In my last poetry class, we closed out the quarter by reading “Crush” by Richard Siken. I had first read the Yale Series of Younger Poets’ winning collection at a writing program when I was 14. We were assigned to read “Little Beast,” the third poem in the book, and, with an intensity more heightened than with any poetry I’d ever read before, I felt so completely consumed by the poem’s world that I almost believed I had been in, and destroyed by, love. As Louise Glück writes in the opening sentence of the poem forward, “This is a book about panic.” The kind of panic that drove Siken’s poetry held an urgency which I had never seen before, and although I was 14 and had never experienced real heartbreak, I felt that the world had been opened, and within its thin paper walls I had discovered why I loved poetry: The expression of emotions and experiences so intensely overwhelming, poetry was the only possible receptacle that would not lead to total self-destruction.
Others all around me believed it too, it seemed. At nearly every writing camp I attended during high school, “Crush” was referenced and quoted and revered by the teenaged poets around me. At school, the book was passed around among friends, discussed in the hushed hallways amidst ongoing classes, on the grass at lunch, with our teachers in English class. For many poets, “Crush” holds the kind of mythic power that immortalizes without ever waning in wonder. It’s a collection I loved and which helped expose me to the kind of vitality and awe and hurt that language is capable of expressing when I was first starting to figure out what it meant for me to write things about my own hurts and fears.
Rereading “Little Beast” five years after I initially read it in the sticky summer dusk of Ohio did not diminish any degree of its obsession, its intensity. As in its opening section, when the speaker introduces the night, which is also the possibility of love, and violence:
An all-night barbecue. A dance on the courthouse lawn.
The radio aches a little tune that tells the story of what the night
is thinking. It’s thinking of love.
It’s thinking of stabbing us to death
and leaving our bodies in a dumpster.
And I entered Siken’s world as seamlessly as I had the first time I read the poem. Except now my reading of it is enhanced by a vocabulary grown through classes at Stanford and my continued personal reading of poetry, and I can appreciate the formal and situational aspects that, at 14, I wasn’t able to recognize. In other words, returning to a poem I loved in early teenagehood only deepened my admiration for it, fortified the breathless feeling in my gut invoked only by a language which pulses with a necessity to be spoken. Because what did I know of love at 14? I’m still a teenager. What do I really know about it now or about the intimacy of the speaker’s queer relationship, its heartbreak?
Lately, I have been returning to a curious portfolio in “Poetry”’s July/August 2015 issue called “pethetic little thing,” reminding me again of what draws us to poetry and what makes us embarrassed by it, which are two sides of the same coin. In the introduction, Tavi Gevinson, the portfolio’s then 19-year-old curator and the founder of “Rookie” writes, “I wanted to hash out the fear so many of us have of writing and reading poetry, which is really a fear of seeming like an angsty teen.” In the essay of the portfolio that had a profound impact on my view of art and art-making back when I was in high school, “How It Feels,” Jenny Zhang writes, “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?”
I think that what “pethetic little thing” argues for lies in the same vein as Siken’s magical appeal: the acceptance, even embrace of, vulnerability, emotional honesty and intensity and disarray. Siken’s language is unapologetic in its forthrightness, honest to the obsessive terror and urgency of its intentions. It’s the kind of language I dream of capturing because it lets itself speak with such earnestness and conviction that we can’t help but believe its panic. “He had green eyes, / so I wanted to sleep with him — ” Siken writes, “green eyes flecked with yellow, dried leaves on the surface of a pool — / You could drown in those eyes, I said.”
And although these ideas about reclaiming the “maudlin” or “adolescent” emotions behind poetry sometimes feel tired to me now, and these kinds of expressions are often dismissed as dramatic or overwrought in workshop settings, revisiting Siken caused me to realize all over again how significant these kinds of affirmations are to young poets. Or at least how vital it was (and is) to me, this validation of the impulse to speak without fear. Or, in Siken’s case, to speak driven by a fear of demolition, of preventing the utter devastation that results from expression’s absence. My copy of “Crush,” its spine softened by its movement from my possession to my friends who have borrowed it, sits on my bookshelf in my dorm room, as I suspect it will sit indefinitely in this place of emotional unapology to which I will again and again return.
Contact Maddie Kim at mkim16 ‘at’ stanford.edu.