Leaning our ears to committed voices

America has a bumper crop of little magazines -- just when it needs them. For all their lapses of taste and talent, they remind us of the imaginative, innovative, quirky, cranky, committed literary voices that big publishing can't blend in its conglomerate Cuisinart.

These fortnightlies, monthlies, quarterlies, and unapologetic irregulars are almost by definition as short- lived as their distinguished ancestor: the Dial of the 1840s, edited by Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

But look at this summer's display racks:

The 40th anniversary edition of the Antioch Review. The 25th anniversary double edition of the Paris Review (a couple of years late and proud of it). Also Partisan Review, which will reach half a century in a few years; the Prairie Schooner, going on 55; Poetry, almost 70. Less familiar but typical of the indomitable, even litter magazines, the typewritten Showy Egret has survived , with interludes of course, since 1922.

Two younger veterans, the Carleton Miscellany and the Colorado Quarterly, expired last year. But it seems safe to say that, right at this moment, a new magazine is at least a gleam in the eye of would-be writers and editors somewhere in America. If they persist, they will no doubt find what their celebrated predecessors on the old Dial did, plus some latter- day wrinkles.

Today's little magazines can get grants from the government, private foundations, and -- so organized and up-to-date have they become -- their own Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines. Still most of them would have an exquisite appreciation of what Emerson felt when "a necessity of petty literary patriotism" prompted him to take charge of "our thankless little Dial": "It has no penny for editor or contributor, nothing but abuse in the newspapers, or, at best, silence."

Yet there is the other side of the coin, as poet Marianne Moore put it in regard to the reborn Dial she edited 80 years later: "We weren't in captivity to anything."

The trials, tribulations, and sheer high spirits of staying out of captivity in the more recent little-magazine business are evoked in the thick valuable volume of a few years ago: "The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History" (The Pushcart Press, PO Box 380, Wainscott, N.Y. 11975.$35). The little magazines not only have discovered many authors who later became widely known -- and sometimes returned to adorn their pages. They also have sought to use known writers as drawing cards for the lesser known. The Paris Review's highly successful approach, found at various levels in many magazines, is to ask the famous for interviews rather than expensive original works.

Marianne Moore's Dial had plenty of famous or to-be famous names. As the New York version of a publication that had moved from Chicago, it also represented a blending of the prairie and the groves of academe. One of the refreshing things about sampling America's current little magazines is the linking of the rarefied and the down-to-earth, the recognition that knowledge and intellect are as much in the American grain as the love of the land and the family that figure in so many of these pages.

The young Jump River Review of Wausau, Wis., for example, concludes an issue with a cartoon dependent on a memory of Chaucer in 14th-century English. But in the preceding pages is a wide span of prose and poetry, sophisticated and unsophisticated. The name and address of the author appear after each selection , dramatizing the little magazine's reach toward the writing impulse wherever it springs up, in hamlet or metropolis.

And where would you expect a magazine called Ploughshares to be published? In that great agricultural center of Cambridge, Mass., of course. A recent issue contains a lovely poem about poetry in which Charles H. Clifton combines natural and literary imagery under a rubric quoted from William Stafford, a prize-winning poet who has never deserted the little mags: "You can even make something not a poem become a poem . . . by a certain squint or a certain way of leaning our ears we find them."

It is not only "mainstream" Americans who possess, seek, or achieve that transforming "certain squint." Little magazines are increasingly giving access to minority voices too seldom heard.

Blue Cloud Quarterly presents and preserves the literature of the Sioux and other American Indians. Writing by and about Armenians appears in Ararat. Not only racial and ethnic minorities but prisoners, the elderly, the mentally disturbed, and others outside the mainstream have their day in Sez: A Multi-Racial Journal of Poetry & People's Culture. There is a special edge to seeing art made from the pain, outrage, triumph, and compassion of overlooked segments of society.

For example, to the universal experience expressed in the title of "Comin' Home," Jeannine A. Buford poignantly adds the circumstance of a black woman returning to scenes of childhood fear and sadness.

The more general little magazines, of course, also roam outside the tendencies of the day. This year, when military buildup is a national keynote, Confrontation brings together 10 writers on "Contemporary American Pacifism."

Amid a marvelous array of United States poetry in the little magazines, Quarterly Review of Literature reaches to South Korea for poems by So Chongju and to Brazil for poems by Carlos Nejar. Parabola features an interview with Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe discussing life at the "crossroads" between his father's traditional tribal generation and his children's generation belonging to a "world culture" shared with American and other children of today.

Which brings a reader back to the family themes that leap out so often alongside the aesthetic analyses, etc., in the little magazines. In Northwest Review, Michael Martone writes of a grandfather whose circumscribed work at a gas station (when regular was 29.9 cents) does not keep him from touching many lives.

In short, the little magazines offer a feast, if a reader picks and chooses his dishes no less carefully than the editors have done. The people at the Iowa Review speak for many more than themselves when they ask the public to join them in the little magazine adventure: "We are intent on showing that something fresh , artful, and intelligent, something with a ch ance to endure can be discovered continually."

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