One of the foremost critics of American literature over the past 30 years, Poirier (Poetry & Pragmatism), a disciple of Emerson, insists that the works he admires--whether Walt Whitman's, Gertrude Stein's or Norman Mailer's--maintain an ""excess of energy"" that resists all attempts to pin them down. In this collection, he gathers 19 of his longer book reviews. While most discuss poets and fiction writers, directly or through their critics and biographers, choreographer George Balanchine and pop artist Bette Midler also turn up. The critic expertly traces his favored writers' complex aims and ambitions. What matters for Poirier is how the poems and novels work for their authors, the ""inferable compositional enterprise more than the finished composition."" As always for Poirier, the presiding genius is Emerson, whose goals and virtues turn out to characterize not only Whitman but also Stein, Frank O'Hara, Henry James and Herman Melville. Emerson also sponsors Poirier's insistence that ""the finished poem, any oeuvre, matters less than does the effort that went into the making of it."" Poirier offers insights into gender and sexuality: he scourges homophobic critics, then turns around to scourge new-style readers whose ""politicized fervor for merely social referents"" prevents them from reading anything well. Most of these very engaging book reviews double as readings of Emerson, and triple as defenses of literature. Anyone who enjoys literary criticism will care for at least some of them. (June) FYI: Poirier is the editor of Raritan and the chairman of the board of the Library of America.