- Keeping It New:Pastoral Rebellion and the Art of Youth
"There is no reason," Ezra Pound once argued, "why the same man should like the same books at eighteen and forty-eight." When the forty-eight-year-old poet proclaimed this in his ABC of Reading, which was written as a textbook for novice writers, he was sensitive enough to recognize that he must not "try to force the taste of a middle-aged man on the younger reader."1 But what happens when middle-aged poets become indistinguishable from their younger readers—or wish to become so? This provocative question animates Stephen Burt's study of adolescence in twentieth-century poetry, and the answers Burt produces underwrite a fresh understanding of modern as well as contemporary writing. Like the poems it explains anew, Burt's work here is characterized by its striking ambition and synthesizing power. An abiding interest in American poets expands to accommodate extended examinations of prominent British poets in chapter 2 and Irish and Australian poets in chapter 5, while nuanced attention to issues of gender and ethnicity, which are the focal point of chapter 4, serve to enrich the study throughout. Although Burt's thesis is supported by serious research into both cultural history and developmental psychology, The Forms of Youth: [End Page 822] Twentieth-Century Poetry and Adolescence directs its contribution to literary criticism first.
If the prominence of the word youth in the title risks confusion, the subtitle ought to be sufficient to resolve it. Burt's study is about neither the adolescent audience for poetry nor poems promulgated by adolescents. Instead, it looks to mature poets whose work variously yet insistently addresses emergent aspects of youth culture within the newly minted, rapidly evolving category of adolescence. In its pure state, this culture came into view with spectacular abruptness: the introduction sets the stage by explaining how, why, and when teenager suddenly became a candidate for the most important word in the English language. The poems that matter most for each of the six chapters that follow are the ones that "built twentieth-century adolescence" by deploying a wide array of effects, sometimes to describe a state of youth, sometimes to develop readers' understanding of it (1). Such writing strategies must respond to an ideal of uncompromised youth even as they make available public and portable ideas about it. While the poems Burt analyzes are organized intuitively along lines of content, they (and he) resist the temptation to circumscribe a single authoritatively "youthful" style. They do not celebrate the experiences, feelings, and values of youth in the same ways—some, indeed, do not celebrate them at all. Taken together, however, they invite us to reconsider a key aspect of literary history, revealing formerly unseen patterns of both composition and thought.
In an analytical project that places a high premium on evaluation, Burt refuses to cast poets according to either historical or critical orthodoxy. The Forms of Youth benefits from its treatment of writers who do not simply admire one another in coterie fashion. This means that readers are also unlikely to admire uniformly the many poets addressed here, just as they are likely to perceive at least one apparent "oversight" in the roster. But with regard to a study this capacious and heterogeneous, it is surely a mistake to quibble over the fact of (inevitable) omissions. It serves a different purpose to consider what the poets who are included share beyond a theme, though—all the more so given that Burt's contribution is by no means merely thematic. Some readers may be surprised by the lack of attention paid to the trench poets, or by the limited attention to [End Page 823] avant-gardists, or by the relatively quick summation of the Beat movement. Where the experimental poet-critic Charles Bernstein has called the Allen Ginsberg of Howl a representative "poet of adolescent identification," Burt argues that while "parts of Howl do depict and celebrate the adolescent 'moratorium,'" "[i]t would be wrong to see in Ginsberg...