THE QUESTION AT HAND is whether the work published by small presses is qualitatively different from that which is found elsewhere. The Pushcart Prize volume has by now assumed the status of an institution; it is an important anthology which brings to light each year a remarkably diverse body of small-press writing. But is that writing actually better -- as the introduction to this volume implies -- for having been written in "non-commerical freedom?" Do small presses perform an important function which, if they did not exist, would go unperformed?

At the focus of all these questions is the most powerful piece in volume VII, Carolyn Forch,e's "El Salvador: An Aide Memoire." Her accusation toward the end of this essay is clear: "Between 1978 and 1980, investigative articles (concerning El Salvador) sent to national magazines mysteriously disappeared from publication mailrooms, were oddly delayed in reaching editors, or were rejected after lengthy deliberations . . ." Thus her own wrenching witness to events in that country was published in The American Poetry Review. Ultimately, however, that seems an appropriate place, since Forch,e's final subject is the way in which what she saw transformed her as a poet. She writes an eloquent defense for a poetry of political witness.

The proper function for poetry, in fact, is a subject which echoes repeatedly throughout this volume. Terence Des Pres, in reviewing Bertolt Brecht, similarly and vehemently defends political poetry, while Christopher Clausen would like to see modern poets strike a balance between the generalities that are the province of science and the trivial particulars that too many poets deal with. In a dense and difficult piece of criticism, perhaps the most elegantly written essay in the volume, John Hollander examines three contemporary poems and states his case for "A Poetry of Restitution."

Small presses thus deal with major subjects that are politically sensitive and with esthetic matters that are of interest to only a few; they are especially able to treat obscure topics in scholarly detail far too great for a commercial press. In a wonderfully eclectic essay, Wendell Berry examines the dissolution of language, comparing it to that of communities and persons. Richard Poirier -- in an essay that at first seems sloppily written, more like a spoken lecture than a piece of writing -- has some fascinating insights into literature that calls for an eradication of the self. Thom Gunn writes a movingly personal account of his relationship with poet and teacher Yvor Winters.

In the midst of all this discussion of poetry and language, the poets themselves punctuate the volume with poems both personal and political, lyrical and difficult. I was especially touched by the poems of Charles Wright, Kate Daniels, and David Ignatow, and also enjoyed those by C.K. Williams, Stephen Shu Ning Liu, Katha Pollitt, Paul Zimmer, Stanislaw Bara,nczak, Naomi Shihab Nye, Linda Gregg, and Sharon Olds.

One expects the market for poetry to be primarily with the small presses, but the case of the short story is more problematic. As the commercial market for short fiction has dried up, little magazines have had to absorb perhaps a greater variety. A story like Guy Davenport's "Christ Preaching at the Henley Regatta," for instance, would never have had wide commercial appeal, but Cynthia Ozick's "Helping T.S. Eliot Write Better (Notes Toward a Definitive Bibliography)" does not seem particularly more difficult than work she has published with commercial presses. Her story, in fact, sends a young and much abashed T.S. Eliot off into the world of the little magazine to try to publish "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and has a wacky ring of truth. Also reflecting the world of the small presses is Amos Oz's "The Author Encounters His Reading Public," which records an obscure writer's melancholy thoughts on the evening of a reading.

To my mind, however, the most interesting stories in this volume are those which, in their clarity and simplicity, do not especially resemble small-press fiction. William Gilson's understated "Getting Through It Together" deals movingly with our essential aloneness; Fred Licht's "Shelter the Pilgrim" details a relationship with a retarded Jewish orphan in Hitler's Germany; Richard Selzer's "Mercy" and "The Witness" present difficult moments in the life of a physician, and Charles Baxter's "Harmony of the World" is a fascinating examination of the plight of the mediocre artist.

What finally impresses me about the Pushcart volume is the seriousness of the entire enterprise. Obscure esthetic matters are given as much space as, elsewhere, is devoted to foreign affairs or the world economy (or even the new TV season!), and indeed they should be, because it is only when a writer gives his subject this kind of respect that he can do it justice. Nothing is more depressing to a serious writer than talk of what markets are hot and what are cold; these writers have chosen to ignore such considerations. Good writing can be found in many places, and much is produced by commercial presses, but the best writers for the small presses have a special kind of dedication. As do the editors of the seventh Pushcart volume. I salute them.