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Everything Changes But the Avant-Garde

from an interview with Michael Donaghy by Conor O'Callaghan, 1997


CO'C: On a topical point, Allen Ginsberg died recently. He was somebody who made a career out of opposition to mainstream poetry as embodied by Hecht and Wilbur. How do you value his work?

MD: It's possible now, in American schools, to take an exam on Allen Ginsberg and fail it. There's a market for being opposed to mainstream culture. I don't want to say anything about poor Ginsberg now that he's dead, but there was a time when he'd shock everybody at poetry readings by taking off his clothes and running around the stage. Towards the end of his life, he would sit there quietly in his tweed suit, while people would give lectures on his work. Early on he liked to give the impression that poems like Howl were written rapidly in a fever of Beat improv, when in fact they were carefully worked out in successive drafts. And I have no problem with any of this, my only problem is with the self-delusion involved when artists/writers/poets believe they are opposed to mainstream culture and they are just playing their part. That romantic idea, as it stands, began with advertising. 'Throw that away, and buy this. That is the old style, this is the new style.' That's consumerism. You can't be an oppositional poet unless you abandon the concept of the avant-garde.

interview excerpt from The Shape of the Dance: Essays, Interviews and Digressions,
a collection of prose by the late Michael Donaghy.

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About the Author

Welcome to the website of the English poet and critic, Ben Wilkinson.
Ben was born in Staffordshire and now lives in Sheffield, South Yorkshire. He received his first degree from the University of Sheffield, and holds an MA and PhD from Sheffield Hallam University. He has won numerous awards for his poetry, including the Poetry Business Competition and a 2014 Northern Writers' Award
His debut full collection of poems, Way More Than Luck, appeared from Seren Books in February 2018.
He is a keen distance runner, lifelong Liverpool Football Club fan, and among other things he works as poetry critic for The Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement. You can find many of his reviews on this site.
To contact Ben about readings, workshops, or for any other enquiries, you can drop him a line at benwilko(at sign)gmail.com. Unfortunately, I am not able to consider unsolicited requests from authors for book reviews.

You can follow Ben on Twitter - @BenWilko85 - and on Facebook.

You can find B…

Way More Than Luck (Seren Books, 2018)

From the thumping heartbeat of the distance runner to the roar of football terraces across the decades, Ben Wilkinson’s debut confronts the struggles and passions that come to shape a life. Beginning with an interrogation of experiences of clinical depression and the redemptive power of art and running, the collection centres on a series of vivid character portraits, giving life to some of football's legends. By turns frank, comic, sinister and meditative – ‘the trouble with you, son, is that all your brains are in your head’ – these poems uncover the beautiful game’s magic and absurdity, hopes and disappointments, as striking metaphors for our everyday dramas. Elsewhere there are tender love poems, political satire and strange dream worlds, in an urgently lyrical book of poems that take many forms and modes of address: pantoum, sonnet, sestina; epistle, confession, dramatic monologue. All are united by a desire to speak with searching clarity about matters of the heart. Way More …