The Forms of Youth: Twentieth-Century Poetry and Adolescence
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Early in the twentieth century, Americans and other English-speaking nations began to regard adolescence as a separate phase of life. Associated with uncertainty, inwardness, instability, and sexual energy, adolescence acquired its own tastes, habits, subcultures, slang, economic interests, and art forms. This new idea of adolescence became the driving force behind some of the modern era's most original poetry.
Stephen Burt demonstrates how adolescence supplied the inspiration, and at times the formal principles, on which many twentieth-century poets founded their works. William Carlos Williams and his contemporaries fashioned their American verse in response to the idealization of new kinds of youth in the 1910s and 1920s. W. H. Auden's early work, Philip Larkin's verse, Thom Gunn's transatlantic poetry, and Basil Bunting's late-modernist masterpiece, Briggflatts, all track the development of adolescence in Britain as it moved from the private space of elite schools to the urban public space of sixties subcultures. The diversity of American poetry from the Second World War to the end of the sixties illuminates poets' reactions to the idea that teenagers, juvenile delinquents, hippies, and student radicals might, for better or worse, transform the nation. George Oppen, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Robert Lowell in particular built and rebuilt their sixties styles in reaction to changing concepts of youth.
Contemporary poets continue to fashion new ideas of youth. Laura Kasischke and Jorie Graham focus on the discoveries of a specifically female adolescence. The Irish poet Paul Muldoon and the Australian poet John Tranter use teenage perspectives to represent a postmodernist uncertainty. Other poets have rejected traditional and modern ideas of adolescence, preferring instead to view this age as a reflection of the uncertainties and restricted tastes of the way we live now. The first comprehensive study of adolescence in twentieth-century poetry, The Forms of Youth recasts the history of how English-speaking cultures began to view this phase of life as a valuable state of consciousness, if not the very essence of a Western identity.
Paid Auden composed ( Juvenilia, 241; EA 15). Auden’s poetry through 1933 often seems to dramatize not his own prep school, public school, or university life so much as that of his friends, especially Gabriel Carritt and Christopher Isherwood. Carritt’s sporting exploits inﬁltrate several of Auden’s works (among them The Orators), while Isherwood and Edward Upward’s visions of school life as covert war predate Auden’s similar models. Isherwood’s Lions and Shadows recalls Isherwood and Upward
me)— Between the end of the Chatterley ban And the Beatles’ ﬁrst LP. ( CP L 1 46 ) Larkin’s tone and repetitions court sarcasm: has “every life” ever felt the same? How much do broad cultural narratives and signposts—Beatlemania and the Chatterley trial, the pill, the “sexual revolution”—really say about individual experience? Might they falsify as much as they show? Yet the young in this poem appear to seize, in fact, the pleasures Larkin ascribes to them in his ﬁction; in doing so they
with Anglo-American “high” forms, established (what Brooks’s early poems had argued explicitly in any case) that the black Americans of Chicago’s South Side deserved at least much dignity, attention, and beauty as anybody else. Yet Brooks’s showy early style had a cost; it cast the poet herself (the speaker in these poems) as authoritative and nearly impersonal, as someone who stood slightly apart from the community of which she wrote. Brooks later remembered “1941 through 1949” as a “party era,”
men and women in their late teens or twenties (often seeking sexual exploits or taking hallucinogens) are the usual, almost the only, centers of consciousness in New Weather, Mules, Why Brownlee Left, and even in Quoof (whose poems about Muldoon’s father see him through the eyes of an admiring son). With the brief exception of “The Right Arm,” Muldoon’s corpus before Hay seems almost devoid of young children, since (among other reasons) he does not seem to believe in childhood innocence; his
right one. In this he resembles but goes beyond Robert Lowell; what Lowell did with colliding lines and statements, Tranter does with jangling, “inappropriate,” or “unserious” phrases and words. “I think you’re stoned again / or is that true love?” Tranter asks in “Parallel Lines” (Under, 49). The lingo in “Boarding School” seems to him as least as good as any other way to express amours: Bright gods, trust me to play the game properly. Meeting you suddenly, I think you’re tops; I’m absolutely