THE THREE poets under consideration here (all from Washington or nearby) have each published five or more books, and before we look at the books themselves, that fact should be appreciated. These are people who have given their lives to poetry, craftsmen who have been writing for decades. It is hard to probe yourself and the world for that long, even harder to turn the results into literature.

The Feel of Rock (Dryad Press, $10; paperback, $5.50) is Reed Whittemore's 12th book, a selection of poems written since 1948. Whittemore's main strength has always been a sharp and often ironic wit which he wields like a scalpel. Here is part of the first stanza of "A Day with the Foreign Legion," a poem that is typical of his work. On one of those days with the Legion When everyone sticks to sofas and itches and bitches -- A day for gin and bitters and the plague -- down by Mount Tessala under the plane trees, Seated at iron tables cursing the country, Cursing the times and the natives, cursing the drinks, Cursing the food and the bugs, cursing the Legion Were Kim and Bim and all the many heroes Of all the books and plays and poems and movies The desert serves.

The complexity of this one sentence both pleases and surprises. The language is precise, the tone ironic and the poem engages us through its wit. This is Whittemore at his best: the highly wrought surface, the humor, the detached voice commenting on its surroundings.

Whittemore's poems contain a degree of shock at the nature of the world -- surprise that time passes, that people die, that we are motivated by selfishness and vanity. Human beings, for Whittemore, fit uncomfortably into their lives. They are like someone in a comic suit: striped pants too baggy, plaid jacket too tight. Just when the fellow is attempting to straighten his tie, hoping to make the best of it, there's a slight push from behind and he preciptiously begins to descend the stairs -- youth at the top, death at the bottom and a foolish dance in between.

What is good about these poems is that they express a common indignation and describe a common predicament, that we share the same fate and many of the same indignities despite our individual uniqueness. Their weakness is that in too many the wit becomes too important, does not exist as a vehicle for the content but for its own sake. Very few of the poems attempt to engage our emotions.

In fact, personal emotion has little place in Whittemore's work. In the poem "Rocks," he writes that love is too fragile to be dealt with in a poem: "It needs prayer rather/ I will not play with it." What he deals with instead are the world's unpleasant realities symbolized by the rocks of the book's title. But of the rocks that are hateful to man and surround him So that it is as if he were deep in a great rock canyon and calling for help and only to rocks Of such rocks it is safe to speak

They need to be hammered at through the ages by man in his prison suit

They need to be broken up into smaller and smaller rocks (from "Rocks") The poem, however, is where one conspires to defeat the rocks. Here is the poet addressing the reader: You are my words my music we must collaborate In this venture agreeing that truth Is not a rock But a tone a manner a ringing concurrently ringing In your soul and mine as we sit in our garden communing (from "Writer and Reader")

But the attempt seems futile. Our own egoism and vanity deceive us into thinking that something is true only because we want it to be true. Communication is flawed, while art becomes a matter of surface and wit. It becomes decorative.

Opposed to the rocks is the self, which manages to stay alive partly through self-celebration and definition.

And now a bird in the wood is singing of itself Over and over unchangingly the same notes From the same branch As if in the life of bird and song and branch

There were no other grace than to persist (from "Writer and Reader")

Here is Whittemore's best subject -- the fragile self persisting in the midst of the rocky world: clownish, absurd, ultimately brave.

I know a mind, soul, whose time now leads it Shoreward to silence.

Not long ago it chattered like half a school,

And bade the desert dance. (from "The Mind")

I find this more engaging than all the wit, and when the wit functions to portray the conflict of self against the world then here is where Whittemore's poems become most successful.

Linda Pastan constantly attempts to engage the emotions of the reader. Her new book PM/AM (Norton, $12.95; paperback, $5.95) is also a selection of poems, combining 18 recent poems with work drawn from her previous four books. Pastan presents the reader with small stories that bear witness to the world and are written in language entirely straightforward and unadorned. For her the world is clearest in the act of communication. Come. Suspend willingly or not your disbelief and with empty pockets enter the room of the story. (from "Instructions to the Reader")

Later in the same poem she writes, "Evil is simply/ a grammatical error:/ a failure to leap/ the precipice/ between 'he'/ and 'I'."

Pastan's great gift is for making metaphors. These always show precision: "In the old guerrilla war/ between father and son/ I am the no-man's-land" (from "In the Old Guerrilla War"); "You hold my face between your two hands/ as steadily as if I were a cup/ about to spill" (from "Water Wheel"); "Dreams are the only/ afterlife we know;/ the place where the children/ we were/ rock in the arms of the children/ we have become" (from "Dreams").

