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Jimmy Carter the president and peacemaker, homebuilder and humanitarian, is now Jimmy Carter the poet.

With the publication this week of "Always a Reckoning" (Times Books, $18), Carter joins Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams as the only presidential poets in history.The 44 poems in the collection cover topics from opossum hunting and politics to family relationships and the plight of the home-less.

"This is a much more personal and reflective work than one usually sees from a man in his position," said Times Books editor Peter Osnos. "It's an unprecedented look into the thoughts and memories he holds most dear."

Osnos admits he was skeptical when Carter suggested that his next book be a collection of poetry. "Times Books had never published a work of poetry before, and quite frankly, I wasn't sure we wanted to start."

Meanwhile, Carter turned to Arkansas poet Miller Williams for help in shaping and honing his work. The two had met at a reception in the White House in 1980 and at an informal poetry reading in Plains in 1981.

"He indicated he wanted to leave the poetry bleachers and get on the playing field," said Williams, director of the University of Arkansas Press.

Williams suggested Carter read two books he had written, "How Does a Poem Mean" with co-author John Ciardi, and "Patterns of Poetry: An Encyclopedia of Poems."

Carter was a willing pupil. Over the next few years he visited Williams and sent him poems for critique. Former president or not, Carter found that Williams was sometimes brutally frank.

"When I thought something didn't work I told him why. It never occurred to me I might hurt his feelings except by not being honest with him," Williams said.

In a two-page dedication to the collection of poems, Carter expresses his gratitude to Williams as well as to his wife, his parents, the people of Plains and readers, who, he writes humbly, "I hope will draw from them some pleasure, stimulating thoughts, or memories to make up for my lack of erudition, skill or artistry."