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This review is taken from PN Review 185, Volume 35 Number 3, January - February 2009.

COMING OF AGE STEPHEN BURT, The Forms of Youth: 20th-Century Poetry and Adolescence (Columbia University Press) $36.50

Virginia Woolf's famous claim that 'on or about December 1910 human character changed' has often been invoked to describe the first stirrings of modernism. Precisely how that character changed, and what historical, cultural or social forces changed it, has been a matter of some debate. Modris Eksteins and Paul Fussel both argue that the First World War ushered in an age of irony, black humour and alienated subjectivity that we now associate with modernism. Others point to the role of literary and artistic coteries in Dublin, London and Paris during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These are all familiar, almost clichéd, arguments. Stephen Burt has offered an additional perspective in The Forms of Youth: that much twentieth-century poetry has been shaped, in both its form and preoccupations, by the idea of adolescence. Burt argues that modern poetry's own coming of age - in its daring aesthetic experiments, its resistance to traditional ideas of closure, and its understanding of itself as outside the mainstream - mirrors the bildung of the modern teenager. While this idea may initially invite scepticism, Burt's thorough and persuasive study, with its broad-ranging references, passionate advocacy of 'forgotten' poets, nuanced close readings, and elegant, jargon-free prose, suggests that there is an important relationship between modern poetry and youth culture, and that this relationship has not been sufficiently explored.

While The Forms of Youth assembles much information on the rise of twentieth-century youth culture (Burt ...


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