BOOK CLUB: Milk & Honey by Rupi Kaur

We’re back! After a couple of months off the book club returns with our first poetry collection, Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. As usual there are some.. differing opinions, let’s get straight into it!

Q: Our first collection of poetry for the Book Club! How exciting. 😀 I guess I’ll start with an easy question – did you enjoy the poetry collection? Would also be interested to know if you you generally read / enjoy poetry, and how your preconceived notions of poetry as a genre may have affected your reading of Milk and Honey.

Michelle: I really enjoyed this collection of poetry. I know that the poems aren’t revolutionary in their structure or use of language, or even subject matter, but their simplicity, honesty and vulnerability really spoke to me (that sounds pretentious, I know, but it did!) I also love the use of illustrations alongside some of the poems, which were minimalist but powerful all the same. I’m a big fan of poetry, in particular spoken word, and how you can say a lot with a little (something that I admire greatly as a rambler). I’d also read a few of Rupi Kaur’s poems prior to this on her Instagram account, so I knew what to expect and what I was going into, but I still have to say I was surprised and impressed by the collection as a whole, which really takes you on a journey through her love, loss and healing processes. I love that you can sit down and read the whole thing in half an hour, fully and deeply engaged and engrossed in this space Kaur has carved out for herself, but you can also dip in and out to random poems at various stages without the need for full context of the overarching ‘story’ that’s being told. Some of her poems are now absolute favourites of mine that I have already dog-eared to go back to and read again (and again…!)

Elen: While I do read some poetry I tend to read poems individually rather than collections and to be honest the most poetry I read was back in high school English classes. So while I do have some experience with the genre I’d say it’s far from my favourite. I’m not sure whether or not than impacted my enjoyment of the book (I was definitely iffy about discussing a poetry collection for the first time in five years) overall I found it decidedly … meh. It’s not that I hated any of the poems or even disliked them but none of them stood out to me either. I read the collection about two weeks ago and can barely remember two lines from it let alone two poems. So I can’t really say I enjoyed reading it, I didn’t not enjoy it I just read it and had no strong feelings either way. In some ways I think that’s worse than something I hated like Miss Peregrine.

Hayley: I’ll start off by saying that overall I’m not a huge fan of poetry. I’ve found it really hard to relate to. The only times I’ve ever read poetry was during GCSE, A Level and my degree, it was always by necessity rather than by desire. So when I picked this up in Waterstones I genuinely surprised myself by buying it. Firstly the cover made me curious, and the title. It caught my eye. I was surprised when it was poetry. Even in Waterstones I couldn’t put it down. I found it moving and emotional and very, very relatable. I felt her heartbreak as deeply as I felt my own. I usually find it hard to read long poetry so that fact that it was so minimalist appealed to me. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and would read it again and again. It’s the first book in a DAMN long time that I’ve felt excited to talk to other people about. I felt empowered as a woman, as a person who loves and a person who feels. For the genre of poetry and how well received this collection has been I think it’s a leap forward to reaching out to people our age and younger for emotional poetry. It’s short, to the point and full of feeling. I truly loved this collection.

Kate: If I’m honest I didn’t really enjoy this collection that much. There were certain poems that stood out to me and which touched on themes which I wish had been explored more, but overall I found it underwhelming. I think partly that’s because from the praise I had heard I expected it to touch on feminism and racism a lot more and not just in the context of the breakup narrative which dominates the collection. The poems that did explores themes of sisterhood, beauty standards and discrimination were the ones I liked the most. As to whether I read poetry, I don’t read an awful lot but I have enjoyed plenty that I’ve read. I’ve read this style of poetic writing before but largely in the context of poems shared by grassroots writers on Tumblr. I don’t mean that as an insult as a I genuinely do enjoy this style of writing, in fact I still have many of those poems from Tumblr bookmarked, but it meant I did find Milk and Honey quite unoriginal in terms of the style and many of the themes.

Q: Was there a poem or section that you particularly enjoyed/hated/related to the most? Why?

Hayley: So, I loved all of it as I’ve previously mentioned. But my favourite section was The Breaking. Probably because those feelings are very familiar to me at the moment. I found it quite comforting to know that someone else could feel the same feelings as me and to have written them down to beautifully. It sounds so cliched but it was a little like I was reading my soul off the page. I was really emotionally moved, and I could allow myself to feel that way because I was in a safe reading space. It was cleansing really. My favourite from that section was ‘how can i write if he took my hands with him’.

My favourite overall is far cheekier though, and the illustration that goes with it just makes me giggle. ‘the very thought of you has my legs spread apart like an easel with canvas begging for art’. I think it’s a fantastic metaphor. Not only is it humourous it’s witty and I really enjoyed that about some of her poetry. The illustrations alongside the poems I thought went really well. It kept the page looking exciting aesthetically. Some of the illustrations were sometimes too distracting, but overall I liked the minimalistic style and how they sometimes highlighted an element of the poem that I hadn’t first considered.

The chapter of the collection that I found the most challenging to read as I didn’t quite relate to it was The Hurting. The topics is discussed like insecurity, familial relationships, sexual abuse, are all relevant and important topics to discuss. But as a reader I struggled to connect to the poems. I can appreciate them for their skill and their aim, but emotionally they didn’t grab me. I LOVED IT GUYS. I loved it because I felt the poems emotionally, not just as a critical or analytical reader.

