Rediscovering Poetry: Richard Siken

The first time I read any of Richard Siken's work was in middle school in the form of a short excerpt on my 2014 Tumblr dashboard. I don't remember which poem it was, but I do remember that I had never really felt a connection to poetry before—and I certainly hadn't planned on getting attached to a poem that interrupted my regularly scheduled feed of all the embarrassing stuff (ahem, One Direction) in which middle school me was interested.

I didn’t think I liked poetry. Still, to this day, I’m quite picky about poems, and I find it hard to find many that truly interest me. Yet, I couldn’t deny the way Siken's voice beckoned me. There was something unique about his poetry that I could resonate with so deeply for reasons unbeknownst to me, but I knew I wanted more. I scoured the internet for Siken’s work, consuming stanzas and verses with reverent fervor.

Much of what I read consisted of excerpts from Siken’s book, Crush, which won the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition. In the book’s forward, poet Louise Glück writes that Crush is about panic and obsession. She writes, “If panic is his ground note, Siken’s obsessive focus is a tyrant, the body."

I still could not even begin to put into words why I fell in love with Siken’s work. When I was first introduced to his poetry, I was about 14 years old. I had experienced neither panic nor obsession at the intensity of which Siken spoke. Yet, I was powerless to the way Crush’s pervasive sense of urgency drew me into his world, and I couldn’t get enough.

Then, as suddenly as it all began, I stopped.

About halfway through high school, I began distancing myself from various things that I told myself hindered maturity. I stopped engaging with art, viewing it as an inessential hobby. I was embarrassed by emotions, shying away from anything that attempted to express complex feelings—a side effect of my desire to break away from the “angsty teen” stereotype in an environment that relates emotions with “cringe-culture”.

Just as I gave up poetry during this time, I also abandoned my love of reading. I never stopped reading completely, as I've always filled my schedule to the brim with language classes to satiate my literary passions. Yet, I couldn't remember the last time I'd held a book in my hands and read it purely for enjoyment, rather than for a grade.

I was breaking two long-standing habits when I recently ordered Siken's book, Crush, on Amazon. I practically skipped my way to pick up the package, the day it arrived, fingers itching to grace the book’s pages and rediscover the poetry I fell in love with in my early teenage years.

As I read and reread Crush, I’ve slowly realized that, by rediscovering Richard Siken’s poetry, I’ve also been rediscovering things about myself.

For one, I’ve become re-accustomed to my childhood habit of laying claim on my books. Although I’ve barely had the novel for a couple months, its spine is thoroughly broken in, and its pages are already growing love-worn. I’ve filled the margins with scribbled notes, underlined phrases, circled words I found especially poignant and dog-eared pages so I can easily return to my favorite pieces.  

I rediscovered passion. The type of unbridled delight, the kind of excitement that bubbles in your chest and makes your hands shake with the force of it, that I felt as I first held Crush is something I hadn’t felt for anything in a long, long time. It was refreshing. It was exhilarating. It reminded me what it felt like to be truly passionate about something.

But the most important thing I’ve become reacquainted with, perhaps, is emotion.

In “How It Feels," a piece of prose from Poetry Magazine, Jenny Zhang asks, “Why is the default to cringe whenever someone writes a poem about their feelings? Even worse if that someone is a teenager? Even worse if that someone is no longer a teenager but nonetheless thinks about themselves with the kind of intensity that is only acceptable between the ages of thirteen and nineteen?”

Crush has helped me rediscover my love for poetry. The intensely raw emotion, laced with a breathtaking sense of panic and obsession, made me realize that growing up does not mean pushing away emotions, nor does it require me to shy away from complexities.

Every time I read Siken’s poetry feels exactly like the first time I stumbled across his work. It never feels dull, and it never fails to elicit a sense of eager veneration. Crush is an exciting piece of literature that I will always have the desire to return to again and again.