead for superficial reflections on occurrences that are anything but.
I think it’s important to make clear that this book was not written for me: I’m a straight male and I’ve never been in an abusive relationship, and so I don’t want to define how people should see this book. I do, though, want to share my opinion on the book because I think that it is being put on a pedestal even though its problems outweigh its merits.
Simply put, I didn’t see “Milk and Honey” as poetry, I saw it as an attempt at scripture. The poems in this book are generally prescriptive in tone, telling you explicitly what to do and how to feel in response to certain situations and feelings.
This is not hyperbole: A healthy majority of these poems are written in the second person with Kaur blatantly stating, “loneliness is a sign you are in desperate need of yourself” (found on page 153 of the book; the only words on the page). Another poem has a pseudo-title of “to do list (after the breakup)” and is a 16 point list telling you how to live after a breakup. My problem with this poem is that it doesn’t leave room for another reader’s interpretation, since it is framed as the all-inclusive post-breakup list with no acknowledgment that it may not apply to other individual experiences.
This isn’t to say that all of “Milk and Honey” is irrelevant because of this fault. I just think there’s a gap between what this poetry is trying to accomplish and what it actually succeeds in doing. Kaur wants to write about her experiences, and she wants to help others who are going through what she experienced, but Kaur tries to universalize experiences that are ultimately her own.
In writing about individuality Kaur forgets her own, and her poetry comes off as bland and generic because of it as a result. Although this book was difficult to grasp from an outside perspective, I cannot, of course, speak on behalf of readers who more closely identify with her writing since Kaur’s bold words derive from her personal experiences as a woman of color and a survivor of abuse.
When Kaur moves away from this prescriptive writing, though, she really shines as a poet. The first-person poems and the ones that focus on Kaur’s own personal perspective are among the most interesting and emotionally resonant in the book.
The longest poem in the book on pages 76-77 is one such moment where Kaur gets personal. She goes into depth about the confusing, flagrant nature of a relationship on its downward spiral. Kaur convincingly constructs a vignette of a dying relationship that oozes a sense of fatal passion. It was weird, personal and left me confused and conflicted. This is a great poem.
But this is a standout example for a reason: it stands out. The vast majority of the poems in this book are short and rarely offer any sort of meaningful insight into a situation or effectively describe a particular scene compared to the poem I mentioned previously. I used the term “meaningful insight” because a lot of this book is Kaur offering insight, but not much of it hits the mark.
For instance, on page 57, Kaur writes, “the very thought of you/has my legs spread apart/like an easel with a canvas/begging for art.” Sure there’s a tension in the power dynamic (Who defines the art in this poem? The man who paints, or the woman who possesses the canvas?), but the poem doesn’t have enough words to do anything other than raise this question.
Then there are the broader issues I had with the book, namely its lack of narrative progression. “Milk and Honey” is divided into four sections, but this structure feels unnecessary since most of the poems stand on their own. They also don’t connect to one another since there is no overarching story or character for the reader to follow. Instead, Kaur relies solely on her personal experience to deliver heartfelt and resounding verse.