LAY -- DEE -- S AND GENTLEMEN! Presenting, in the center ring, the one and only "Yankee Doodle," marching to the boom of the big bass drum! Next 594 of the lightest verses written in more than 200 years! See 186 real poets and poetasters, alive and dead! Acrobats! Clowns!

Especially clowns. For here, assembled under a single tent, is a staggering array of the nation's funny verses. And when not funny -- for light verse can be serious -- then fine; and when not fine -- for light verse can falter -- then at least, to the practiced editorial eye of William Harmon, typically American. The Oxford Book of American Light Verse, more capacious than the two preceding Oxford collections of light verse put together, is a big tent indeed. Colossal.

Times were slow before 1850, and Professor Harmon has filled in with popular poetry of the sort represented by "The Village Blacksmith," "Barbara Frietchie" and "The Bells." The show first hit the big time in the second half of the 19th century, when Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose like we shall not see again, headed a cast of such immortal jesters as the two Carryls, Gelett Burgess and Carolyn Wells. From then on, the booming of the big bass drum did not falter for nearly a hundred years. Only with the approach of World War II did the ranks of great performers begin to thin. They dropped away one by one-- Samuel Hoffenstein . . .F.P.A. . . . Theodore Roethke . . . Newman Levy . . .Dorothy Parker . . . Ogden Nash . . . Morris Bishop . . . Phyllis McGinley. Of the giants, only David McCord, 82, remains.

Nor are they likely to be replaced in our time. With a few honorable exceptions, our younger poets are a cynical and unmusical lot, temperamentally unable even to understand, much less produce, the gossamer blend of nonsense and revelation that makes up light verse.

Louis Kronenberger once remarked that English has more good serious poetry than good light verse. Of course. Good light verse is harder to write. It must bring off its entrechats and tours-jetes without appearing to sweat. We forgive serious poets their stumbles. Let a light versifier stumble once, and tomatoes fill the air.

W. H. Auden and Kingsley Amis, editors of the earlier Oxford anthologies I mentioned, exemplify two contrasting approaches to the nature and function of light verse. Neither, I think, would accept the criteria of Professor Harmon. The views of the three men are contrasted here.

Light Verse: per Am., Aud., and Harm. "The aim is" (says Amis to Harmon and Aud.), "To call up a smile, using style that's unflawed." "Beg pawdon" (says Auden to Amis and Harm.), "But a drop of vox pop is the source of the charm." "Where's the harm"(enquires Harmon of Auden and Am.), "In a gaffe that draws laughs just by being so lame?"

Amis is content with artifice that produces a gentle smile. Auden thinks light verse should address itself to the concerns of people, in the people's own voice.

Harmon adopts Auden's sociological approach, but with a difference. For him, British and American light verse "may almost as well have been written in wholly different languages." He complains that Amis "rejects just plain bad verse . . . because it is dull and its writers were not in fact writing or trying to write light verse, at least by their own estimate."

Apart from the fact that just plain bad verse may be far from dull, that is a just plain bad sentence. In any event, Professor Harmon appears to be saying that the bad writers were writing light verse despite themselves. Amis and Auden, on the other hand, are as one in their commitment to the proposition that light verse must be art before all else.

On the evidence of his selections here, Professor Harmon considers art a minor, expendable ingredient of light verse.A writer, he contends, can be "so transcendently, surpassingly, superlatively bad that he or she belongs in a special genre in which normal rules and habits of judgment are magically suspended." He backs up this view by inviting under his tent such notorious scribblers as Thomas Holley Chivers, Julia Moore and J. Gordon Coogler. There is no denying that they can be dreadfully funny. This Coogler couplet is a fine example:

Alas! for the South! Alas! for the South, her books have grown fewer -- She never was much given to literature.

But the accent is on dreadfully. A pratfall is not light verse.

When A. R. Ammons writes a sentence, "Bravery runs in my family," and entitles it "Coward," he may feel that he has created a poem. I find it regrettable that Professor Harmon is taken in. Similarly, in his selections from younger poets, the possible and the puerile are lumped indiscriminately. Either the professor has opted for inclusiveness over quality (either way, how could he have missed Margaret Fishback?), or he has a tin ear.

Nonetheless, as John Chancellor says on the jacket, "This is a book which will make you sing and laugh". . . and perhaps yourself go marching to the boom of the big bass drum.

Granted the warts, The Oxford Book of American Light Verse does well indeed. It will be awhile before its equal comes along.