Pushcart anthology of small-press favorites; The Pushcart Prize, VIII: Best of the Small Presses, edited by Bill Henderson with the Pushcart Prize editors. Wainscott, N.Y.: Pushcart Press (Box 380, 11975 ). 500 pp. $23.95.

The eighth installment in this useful series continues its energetic support for the small-press magazines. Its introduction, provided by novelist Gail Godwin, points out the pleasures of writing for magazines that assume they have intelligent readers. She says some tart things about the ''corporate policies'' that influence mass-market publications.

The contents of this new collection - 13 short stories, 8 essays, and 35 poems - are drawn from 35 publications (five of which - Poetry, Ploughshares, and the Iowa, Kenyon, and Paris Reviews - contributed three or more selections).

Short stories: well-plotted, colloquial

Most of the short stories are fully plotted and vividly colloquial. (The exceptions are a prose-poem fantasy by Andrei Codrescu, a derivative monologue-story by Gordon Lish, and, inevitably, another excerpt from William Gass's ever-in-progress novel ''The Tunnel.'') Several of the story writers are new to me. I admired Susan Welch's well-crafted long story about a rootless young woman involved with a deranged lover (''The Time, the Place, the Loved One'') and Willis Johnson's picturing of a Russian Orthodox priest in America wrestling with the needs and demands of his emigre parishioners (''Prayer for the Dying''). Kate Wheeler's ''Judgment'' is a beautifully understated story about an aging junk-trader stuck in marriage with an amoral younger woman. And Jillian Becker's powerful long story ''The Stench,'' set in South Africa, shapes its incisive characterizations of a Jewish schoolmaster and a German farmer into a rich examination of several levels of cultural conflict.

There are three fine stories by better-known writers. Ellen Gilchrist's ''Summer, An Elegy'' movingly captures the feel and pull of a tragic childhood ''romance.'' Bobbie Ann Mason's ''Graveyard Day,'' a funny account of a rural divorcee having trouble with her new boyfriend and her know-it-all 10-year-old, is filled with rib-tickling dialogue. And Raymond Carver's ''A Small, Good Thing'' is an expansion of an earlier, briefer story - his portrayal of a young mother and father grieved and confused when their small son is struck by a car and seems near death. This new version adds clever plot exfoliations and icy foreshadowings - and makes the experience even more appalling, and moving, than before.

Essays: the weakest link this year

The essays include memoirs by Clarke Blaise (of his American-Canadian boyhood) and Lincoln Kirstein (on his brief encounter, a half-century ago, with the poet Hart Crane, and his deeper involvement with one of Crane's ''disciples''), and literary essays by Joyce Carol Oates (''Notes on Failure''), Cynthia Ozick (''What Literature Means''), and critic Thomas Le Clair (''Avant-Garde Mastery'').

Too much space is given to Oscar Mandel's essay ''Being and Judaism'' and Wayne C. Booth's ''The Company We Keep'' - but I was impressed with poet Robert Bly's reflections on what it's like to translate a poem.

Poetry: strong and appealing, often inspired by nature

The best of this ''Pushcart'' is its poetry. Of the several meditative poems, I especially liked Raymond Oliver's ''Dream Vision'' (on the difficuty - and necessity - of imagining ourselves into the past) and Thomas McGrath's ''The End of the World.'' Political and elegiac verses include Richard Hugo's ''Confederate Graves in Little Rock'' and Jane Flanders's ''The House That Fear Built: Warsaw, 1943.''

There are a number of poems about personal relationships: John Daniel's ''The Longing'' (in which twinship provides a metaphor for sexual desire), W. D. Snodgrass's ''A Valediction'' (a father angrily yielding up his daughter to her ''new love''), and Diane Ackerman's touching, witty welcome to her baby goddaughter, ''Zoe.'' For me, the best poems here are those inspired by nature: Richard Wilbur's ''Hamlen Brook,'' Ann Stanford's ''The Weaver,'' Jane Kenyon's ''The Pond at Dusk,'' Mary Oliver's ''Moles.''

There's only space left to say that the ''Pushcart Prize'' volumes are fine collections for every reader who wants to keep up with the work of our newest writers.

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