Pushcart's delectable sampling; The Pushcart Prize VI: Best of the Small Presses, edited by Bill Henderson. Wainscott, N.Y.: The Pushcart Press (Box 380, 11975). $19.95.

During the brief but distinguished lifetime of the "Pushcart Prize" anthologies, their founder and editor, Bill Henderson, has emphasized not just the remarkable quality of poetry and prose appearing in small-press publications but the need for all of us to help support these enterprises (and these writers). When you read something really terrific in a "little" magazine, Henderson advises, take out a subscription. I second that motion.

"Even recognized writers have had to turn to small presses for publication," Henderson point out. The most dramatic example in this present volume is the late Jean Stafford's last story "Woden's Day" (published in Shenandoah). It's a section from her unfinished autobiographical novel "A Parliament of Women," about the (fictional) Savage family of Adams, Colo. -- and it displays the wit, range, and plain good writing that used to earn Stafford space in the prestigious pages of the New Yorker. Thank goodness, therefore, for Shenandoah and its kin.

Beyond fund raising, "Pushcart VI" provides its usual solid sampling of work from all corners of the country and from writers both established and newly-knocking-at-the-door.

This time around there's some exceptional poetry: good work from veteran writers William Stafford, Josephine Jacobsen, Charles Simic, Daniel Halpern, and Robert Creeley; lively political peoms by Derek Walcott and Carolyn Forche; promising contributions from such new writers (to me, at least) as Sharon Olds and Elizabeth Spires.

I especially liked Marilyn Krisl's witty "Leda," Sandra McPherson's touching tribute "For Elizabeth Bishop," Robert Pinsky's metrically ingenious modest elegy "Dying," and three superb poems that build complex and striking statements out of intensely observed images: Linda Gregg's "The River Again and Again," Thomas Lux's "At the Far End of a Long Wharf," and Louise Gluck's "World Breaking Apart."

I find the essays, by comparison, disappointing. Denise Levertov's speculations on "the role of dreams" in poetrymaking seem unduly modestly limited, and Leslie Fiedler's "Literature and Lucre" surveys the American writer's relationship to the idea of money with his patented boldness and comprehensiveness (and his penchant for overstatement). Theodore Roszak's "On the Contemporary Hunger for Wonders" casts a cold intellectual-elitist eye on the present generation's "public fascination with transcendent experience." George Steiner's forbidding jeremiad "The Archives of Eden" declares the entire range of American culture essentially "thin," parochial, "incompetent," and imitative of European high culture (Henry James might have invented this George Steiner). Douglas Messerl's "Experiment and Traditional Forms in Contemporary Literature," almost equally eclectic, seems to me to founder when it assigns assured stature to a number of new writers who haven't yet earned it.

Eleanora Antinova and Kathy Acker, two of Messerl's chosen innovators, are this issue's resident writers of experimental fiction. I'm afraid I find the inclusion of their work sheer tokenism -- like Pushcart's obligatory annual nod to "Russian samizdatm authors."

I must be getting older, because I much preferred the traditionally crafted stories by such expert old hands as Barry Targan and Benedict Kiely -- and two parallel works by new writers: Francis Phelan's ambitious story of a Roman Catholic boy's gradual adaptation to the seminary he has entered ("Four Ways of Computing Midnight") and Julia Thacker's racy, lively "In Glory Land," a lovely Welty-an portrayal of an almost-Fal- staffian Kentucky preacher and his family.

I have scarcely space left to indicate the very best selections in this crowded volume: Joseph Brodsky's bitter "Christmas" poem "Lagoon"; Raymond Carver's skillful dialogue story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"; David Hellerstein's savagely ironic and compassionate piece, "Death in the Glitter Palace"; and Gayle Baney Whittier's brilliant Lawrencian story "Lost Time Accident" (the book's best story).

Needless to say, the Pushcart anthologies have made themselves an essential part of the serious reader's lists.

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