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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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