Well, it's 'long late in December

The world's full of Christmas cheer

And once again we limelight

Ol' Santa and his reindeer.

Poem, Poem on the Range

LET'S MAKE IT clear right now: Waddie Mitchell is no Robert Lowell. For one thing, his narrative poems -- above is the first verse of "Skinner," which describes how Santa's reindeer were broken in -- are designed to be recited. On the page, they fall flat, as Mitchell is the first to admit. "The tradition I'm in," he says, "is an oral one. If you read it aloud, you'll see my rhythm."

Christmas Poems: A Cowboy Celebrates Christmas is the somewhat redundant title of Mitchell's first collection, recently published by the Utah firm of Gibbs M. Smith. He's a real cowboy, working a ranch by horseback near the tiny Nevada town ("We've got a bar and a school, and that's all it takes") of Jiggs.

For each of the past 15 years, Mitchell has written a Christmas poem for himself, his family and a few close friends, and the whole thing sort of snowballed. There's now a Cowboy Poetry Gathering each January in nearby Elko, Nev., and Mitchell -- a marvelous performer -- has been on the Carson show several times.

"Cowboy poetry almost sounds like a contradiction in terms," the author admits. "But it's an authentic tradition. When you're out in a line camp with a fellow all winter long, you're obligated to entertain somewhat at night . . . there's a whole rural culture out here. The beauty is, we got the oldtimers carrying it on, and a bunch of young folks who want to get back into cowboy life."

By the way, how did he get a name like Waddie? "It's a nickname, actually," he says. "It's another term for cowboy. My real name is Bruce."

Cloak and Daggers

SPY NOVELIST William Hood has been signed to write the biography of James Angleton, the former chief of counter intelligence at the CIA. Hood was a close friend of Angleton and was executive officer of the CIA's counterintelligence staff when the late spymaster was forced to resign in a 1974 controversy over the existence of Soviet double agents.

"Angleton made a few mistakes, but he also made a real contribution to the security of the country," says Hood, author of the novels Spy Wednesday and Cry Spy. "In examining this it will give me a chance to say something about counter-espionage, which is probably as little understood as covert action. People get them mixed up with a kind of police work, with James Bond acting as some kind of glorified international policeman."

Were certain Soviet defectors in the '50s and '60s actually double agents seeking to spread disinformation, as Angleton claimed? "That's one of the things we'll have to look into. At a minimum, I would hope to have the evidence to let the reader make up his mind."

With a novel, Hood points out, "you can suck it out of your thumb. With nonfiction, you have to uncover hard evidence and then check it against at least one other source." If things work out, the book will be published by Norton, probably in 1989.

Looking Back

PERHAPS it's simply an offshoot of the Library of America's impressive success in reediting and repackaging the classics, but an increasing number of other publishers are now moving forward into the past by printing hardbound editions of previously issued works.

Most prosperous, at least in terms of copies sold, is the Book-of-the-Month Club, which has brought back nine books in its Classics series. These range from The Thurber Carnival and Seven Gothic Tales to A Death in the Family and Native Son. All are printed in facsimile editions that exactly match the book's first appearance and are accompanied by a separate pamphlet by a well-known writer that introduces the work.

The program was originally part of the club's 60th anniversary festivities last year. It proved so popular, however, that it was continued; six more titles will be done in '88. BOMC doesn't release sales figures, but each volume sells about 25,000 copies.

"Publishing in facsimile makes the book as alive as when it was originally published," says Maron Waxman, the program's guiding light. "There's something startling about picking up Catch-22 and seeing what Joseph Heller looked like in 1961. It brings back a freshness that, over the years, has gotten lost." In only one case, she says, has anything been altered from the way the book first appeared: then-New Yorker editor William Shawn's name was misspelled in the acknowledgements of In Cold Blood, and "we couldn't let that stand."

The Book-of-the-Month Club can use its members-only series as a perk to keep subscribers happy. Hill & Company, a new Boston firm, is choosing its Rediscovery line -- which includes John le Carre''s Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, the late Ross Macdonald's Blue City, and omnibus editions of Gregory McDonald's Fletch novels -- as a means of getting to work with famous authors.

