Youth Culture   /   Spring 2009   /    Books

The Poetics of Youthfulness

Wilson Brissett

Teenage girl smoking pot near San Antonio (1973). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Adolescence comes at us in familiar shapes. We recognize its characteristic vehicles—rock music and hip hop, video games  and  skate  boards.  Poetry  not so much. Perhaps the exquisitely (and embarrassingly) tortured lines of teenage loneliness scribbled in notebooks, but otherwise, adolescence seems to be anything but a poetic affair.

Stephen Burt’s new book The Forms of Youth turns this idea on its head by arguing that adolescence and its cultural representations serve as a major source for poetic innovation and accomplishment across the twentieth century. Burt’s unfolding of this idea also becomes a grand tour of the century’s dominant schools of thought, and many of his conclusions offer (sometimes inadvertent) critical perspective on these philosophical trends even as they suggest useful strategies for understanding the flow of poetic invention in late-modern America.

The core of the book is Burt’s thesis that new and changing ideas of youth were taken up by American poets, from the turn of the century on, as a way of formally and thematically working out a new sense of poetic selfhood: “all find in the modern adolescent a focus for their own concerns and a figure for the distinctively modern poem” (43).

This focus on adolescence often takes two contradictory forms—a nostalgia for an early, “pastoral” stage of life that cannot be regained, and a revolutionary hope for the possibilities of harnessing the unique energies of a transitional stage outside the bounds of normal, adult authority. Burt finds the tension between these ideals of youth spurring some of the best American poetry, from the early modernist experimentations of William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All to the basketball poems of Yusef Komunyakaa.

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