THE PUSHCART PRIZE, XVII: BEST OF THE SMALL PRESSES.
Edited by Bill Henderson.
570 pages. $14 (paperback).
Critic Mary Karr faults modern poetry for its lack of emotion and for its obscurity. As proof, she describes a poetry reading given by a distinguished poet.
Everyone present was jubilant about the performance. Ms. Karr, who wasn't as impressed, assumed that she had missed something. She asked the others about the reading. "No one seemed to remember much. Their faces remained empty. . . Ten minutes after an allegedly brilliant reading, the poems had merely washed past the audience, leaving no traces except for some vague murmurings."
Ms. Karr's essay, "Against Decoration," is one of 60 pieces selected for "The Pushcart Prize, XVII: Best of the Small Presses." It's also a good example of the kind of writing -- strong, fresh, memorable -- found in the Pushcart series.
Edited by Bill Henderson, the series publishes the best work from little (literary) magazines, giving them a wide audience and the permanence of a book. Mr. Henderson selects writers who "sense that something important may be going on here, perhaps sacred, and attention must be paid."
The series, which was begun in 1976-77, is, as Mr. Henderson has said, not without flaws. In this latest volume, the editors have chosen too much material from the same magazines. Out of approximately 400 publications considered, 20 percent of the selections came from only three: the Gettysburg Review, the Georgia Review and the Paris Review. In addition, there are many short stories and poems, and very few essays.
The essays that are here, though, are well-written and informative. One of the best is an interview with friends of Raymond Carver. Another excellent piece is "Christa," the memoir-profile that Sigrid Nunez writes of her mother. "A Clarion for the Quincentenary," by Eliot Weinberger, could be the best piece in the book. It's an essay written in the present tense, using poetic and striking imagery.
Much of the material, however, is uneven. Some could be called "best," whereas a lot is merely pretty good. One or two of the pieces are overly experimental. A few of the poems are guilty of the same faults that Ms. Karr criticizes in her essay.
No matter its flaws, the Pushcart series is important to contemporary literature. It has imitators -- Morty Sklar's "Editor's Choice," for example. But nothing equals it.
This latest book continues the tradition. It includes some newer writers, such as Karen Minton, whose powerful short story, "Like Hands on a Cave Wall," first appeared in "New Stories from the South: The Year's Best 1992," edited by Shannon Ravenel. There are also many well-known writers, among them, Philip Levine, who has a moving tribute to his mentor, John Berryman.
Award-winning writers Francine Prose, Louis Gluck, William Gass, Charles Simic and Hayden Carruth -- recent winner of the National Books Critics Circle Award for poetry -- are here. Two runners-up for the same award, Sharon Olds and C. K. Williams, also are included.
Mr. Henderson keeps a reminder that suggests the reason for a series such as this. It also suggests the quality that these writers work toward:
"One perfect sentence, read and remembered by one reader is worth all the throw-away sentences read by millions of readers and forgotten the next minutes."
Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.