Poems and Sketches of E. B. White. New York: Harper & Row. 217 pp. $13.50. I love E. B. White. I'm not certain if any less extravagant a verb is possible. I have read him during all my seasons; he is my companion; I listen to him.
It can be said, fairly, that this book does not include the best of him. It must be said, quickly, that it is still good, because even his less than best pieces are special and intriguing. Some of his subjects here will be familiar to his fans. Dachshunds, spiders, Walden, farming, the love he bears and nourishes for high spirits, solid pleasures, and unlikely juxtapositions - all these are here, vivid and telling.
Some of his subjects, however, are less characteristic but more revealing. Snails, house servants, baseball, ghostwriting, marrying a Bryn Mawr graduate, househunting, among others, crop up anew. And even though at first it may sound odd to the initiated to hear his grave, ingenious voice speaking about new matters, it takes only a little time to recognize that, while these topics are surprising to a reader, they are familiar to White. We are stuck with the fact that, of course, he has not written about everything he cares for. And we are reminded of his letters.
One of the pleasures of having several of his books still in print is the opportunity it gives to view the steady, alternating current of his attentions. His letters promote such a context, one in which to appreciate all his efforts, from ''One Man's Meat'' to ''Charlotte's Web'' to his ''Poems and Sketches.'' Aside from being remarkable writing, these letters are also the visible ground of his books; they illuminate his prodigious talent for finding vitality in life at all times, everywhere.
And always this search is recorded in excellent language, as true in ''Poems and Sketches'' as elsewhere. In ''Call Me Ishmael, Or How I Feel About Being Married to a Bryn Mawr Graduate,'' he is witty and serious: ''They have all accepted the same bright challenge: Something is lost that has not been found, something's at stake that has not been won, something is started that has not been finished, something is dimly felt that has not been fully realized.'' And in ''Natural History'' he writes a poem as a letter to this Bryn Mawr wife: The spider, dropping down from twig, Unwinds a thread of her devising: A thin premeditated rig To use in rising.
And later, Thus I, gone forth, as spiders do In spider's web a truth discerning, Attach one silken thread to you For my returning.
Bright challenges and the discerning of truth are the places where he lives and works. By keeping them in mind we become good companions to him. By so becoming, we discover his variety and our own. ''I cannot think of an uninteresting environment,'' he once wrote in a letter. For me, love is the only possible response to his affection.