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This review is taken from PN Review 182, Volume 34 Number 6, July - August 2008.

FORMATIVE YEARS STEPHEN BURT, The Forms of Youth: Twentieth-Century Poetry and Adolescence (Columbia)

Stephen Burt's The Forms of Youth offers an eloquent, wide-ranging and detailed account of adolescence in many of its permutations throughout twentieth-century poetry in English. His examination of this trope is compellingly nuanced, interspersing sustained close analyses of individual poets' works with broader arguments demonstrated through consideration of 'scattered poems by many hands', and discussion of the relevant historical contexts. In this manner, Burt convincingly shows how various culturally and historically specific attitudes towards adolescence have not only provided the subject matter for a remarkably large and diverse selection of poets, but also how these ideas have become stylistically embedded as poets 'alter or reinvent verse forms, literary modes and verbal resources, trying to make new kinds of poems in order to match the new kinds of young people they see'.

Drawing on both sociological and literary sources, Burt's comprehensive introduction succinctly outlines the prevalent and often contradictory conceptions of adolescence most relevant to the poetry his study considers. The 'distinctive period of life' between childhood and adulthood, which every generation experiences, is firmly established as having gained a new cultural resonance in the early years of the twentieth century; a point usefully illustrated in Burt's overview of earlier poetic treatments of adolescence in the work of, for instance, Wordsworth, Keats and Byron. Modern adolescents have created unique subcultures, with distinct fashions in dress and language, deriving norms from each other rather than 'inheriting them from their elders or long-extant institutions'. Most significant for ...

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