Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur: How to Read Like a Writer
The concise, impactful potential of language permeates each page of Rupi Kaur’s poetry collection Milk and Honey. Instead of listing the events in her life, Kaur takes the reader on an emotional journey. She reinforces the power of individual words by inspiring intense emotions in her readers in a short space and grounds those emotions in line drawings and textual images. Writers who wish to make their readers feel and leave a lingering emotional impact can utilize the techniques executed in Milk and Honey to do so.
Showing Emotion in a Short Space
Poets are masters of evoking emotion in as few words as possible. When readers return to a text again and again, it’s because that text makes them feel something. Whether the feeling is happy, sad, thrilling, or calming, the sensation is one readers desire. Poetry communicates through emotion. Because poetry is designed to share what the writer was feeling in a specific moment, it is often autobiographical. Milk and Honey tastes of truth. Kaur’s poems have the ability to gut her readers because she allows the full force of her emotions into each poem. For example, Kaur says:
the next time you
have your coffee black
you’ll taste the bitter
state he left you in
it will make you weep
but you’ll never
you’d rather have the
darkest parts of him
than have nothing (89)
The reader sees Kaur’s longing in the lines where the speaker refuses to let go. They feel love, agonizing want, loneliness, stubbornness, and fear – all wrapped in a handful of poignant phrases. By coupling the emotion with a familiar item, Kaur gives the reader a taste, smell, heat, and image to associate with the emotions she invokes. She makes the intangible tangible in the cup of black coffee.
Poetic Point of View
One of the techniques Kaur uses to evoke an emotional response from her readers is the use of second person point of view. While she uses first and third person points of view too, the second person poems pull the reader in, transforming them into the body experiencing the sensations and emotions Kaur focuses on. The poem about the coffee cup would not hit the reader as hard if Kaur had used “I” or “she” because then the longing would belong to someone else, not the reader. By saying “you” Kaur elicits the longing for a lost love, stubborn refusal to move on, and despair of a break up in the reader.
Second person point of view works in Milk and Honey because the reader gets the sense Kaur is speaking directly to them. She is offering her condolences and advice while lifting the reader up and letting them know they are worthy of a better love than she has experienced. Even though two chapters of the collection are dedicated to the hurting and the breaking, the text has a positive overall tone.
Because Milk and Honey is a collection of poems, not a traditional prose text, Kaur is able to switch from second to third to first person point of view with each new poem. She chooses the point of view that best conveys the emotion and situation of that piece. At the same time, each point of view is very close to the characters. Kaur must dive into each character’s inner life to bring their feelings and sensations to the reader to keep the poems revolving around emotions.
Words as Image, and Image as Words
When Kaur doesn’t use a powerful image in her words to symbolize the emotional point she is trying to make, she couples the poem with an image designed to complement the text. By combining text and image in this way, she creates a stronger piece of art. In this poem about knowing your worth, Kaur juxtaposes a tree losing it leaves with the need to let someone go:
do not bother holding on to
that thing that does not want you
- you cannot make it stay (149)
Here the tree reinforces the changing seasons of life. In order to continue growing, people must be willing to shed the dead pieces, so they can grow new, vibrant leaves. Without the tree, this poem is too general and intangible. The tree reinforces the sentiment and adds more punch.
The form of the poems themselves also create images. Often the lines are short and double-spaced, leaving plenty of white space on the page like the tree poem – even the image doesn’t take up much of the page. This adds to the poems’ impact. With so few words on the page, each one stands out, and the end of the poem has a finality to it. Other poems are prose poetry, where the lines fill the page in a block of text, such as:
what I miss most is how you loved me. but what I didn’t know was how you loved me had so much to do with the person I was. it was a reflection of everything I gave to you. coming back to me. how did I not see that. how. did I sit here soaking in the idea that no one else would love me that way. when it was I that taught you. when it was I that showed you how to fill . . . (138)
In the long form poems, Kaur is letting go and allowing the words to tumble out. The lack of capitals and paragraph breaks give the impression that she is speaking the poem in a single breath, as if her tongue is betraying her thoughts. The prose poems are spoken while Kaur is experiencing the passionate emotions driving the collection, while the short poems are well-thought out, concise reports of what has already happened. By mixing these forms together, Kaur keeps the poems fresh and is able to express the events and emotions in the style that best suits them. Writers must pay attention to the tone and image created by the look of the words on the page as well as the connotations of the words themselves, so they can craft the story they imagined.
Why an Editor Recommends a Collection of Poetry
I’m not usually a big poetry fan, but if you want to create an intense emotion in as few words as possible, read poetry. Poets are experts at making a handful of words convey an entire moment or more. Milk and Honey is an excellent example of the economy of words and of a book of poetry with a story arc. Kaur shares her emotional journey with her readers, from an abusive childhood to discovering her own self-worth, she describes the hurting, the loving, the breaking, and the healing that led her to writing and the person she is today. Memoirists and fiction writers who wish to convey an emotional, internal journey can use this collection as an example of how they must fully immerse the reader in the emotions of the characters, so they can experience the pain, love, loss, anger, elation, and more of the piece. The intense emotions, choice in point of view, line drawings, and form of the poems in Rupi Kaur's Milk and Honey work together to impact the text's readers and Ignite Her Ink.
What was your emotional experience reading Rupi Kaur's collection? Share it in the comments below, and if you haven't read Milk and Honey yet, click on the image to your right.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.