Elen: Here’s the only two lines I can remember to the best of my ability “i am not you water you want, i am the whisky you need” so I guess that’s my favourite bit. Although now that I think about it that might go the other way round and to be honest it probably only stuck out to me because I was convinced I’d seen it somewhere before (Tumblr maybe?). There was also something about being sad in places where you shouldn’t be which liked at the time? So I guess those bits were my favourites. But as I said above my overall feeling was indifference.

Kate: My favourites were the poems dealing with sisterhood and solidarity amongst women, which I guess were the parts I related to the most as well, having not experienced many of the traumas she details. I did also like the poem Elen mentioned where she discusses how her ex treated her like a ‘holiday’ rather than a ‘home’, I thought that was a great metaphor for two people who have wildly different expectations of their relationship and the hurt that comes with realizing one isn’t as committed. The poem where Kaur compares her standards of beauty as a woman of Indian heritage to those of the Western world was excellent too.

Following on from that the parts I liked the least were the poems where she discussed her ex’s new girlfriend, describing her as a ‘bootleg version’ of herself. I understand the feelings of bitterness that would come from heartbreak, but such a blatant attack on another woman felt out of place in a collection that celebrates sisterhood elsewhere. I generally expected more vulnerability in the breakup poems, which, while they did aim for empowerment, often felt like Kaur was telling simplified version of the story. She constantly emphasises how beautiful and witty she is and how her cowardly ex couldn’t handle her greatness which made her sort of unsympathetic to me. Considering that in another poem she directly calls out the idea that ‘you’re not like other girls’ isn’t a compliment to women, she doesn’t back this up – instead writing about how her ex will never find another woman as great as she is.

Personally I also felt the illustrations also detracted from the poems in some cases, especially in the poems dealing with body hair. These tend to espouse a positive attitude towards women’s body hair but in the illustrations it’s drawn as flowers – something traditionally feminine and pretty – rather than actual hair which to me felt a bit like reinforcing the idea that women’s hair must be associated with something delicate and feminine, because to portray women as straight up hairy would be transgressively masculine. I get that the images draw on the link between women’s bodies and Mother Nature, but the poems did not feature this and I felt a blunter approach would have suited them better.

Michelle: I, like Hayley, have quite a long list of poems that I particularly enjoyed in this collection, and have dogeared quite a few of my favourites to go back to. The section with the most folded down pages is, by far, The Healing, as after journeying through the Kaur’s traumatic experiences, heartbreak and loss, it was a breath of fresh air to come out of the other side of her pain, and read about the healing process.

This section also featured the most poems about sisterhood between women (as Kate mentioned), positivity over one’s body and feeling happy and satisfied with one’s own self, not needing to find validation or love from someone else. These poems, which have the speaker’s voice telling their lover that saying she “is not like most girls… makes [her] want to spit [their] tongue out,” because it is not the compliment they think it is, or the speaker stating “other women’s bodies are not our battlegrounds,” are reflections of my own thoughts and feelings, which warms my heart like you wouldn’t believe. Not that this is the first time I’ve found someone else who shares my own feelings on these topics, of course, but it may be the first time I’ve seen it laid out so simply and honestly in print? Sometimes it’s just reassuring to be able to assert that “to be soft is to be powerful,” as femininity isn’t weakness, and to remind yourself that “you are your own soulmate,” by seeing it printed on a page, especially in a world that has such a heavy focus on romantic relationships in all wakes of life.

Also, as a woman of colour, I love Kaur’s poem aptly named women of colour, which looks at the perceptions of beauty in Western society in comparison to Kaur’s native India. Just because women from different ethnic backgrounds don’t fit certain specifications does not mean they are not beautiful. “don’t tell me my women aren’t as beautiful as the ones in your country. Our backs tell stories no books have the spine to carry.” GAH. I love that last line so much. My absolute favourite poem, however, has to be: “you were a dragon long before he came around and said you could fly. you will remain a dragon long after he’s left,” because damn straight, I’m a dragon. Hear my roar and watch how my fire burns. *insert dragon emoji here*

Q: This collection touches on several different issues and areas. How cohesive did you think it was? Do you think it could have benefitted from more focus?

Michelle: Ooh good question. I’m caught somewhere in the middle with this question, as I do definitely think that the collection flows in a somewhat cohesive way, in that you can see how the chapters link through the speaker’s inward journey; from being hurt at a young age by her family, to her tumultuous relationship with her lover, and finally to her search for independent happiness and healing. It is the story of her life through the lens of love (too cheesy? I’ll roll with it) and I enjoyed getting to witness these various, and vastly different, parts of her life.

That being said, each section is structured in such a way that it focuses almost solely on one aspect of her experience; abuse, romantic love and turmoil, independence and self-love. This does disrupt the flow somewhat and makes the change-over in between chapters a bit jarring. As the speaker is describing the different stages of her life, however, I think this is to be expected. It would be interesting to read a version of the collection without the chapters in place, perhaps with a few poems to bridge the gaps between the different ‘sections’ to see how that affects people’s reading of it. I think this would make the collection more of a continuous journey through her life rather than jumping in at various stages to see how her thoughts and feelings have changed or shifted, and why.

Final score

Michelle 4/5 stars – It’s not perfect or remotely ground-breaking, but I hugely enjoyed reading these poems, and know that it is a collection that I will go back to in the future.

Hayley 5/5 stars

Elen – 2/5 stars

Kate – 2/5 stars
Average Rating 3.25/5 stars

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