bad conscience or at least the unease of the modernistnroyalty. It also served to close ranks and draw back into thenfold a writer who might have been a major defector, DonaldnHall. After a lifetime of writing volumes of the usual stuff,nleavened now and then with poetry, Mr. Hall had reachednthe point in his career (i.e., retirement from teaching) whennhe could afford to take risks. In recent years he has beenncomplaining against the lack of ambition displayed byncontemporary poets and censuring the writing programs fornteaching young poets how to manufacture “McPoems.”nNot content with calling for the abolition of the MFA inncreative writing, Hall ridicules the trade newsletters that givenadvice on prizes and jobs: “For jobs and grants go to theneminent people. As we all know, eminence is arithmetical: itnderives from the number of units published times thenprestige of the places of publication. People hiring orngranting do not judge quality — it’s so subjective!—butnanyone can multiply units by the prestige index and comenoff with the product.”nComing from an insider. Hall’s criticisms are far morenwithering than anything in Epstein’s article. However, tonatone for such conspicuous disloyalty, Mr. Hall has sung hisnpalinode in the September Harper’s. As it turns out, there isnno problem with American verse. Poetry sells better thannever, he argues, and young “men” get misty-eyed andnhysterical at poetry readings. Epstein’s arguments are onlyn”blurbtalk” — which apparently means that the editor ofnThe American Scholar knows how to write better prose thannMr. Hall’s.nSetting out to illustrate the cliche that “figures don’t lienbut liars figure,” Mr. Hall insists that while in the I950’sntrade publishers used to release a thousand copies of anpoetry book, they now routinely publish four to fiventhousand. He’s exaggerating at both ends. In the 40’s andn50’s there were still alive poets who could actually makenmoney off poetry. Frost, Jeflers, and Eliot not only sold well,nbut they were public figures whose opinions on art, politics,nand social questions made their influence felt far beyond thennarrow confines of literature classes. And what Mr. Hall isnnot telling about those 4-5,000 press runs (more oftenn1,500-2,000) is that the biggest buyers are libraries. What isnmore chilling to contemplate is the size of the poetrynestablishment itself There’s hardly a community college innNebraska that cannot boast of its poet-in-residence. Therenare, quite literally, thousands in the business, with countlessnlittle magazines publishing their stuff, and a reasonablynwell-established figure is still lucky if he sells five thousandnbooks.nUltimately, the question is not over whether WilliamnCarlos Williams sold more books than Thom Gunn,nbut it is the whole project of modernism in poetry that is atnissue. Modernist poets self-consciously set out to makenthemselves obscure and unappetizing. More seriously, theynsaw themselves as a sort of alienated priestly cast, guerrillasnwhose job it was to throw their bombs from outside the citynwalls. While this assumed importance lent the project an airnof seriousness (Mr. Epstein speaks of poetry as “an exaltednthing”), the net effect has been to whittle poetry’s generalnaudience down to the thousands of people who are paidn(usually by taxpayers) to practice or study it.nOne hundred years ago poets were great public figures,nmore like rock stars than writers. Lord Tennyson wasnmobbed on the street by fans hoping to tear off a piece of hisncoat. In The Place of Poetry Christopher Clausen points outnthat 19th-century poets could get rich. Byron was paidnsomething like $50,000 for a single canto oiChilde Harold.nBut with the divergence of mass culture and high culture, anpoet is “faced with the choice of being either trivial … ornso outside the main concerns of his age as to seem irrelevantnto all but a small minority of readers.” Quite correctly,nClausen points out that “the serious poet’s isolation andnimpotence are at least partly his own doing,” since pop poetsnand songwriters can get rich if they are willing to address thenconcerns of ordinary men and women.nSince most poets are in no position to “sell out” (whatntalent would they sell and to whom?), they have given up allnhope of attracting an audience. Tennyson wrote for a broadnmiddle-class audience; Eliot wrote for the college-educatednintelligentsia; Ashbery writes for his peers, which in his casenmeans the people who hand out grants and medals. AsnThe still untold history of modernismnis of the religious reactionaries who werenso disgusted by Gn-de-siecle Europenand America that they created newnand wonderful pieces of art as so manynweapons against progress.nGeorge Garrett remarked to Madison Smartt Bell in hisnChronicles (June 1988) interview, grants, prizes, etc. havenmade it “worthwhile now for the first time in the 20thncentury to be a careerist in poetry.” Since there is,nnonetheless, a shortage of emoluments, “there is a temptationnto belong to a group which has some power andnprestige.” The general effect is of “a small trough with a lotnof pigs trying to get up there.”nWhat Mr. Garrett has sketched are the familiar outlinesnof small .group politics, the profile of every conspiracy ornfaction that seeks to advance the interest of its members. Tonsome extent, poets in advanced societies have always formedncircles and looked for powerful allies. Vergil and Horace hadntheir Maecenas, Pope and Swift their Bolingbroke. Indeed,nthe poetry of faction has an ancient and honorable tradition.nSuch;diverse writers as William Wordsworth and SamuelnJohnson both played the part of Tory pamphleteer onnoccasion, and near the very beginning of lyric poetry we findnAlcaeus of Mytilene writing his best work in defense of anconspiracy that tried more than once to seize power. Hisnoncline that has survived into modern consciousness in thenwatered-down Horation tag, “nunc est bibendum,” was thenbeginning of a poem celebrating the death of a politicalnenemy: “We’ve got to get drunk, now that Myrsilus isndead.”nBut ancient poets of faction all conspired, in principle, fornthe good of their country. Even Plato’s dramatist unclenCritias, leader of the Thirty Tyrants, seemed to havenbelieved that his brand of aristocratic fascism was the bestnnnDECEMBER 1989/13n