ONCE WHEN W. H. Auden was answering questions from his audience following a poetry reading at Princeton University, a student asked him to "name in order the ten best poets now writing in the United States." "My god, young man," the dismayed Auden replied gruffly, "it isn't a horserace! Next question."

It is a truth worth remembering when one is asked, as I was, to review the collections of poetry published in 1977 and to make some judgments about them. Practitioners of a profession in which the tangible rewards are few, most of us go on writing in the face of great odds against recognition, agreeing with the words of the Latin American writer Jose Donoso, "I write because I was not invited to the party." We simply create our own party, a feast of sometimes staggering variety, and in our best moments, we remember that what really matters is the feast, the work itself. With this disclaimer in mind, I have nevertheless selected as noteworthy a small fraction of the several hundred books of poetry published in the past year - some because of the reputations of their authors, others because they interested me for a variety of reasons.

In the former category, several poets of acknowledged eminence, that handful whose names may still be known to readers of poetry 50 or 100 years from now, published new books in 1977. Elizabeth Bishop's Geography 111 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $7.95) actually appeared in the last week of 1976, but too late to appear in any review of that year's work. The recipitent of almost every major prize a poet can earn, including the distinction of being the first woman and the first American to win the coverted Books Abroad Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Bishop has been viewing the world passing before her with a kind of serene detachment for more than 30 years. The ten poems that make up Geography III again give form and craft, her incomparable descriptive powers, but Bishop's poetry has changed some in the past few years, becoming more open to the personal less self-enclosed. "The famous eye," as Robert Lowell once called her, can feel as well as see.

In contrast, feeling has always been at the heart of the work of Robert Penn Warren, as his Selected Poems: 1923-1975 (Random House, $15 paperback, $6.95) makes clear. Long esteemed as novelist, critic, teacher, political essayist, it is as a poet that Warren may ultimately be remembered. In his highly original, even eccentric poems, Warren blends dramatic incident, vivid descriptions of landscape, and philosophical discourse into a poetry of passionate moral intensity whose chief theme is the correspondence between man and nature, nature and morality. When he resists the temptation to go after the big effect, Warren's long lines seem to flow down the page, gathering power as they go, becoming, as the amazing. "I Am Dreaming of a White Christmas: The Natural History of a Vision" says, "the process whereby pain of the past in its pastness/May be converted into the future tense/Of joy."

Both the pain of the past and of the Present was the obsession of Robert Lowell, whose Day by Day (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $3.95) appeared less than a week before his death in September. The book seems an appropriate ending to the career of a man many have considered the preminent poet of his generation. Although Helen Vendler once accurately described Lowell as having "made of History a monstrous metaphor for the Self", the poems of Day by Day , particularly the title sequence, show Lonell renouncing that stance; no longer a metaphor, he is merely a man, recognizing that

We are poor passing facts,

warned by that to give,

each figure in the photograph

his living name.

Rarely sentimental, these painful peoms provide some of Lowell's most powerful, most coherent work.

The generation of the poets slightly younger than Bishop, Warren and Lowell was also well-represented this year in books by W.S. Merwin, A.R. Ammons and John Ashbery. Readers of Merwins's mysterious yet precise verse will no doubt welcome The Compass Flower (Atheneum paperback, $4.95), his first book in four years, and the book does contain some quintessential and highly successful Merwin. Yet the characteristic voice occasionally becomes so disembodied as to seem non-existent; when that happens the poems tend to blur into an indistinct mass and the reader loses interest. Admirers of A.R. Ammons will also find poems to like in The Snow Poems (Norton, $12.50). As in his other most recent work, Ammons is intent on demonstrating the process of a mind exploring the tension between the ordinary and the "radiant", but in these poems that random thoughts simply go on and on into boredom, and only occasional lyric passages remind one of the sheer beauty of which Ammons is capable. Far more successful is John Ashbery's Houseboat Days (Viking, $7.95; penguin paperback, $1.95), a volume whose importance to contemporary poetry will be debated for years to come. His originality and his influence on a younger generation of poets is certain; what iis debatable is the desirability of that fact. These reflexive poems of time and memory, separation and loss almost never yield a paraphrasable statement; images and ideas constantly double back on themselves, combining both the transparent and the mysterious. Some will no doubt find this self-indulgent to the point of meaninglessness. I value Ashbery's works for their vivid, gorgeous, resonant images, for the expansiveness and flow that lets in everything that is. These poems are, as the poet says in "Saying It to Keep It from Happening," "both there/And not there, like washing or sawdust in the sunlight/At the back of the mind, where we live now."

A still younger generation of poets has also produced some work worth noting in 1977. My favorite among them is Stanley Plumly's Out-of-the-Body Travel (The American Poetry Series 10, Ecco Press, $6.95). These deceptively simple poems are moving evocations of the poets's childhood, a lost world remembered and apprehended. Gerald Stern's Lucky Life (Houghton-Mifflin, $6.95; paperback, $4.50) won this year's Lamont Prize for the best second book of poems published in the United States. Stern's poems move along with an inner music that seeks to resolve the tension between past and future, stasis and action, between the celebration of the delights of this world in the fine title poem and the recognition of its horror in poems like "Behaving Like a Jew." Charles Wright's China Trace (Wesleyan, $7.50; paperback, $3.45) is the third in a trilogy that includes Hard Freight (1973) and Bloodlines (1975), each of which explores some particular province of experience. The poems in China Trace deal with metaphysical questions of indentity and belief; Wright has a remarkable gift for language and many of these mysterious lyrics are haunting, but they sometimes tend toward the impenetrable and overly "poetical." Despite my fondness for Plumly, the poet in his thirties whose work strikes me as most original and as having the greatest impact on other poets is Charles Simic Born in Yugoslavia. Simic has affinities with the Eastern European world of folk tale and fable. In Charon's Cosmology (Braziller, $695; paperbacks. $3.95), the surrealistic little poems, often focusing on an inanimate object, become worlds in themselves, alternately miraculous and strangely foreboding.

With much dismay I observe that all but one of the poets I have discussed so far in this review are male, yet one can be encouraged by the fact that a number of first collections of poems by women poets appeared this year, three of them winning major first book competitions: Laura Gilpin's The Hocus-Pocus of the Universe, winner of the Walt Whitman Prize (Double day, $7.95; paperback, $4.95; the Yale Younger Poets Series prize-winner. Olga Broumas's Beginning With 0 (Yale, $6.92; paperback, $2.95); and the Juniper Prize volume. Eye-Level by Jane Shore (University of Massachusetts Press, $7; paperback, $3.50). Others to look for are Heather McHugh's Dangers (Houghton-Mifflin, $6.95; paperback, $4.50) and the unusual and often marvelous poems of Laura Jensen's Bad Boats (Ecco Press, $6.95).

All in all, the party this year was a smashing success - may it be bigger and better in 1978. Next question?