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Best of the eclectic US 'small presses'; The Pushcart Prize, IV: Best of the Small Presses. Edited by Bill Henderson with the Pushcart Prize editors. Yonkers, N.Y.: Pushcart Press. $16.50.

Since its inception in 1976, Bill Henderson's annual tribute to US "alternative publishing" enterprises and those "as yet uncelebrated writers and editors" whose work sustains them has maintained a splendid balance among poets and prose writers, established and new.

Saul Bellow, Anais Nin, Ralph Ellison, Joyce Carol Oates, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Hayden Carruth have shared space with Mary Gordon, Tim O'Brien , John Irving, Louise Gluck, Seamus Heaney, and some 250 others. The recognized Reviews -- Sewanee, Hudson, Southern, and Partisan -- are represented, cheek by jowl with Dental Floss, Armadillo, The Yardbird Reader, and The Painted Bride Quarterly (merely listing them is a kind of found poetry).

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Though variety is the keynote, certain emphases emerge.There are frequently summary essays on literary trends (this year, Charles Molesworth's analyses of conventional contemporary metaphors for poetry and Alicia Ostriker's "The Nerves of a Midwife," a consideration of "the flying wedge of dissent and quest" that is today's women's poetry), and looks at the new literary culture a-borning in the Far West.

Previous "Pushcarts" have reprinted materials circulated by "the Russian Samizdat underground"; this year's is a harrowing account of the harassment and trial of poet Vladimir Rezhdestvov. Foreign-language literature in general has been scanted, but "Pushcart IV" does include poetry by Cesar Valleje and a (too) lengthy excerpt from Manuel Puig's demanding dialogue-novel "Kiss of the Spider Woman."

The volume's primary emphasis abets the claim that "most of small press publishing is devoted to poetry." There is fine work from veteran poets William Stafford and Stanley Kunitz, vivid examples of Ai's melodramatic power, Dave Smith's descriptive resourcefulness.

The chosen nonfiction shows a preference (which I should question) for analytical essays. American Indian Vine Deloria's adversary examination of the assumptions and institutions which form white "tribes" is only slightly less forbidding than Gerald Graff's learned critique of the "cultural radicalism" of the 1960s.

I suppose one cay say that the best of these "Best" are less theory-ridden, more personal and specific -- like Mona van Duyn's beautiful dramatic poem "Letters from a Father."

So much for the reviewer's categories, or anybody else's. I'm satisfied to conclude that this bountiful anthology is about as safely predictable as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "The Pushcart Prize" is already itself, as it says of the small presses it celebrates, "part of the literary mainstream."


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