One may confuse the homonyms. Rather than simply being “the words that come first”, one might hear “a look at what’s ahead.” But in The Best American Poetry 2015 the series editor, David Lehman, does not look forward in his foreward. Instead he looks back, first as a critique on himself and his forewords over the years, and next on the literary world around him. He has the same gripes he has always had, the same frustrations. Don’t we all?
He then uses a social media / found poem technique, which he found, to show what another editor was able to do, and then what he is able to mimic. Only after highlighting and updating us on these, does he bring us into the present with the Paris attacks in January to lament the fact that poetry doesn’t risk enough, like the brave satirists of Charlie Hebdo. But the pages where a forward-thinking foreword could have started, simply end. And risks nothing.
He then elegizes Sherman Alexie for two pages, and Mark Strand for one.
More than I remember in other years David Lehman uses this space, this once a year performance to mostly navel-gaze. His forward comes off not like a narrator welcoming us to the performance, not like a sage introducing the school, but like a relative showing you their vacation pictures, or a band whose every album you own announces a new release, only to find out it is a greatest hits record.
This foreword is less forward and more an essayic selfie.
And thank God, at least, that David Lehman looked up long enough to give us two pages on Sherman Alexie. Because Alexie decided not to give us a biography, nor a set of poetic concerns, nor a state of contemporary poetry, nor an essay strung together with best lines from the poets, nor a series of similar thoughts among the selected, nor a rationale for selection, nor a behind the curtains look at the selection process. Heck, we didn’t even get an essayic selfie. We got a series of quotes from Alexie, followed by one of his poems.
I don’t even know what to compare it to. Someone emceeing a hall of fame ceremony by starting with clips of their own playing? The owner of a comedy club telling their own jokes before bringing up the MC?
Without metaphor, this is quite simply, someone hosting a poetry reading, and standing up before the show reading off their own aphorisms about poetry. I am aghast. A cranky old man. Upset that those who should be most adept at welcoming folks to the Best American Poetry show on earth instead wasted their time and space on their own machinations.
I think somewhere in the foreward Lehman laments that poetry (and education) are not being used in the service of riskier, more important, bigger things. Then why waste, and allow waste, of these few pages, of this sacred space?