The Forms of Youth: 20th-Century Poetry and Adolescence

Stephen Burt
Columbia University Press, $36.50 (cloth)

If the nineteenth century discovered childhood as a literary phenomenon—think of all those Romantic poems about the child as father to the man, or those Victorian novels full of orphans—then it was left to the twentieth century to discover adolescence. The invention of the teenager in pop culture is a familiar enough story, but in The Forms of Youth Stephen Burt makes a case for the importance of adolescence as a theme in the poetry of the last century. Youth matters to Burt, and has been one of the chief interests of his own poetry, so it is no surprise to find him thinking about adolescence in his criticism. What is surprising is the breadth of ground he covers. Burt’s subjects here are mostly American: Williams, Lowell, Oppen, Glück, and Lyn Hejinian, along with the surprising addition of Laura Kasischke. But Australians and Brits are present too: what study of poetry and youth would be complete without Thom Gunn? The many riches of this book include a fine reading of Basil Bunting’s long poem Briggflatts, and a treatment of Philip Larkin as a poet frustrated at having missed out on youth. That there is almost no examination of war poetry is a surprise, though. A treatment of the work of Wilfred Owen would have provided a tragic counterpoint to the energy and gentle angst we see in the poets Burt discusses. While the great virtue of this book lies in the care of its close readings of individual poems, it doesn’t shy away from making larger arguments: it divides the poetry of youth into two broad types (the pastoral and the rebellious), and it even makes a case for poetry itself as a kind of adolescent, drawn to experiment and haunted by uncertainty. With these ambitious arguments—and with the broad taste and the detailed readings he displays—Stephen Burt is emerging as a leading poet-critic of his generation.