"Through the le Carre' project, we've met and signed on a very prominent London literary agent," says Tim Hill, the company's president. "Through the Fletch books, we acquired unpublished works of McDonald. Ross Macdonald, of course, is not going to publish any new books, but we were experimenting to see if Robert Parker's introduction would make a difference."

None of these titles is exactly "undiscovered," and neither are Rediscovery's other selections. "Our presumption is that, for many readers, these would be perceived as new books," says Hill. "Even those who knew them might prefer to own them in hardcover, in inexpensive {usually $10} and attractive editions."

In the future, he hopes to be more adventuresome. "If you can establish a series that is recognized as a reliable winner, you can introduce books that no one has heard of, that deserve their place in the sun. But that would be too big a hurdle initially."

The proprietors of Second Chance Press would never agree with that. Second Chance, a division of The Permanent Press of Sag Harbor, N.Y., has issued more than 30 titles during the last decade, most of them unfamiliar. A Buried Land by Madison Jones, The Atom Station by Halldor Laxness, Three Wishes for Jamie by Charles O'Neal and The Chaleur Network by Richard Stern are not exactly titles on the tips of literary tongues.

"We don't want weak stuff by people who have good names. We'd rather publish something no one had ever heard of," says Martin Shepard, who, with his wife Judith, operates Second Chance and Permanent. Thousands of books a year are published, and our feeling is a lot of great ones get neglected or forgotten along the way. We've thought of ourselves as the Modern Library of contemporary but unfortunately obscure classics."

Second Chance doesn't go searching for material. Most of its titles come from the authors themselves; another 20 percent from agents; and about 5 percent from persistent readers. The print-run is kept small, and excess copies are stored by the Shepards themselves.

"This business is like the lottery: You gotta be in it to win it," says Martin Shepard. "As long as the book is in print, we still have a chance of reaching our audience."

You Be The Judge

WITH increasing frequency, the distinction between the short story and the personal essay is blurring -- a condition hastened by some magazine editors' reluctance to categorize ("Supposing genre is for the reader to decide . . . we'll leave everything in this issue unlabeled," declared the Iowa Review last year). And then there's the recently inaugurated Associated Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction, surely an oxymoron.

Robert Atwan, series editor of The Best American Essays (Ticknor & Fields), knows all about the problem. "Last year I read Bobbie Ann Mason's 'Reaching for the Stars: My Life as a 50's Groupie,' and thought it was an autobiographical essay," he says. "But then people told me it was clearly fiction, and I saw it listed as fiction by an indexing service. Yet it later was included in a collection of essays on Southern childhoods. I'm convinced now that it is autobiography." And he liked "The Beauties of Drink: An Essay," but it turned out Lee K. Abbott's piece was really a short story.

"I think highly of a lot of the writing that is falling between the cracks," says Atwan. "Any time people are too comfortable with a genre, they start writing in patterns and things get trite." Still, he says, it doesn't make his task any simpler.

In the Margin

IN WHAT can only be seen as a blow to George Bush's presidential hopes, Doubleday has informed retailers that C. Fred's Story: A Dog's Life is now out of print. C. Fred, you'll recall, was the Bushes' cocker spaniel until his death earlier this year. His autobiography, which was ghosted by Barbara Bush, was praised as being much more readable than the average Washington life, and it also contained many splendid photos of the vice president. Still in print from Doubleday is Bush's own story, Looking Forward . . .

Sure, it's easy to criticize Ted Turner for colorizing every black-and-white movie he can get his hands on, but let's not knock the man until we've colored a bit ourselves. Thanks to the miracle of modern publishing, now anyone can be a big-time film executive. The Colorization Movie Coloring Book (Workman) includes 30 drawings of scenes from such black-and-white classics as Psycho, The Blue Angel and Nanook of the North. To get you started, it also comes with six crayons.