It is metaphor that drives all her poems, that lifts them from the mundane and gives them their degree of magic.

Her poems are weakest when the commentary about the world refuses to be more than commentary, when it remains anecdotal, when the metaphors refuse to heighten. The poems are strongest when the commentary combines with the mysterious through metaphor to give us a new sense of the world, to make us see what has become commonplace as if for the first time. Here is "At the Gynecologist's."

The body so carefully contrived for pain wakens from the dream of health again and again to hands impersonal as wax and instruments that pry into the closed chapters of flesh.

See me here, my naked legs caught in these metal stirrups, galloping towards death with flowers of ether in my hair.

Pastan's lines are short rhythmical units of similar length broken at points of punctuation or rest, with an occasional exception to create tension. Her poems descend like water descends over a series of small waterfalls in Japanese garden. The poems also have a similar tone, similar volume or loudness and move at a similar speed. The voice is contemplative, concerned, compassionate. The language is like the language of a good translation: it doesn't call attention to itself. This is the style of all her work and the final effect is of monotony.

Language communicates by words and by how those words are arranged. In poetry, the way that words are arranged is allowed an importance not found in any other verbal medium. This is a great tool. It not only helps communicate the meaning but becomes a pleasure for its own sake. Unfortunately, it is a tool that Pastan often does without.

Dabney Stuart's poems create an entirely opposite effect. In reading his sixth book Common Ground (Louisiana State University Press, $12.95; paperback, $5.95) I was often reminded of a jazz solo -- the improvisation of a saxophone after the dues have been paid to melody and the real work can begin. The surfaces of the poems dazzle. Their directions can never be anticipated. One feels bullied by surprise. The language's speed, type of diction and sound qualities change constantly. Not only does the language dart and shift, but the ideas repeatedly form complicated intellectual structures, lead the reader through a maze of elaboration and qualification, zip through one door after another only to reappear at the end with the paradoxes resolved, the issues clear. Where it works, it's a pleasure; where it doesn't, the idea rushes into its maze and never returns.

The reader is invited to join in this process, to climb aboard the daredevil ride and hang on. Here is the beginning of "At the Circus, or Thereabouts."

The people who come here Have designs, they follow each other Under the big tent, becoming as much a part Of the opening parade as any creature, the Elephants, the painted ladies, web-footed clowns,

The torsos of air, the shortest man. Or the high wire walkers, whose attendance is perfect.

One of them goes up a ladder in the dark To his perch, unremarked, while the other Bobbles and totters up to his access, the tilted guy,

Ten spots upon him. The band blurts and horns

His success. Then the two of them make a sort of love Up there, trusting each other, equally lit, Having only one common ground, and one way To go, back and forth on that wire.

A question that arises, however, is how much can the poet bewilder the reader and still have the poem work. A certain amount of bewilderment is wonderful; too much and everything collapses. Again and again Stuart balances on this line; but when he succeeds, the whole poem breaks into color.

A more serious problem occurs when the poem's glitter seems to exist only for its own sake. For a poem to leap and do tricks for no other purpose than doing tricks is to reduce it to decoration. All of Stuart's poems have dazzle and magic but the dazzle works best when it is subservient to some greater intention; for instance, when the poem attempts to engage the emotions of the reader. Stuart's best poems concern his father, sons and his friends. Here is the beginning of "Turnings."

In the years of his growing loss he would walk Through the rooms of the house after midnight, The ice tinkling in a glass of bourbon Accompanying him. Each door he passed Through seemed to yawn him in, the quiet bodies Of his sons unrecognizable in their dark beds.

He would sit beside them, making between his thumb And fingers the smooth sheet give a soft, grating sound. When he looked down at his wife's body in another room The night itself seemed to yawn, so he went out into it, Stood at the edge of the wide yard he'd tended for ten years, Discovered the next largest darkness of all. You are eating me alive, woman, he said softly, Hearing himself.

This is a fine poem and the reader's engagement with the poem's emotional drive creates a constant tension, allows him to become that participant on the highwire.

But in other poems like "A Political Fable for Practically Everyone," "Stacked Up Above Parkersburg," "Sharp Words in the Men's Room" and "An Interlude at the Grand Hotel" surface becomes most important and the poems seem trifling. They attempt to be wise and hip at the same time, to penetrate the sham of the daily world, but one still feels that surface is attempting to take precedence over content. Stuart has many successes, and if one's skill were to dazzle, then it would always be a temptation to dazzle like crazy. But to do so is to jeopardize that common ground where reader and writer meet. STEPHEN DOBYNS' most recent book is The Balthus Poems. graphics /illustration: Forest By Lawrence Chaves