The Bravery of “Basic”
“Normcore” vs. “basic”: In 2014, these two word-of-the-year contenders valorized and demonized, respectively, the quality of being default. I hate both terms, normcore typifying the ever-present equation of money and style, the idea that “mom jeans” or socks with sandals is a cool look as long as you happen to be a hot young DJ. “Basic bitch” was hilarious when Nicki Minaj said it in verse, but the condescension is unbearable when it’s used without irony, and reminds me of the hordes of iPhone users who expressed disgust when Instagram became available for Android. The horror of accessibility!
Tied up with these terms, too, in my mind: Gap’s appalling “Dress Normal” campaign, an attempt to tap into the normcore trend and reclaim their ‘90s throne as king of closet basics. Instead they came off sounding like a homophobic high-school princess: Dress normal, not like some weird goth. Gratifyingly, the campaign was a commercial failure.
And then also I’m reminded of the upper-class fetishization of simplicity, where getting rid of your worldly goods is treated as a Zen virtue. But as many have pointed out before me, when you can afford to replace everything many times over, it feels like an empty gesture; the poor can’t afford to get rid of all their stuff.
Regardless: I have been thinking about the word “basic” as it applies to style in writing, because I’m finishing a book of persona poems. From the outset, I was determined to use fairly simple, clear diction and syntax for this project, in the main because the speaker of the poems is not a poet. For now let’s avoid going down the garden path of wondering how a non-poet can write poems, even in the poetic equivalent of fan fiction, or whether the speaker of any poem, as opposed to the author, is usually a poet; that way lies madness. The point is, I felt that too much poetical “showing off” wouldn’t be true to the character.
But I’m realizing there’s a second-order level of truth to the simplicity of the language: Judy (whom I’ve borrowed from Wallace Shawn’s play The Designated Mourner) is a person of privilege, possessing both traditional and cultural capital (in Bourdieu-ian terms). Judy has the privilege to dress simply (from the play: “The first thing I did there was to buy some white shirts in the local market”), and it’s doubly fitting that her poems are delivered in a voice of clarity (clarity over quantity).
Though I’m sure this is the right decision for the manuscript, I’m nonetheless a little insecure about it. In a sense, there is nothing to hide behind. The poems are not “difficult.” What ideas they offer are close to the surface, readily available to the reader. What I have convinced myself, or am actively working at convincing myself – it’s a state I have to maintain, like treading water, not a state I can switch into and passively remain in – is that this choice is brave. If the emperor has no clothes, the emperor must be ruthlessly confident in his nudity.
But is it? Is it brave? And why have I made this my project – for different reasons, but again, since my last book also traffics in directness? In one of my favorite reviews, Raymond McDaniel wrote of it:
As I read any one of these poems, I am impressed by how unadorned and dull it seems, but also how impossible to refute. And then I wonder if I would have a more immediately positive response if the surface of the language provided more in the way of glitter and spangle, and if in fact I would prefer the glitter and spangle because it would obviate or reduce my need or desire to feel as if the language was vehicular of thought. In this sense, at least, the more pedestrian and cliché Gabbert seems to be, the more the reader is forced to pay attention, especially to the machine that turns obscurity (defined as that which prohibits something from translation to a lucid thought) into “beauty” and “meaning.”
“How unadorned and dull it seems.” Yes. My model, almost subconsciously since I have not re-read it in full in years, for unadornment is “The Glass Essay,” the long poem that opens Anne Carson’s book Glass, Irony, and God. At the level of the stanza, the line, it delivers utmost basicness:
Liberty means different things to different people.
I have never liked lying in bed in the morning.
My mother does.
Dull as toast, on a level. But cumulatively, it is rich. This is not a paradox. Simple parts can accrete into a complex whole. It’s like those close-up photographs of dust: zoom out, or zoom in, and what appears basic isn’t.