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Elaine Equi

The Poetry of Ed Ruscha

This piece is 2,000 words or about five printed pages long.

Ed Ruscha’s work allows me to combine two activities I love: reading and looking at art. The pleasure feels a bit illicit, as if neither thing would willingly give up the supremacy of my undivided attention. More simply put, I feel like I’m getting away with something — maybe doing my homework and watching TV at the same time. It feels good. I want to keep doing it.
    Coming away from The Whitney’s recent retrospective, Cotton Puffs, Q-Tips, Smoke and Mirrors: The Drawings of Ed Ruscha, which spans over forty years in the artist’s career, I’m once again dazzled by the remarkable depth of Ruscha’s gift for understatement. Verbally and visually he does so much with so little — and gets away with it! Known for his books of serial photographs, his still lifes of cleaning products, his drawings of motels and gas stations, Ruscha is most famous, crudely put, as that guy who draws words. These works, by far, make up the majority of the exhibit, and it is particularly of them I wish to speak.
    What intrigues me most is the way the more obvious and literal their “messages” (and here I’m talking about Ruscha’s word choice, not technical virtuosity), the more space seems to open up around the words themselves, both on paper and in my mind. Of course, one can’t reduce his drawings and paintings to mere words, or even separate the meaning of the words from the context his artwork creates for them. But seeing so much of his work in one place made me realize he’s a damn good writer! So while plenty of critics have paid homage to him as a visual artist, I would like to focus on Ed Ruscha: author. Like all skillful poets, he makes me see and think about words in a new way. His style is connected not only to visual traditions of minimalism, but also literary ones.
    Certainly the name Aram Saroyan comes first to mind as a kindred poetic spirit, and also as a contemporary of Ed Ruscha’s in the mid-60s. While many poets including Cid Corman, Lorine Niedecker, Robert Creeley, Robert Grenier, Clark Coolidge, and Ted Greenwald to mention just a handful, all experimented with highly condensed and concentrated lyrics, few were as willing as Aram Saroyan to say less on a regular basis.
    Saroyan, whose greatest hits include “blod” (which appears alone in the middle of a page), “crickets, crickets, crickets, crickets ...” (stripped down the right hand margin of a page), and the now infamous one-word poem “lighght” which caused a scandal for the NEA when Robert Duncan awarded it a prize and was cited by President Reagan as justification for further budget cuts.
    When I first encountered Saroyan’s poems, I remember how they raised the question for me of how many words are needed to make a poem. The answer being, I guess, none —  when you consider his playful, symmetrical piece

                                  ly         ly
                                  ly         ly

Next to him, haiku seems almost belabored. Yet no matter how brief, the wordplay almost always triggers some kind of shift in perception — a definite movement occurs in my mind which is why I think of them as poems rather than signs. They evoke, they elicit more from me. In all fairness, Aram Saroyan’s intention is that we read his work in the context of other poems. He did after all publish them as a book of poetry. Ed Ruscha doesn’t ask the same of us. Nevertheless, his words are equally resonant and his work often employs similar strategies.
    Both Ruscha and Saroyan are great at putting small, mundane units of language into the spotlight with funny, often surprisingly beautiful results. Both in effect create a kind of snapshot of language. Compare two of Saroyan’s quickies:


with Ruscha’s












The scale may vary, but the sensibility is similar.
    At times both men have explored taking words apart, syllable by syllable, and then recombining them as Ruscha does in two almost onomatopoeic drawings

       “ding”          “pud”

which hang side by side and give a pleasurable and comic aural concreteness — like banging a gong — to the word “pudding.” Saroyan does a similar remix of




This kind of linguistic atomization and insistence on the materiality of words was much in keeping with the structuralist spirit of the times, and similar verbal and visual experiments were in vogue among numerous concrete poets, conceptual, Oulipo, and Fluxus artists around the world.
    Another figure whose work seems related to Ruscha’s is Scottish poet, sculptor, gardener extraordinaire, Ian Hamilton Finlay. Much enamored of the notion of the fragment as a site where ancient and modernist aesthetics meet, Finlay is known for numerous small chapbooks of gnomic poems such as


             A Garden Poem

              ,,  ,,  ,,
              ,,  ,,  ,,
              ,,  ,,  ,,
              ,,  ,,  ,,
              ,,  ,,  ,,
              ,,  ,,  ,,
              ,,  ,,  ,,
              ,,  ,,  ,,  pen

In another project, he artfully strews bits and phrases of Homer (“Veracious Amethyst”) across line drawings of lush foliage and dragonflies. With his wife, Sue, he eventually went on to create Little Sparta, a lavish, four-acre, postmodern garden which incorporates fragments of architecture, sculpture, and word texts carved in stone and wood. It  allowed his love of language to merge with nature and in the words of writer Brian Kim Stefans, to “bring syntax to the physical landscape.”

You can read four essays on Ian Hamilton Finlay in Jacket 15, including one by Brian Kim Stefans.

Although Ruscha’s deadpan humor would seem to set him worlds apart from Finlay’s classical allusions and enchantments, there are qualities I think they share. For example, both often work with single words, creating a kind of dramatization of them through their choice of materials, script, lettering, or actual physical environment. They “set the stage” in a manner of speaking, so that we might come upon the word in all the glory of its simplicity, as well as the complexity of its implications.
    Ruscha excels at finding just the right treatment for a word. Whether it’s the suggestively, curvaceous penmanship of “pussy,” the boxy, stenciled comic-book lettering of “SPACE,” the loopy, paper-ribbon effect of “Lisp,” or the wet-look in which various liquids seem to puddle into words like “grapes” and “pool.”
    While Finlay in Little Sparta explored the possibilities of placing words in natural environments, Ruscha experimented with making background stains for his words and objects from a wide array of organic materials including mustard, cream, tomato paste, rose petals, blood, tobacco juice, chocolate paste, liqueur, gunpowder and axle grease.
    One particular piece in Ruscha’s exhibit, entitled “BOXERS #2,” illustrates for me both the similarities and the differences of the two men. In this case, Ruscha has spread a series of small, luminous words hovering like a swarm of fireflies over a drawing of tall, marshy weeds. Upon closer inspection, one sees that the words are, in fact, a roster of America’s finest heavy-weight boxers. In place of Finlay’s Odysseus, Ruscha gives us Cassius, Rocky, Jake, Ray, Leon, Evander etc. It’s a funny and powerful revision.
    In a way, in this essay, I feel I’m trying to create my own setting or word-garden for Ed Ruscha’s poems by placing them in the company of other sympathetic and illuminating poetic energies. Among them, I would have to include Joe Brainard. Brainard is an interesting comparison because in addition to being a poet and the author of I Remember, a one hundred and thirty six page autobiography in which every line begins with the words “I remember ...,” he was also a celebrated and successful visual artist. Although he usually kept his “art” and “writing” separate, Brainard did collaborate (providing at times images, at other times, words) with a number of poets including Kenward Elmslie, John Ashbery, and Bill Berkson. He also produced literally hundreds of book covers, magazine covers, and illustrations, creating a kind of visual soundtrack for two whole generations of experimental and New York School poets.
    If Ruscha’s radical minimalism is closest to Aram Saroyan, and his foregrounding of words into seemingly  3-D objects brings Ian Hamilton Finlay to mind, I would have to say that Joe Brainard comes closest to sharing Ed Ruscha’s all important sense of humor.
    Both men grew up in Oklahoma, Brainard in Tulsa and Ruscha in Oklahoma City, during the 1940s and 50s. Does that fact somehow explain something about the flatness, simplicity, and overly-obvious quality that both are so adept at using? I’m not sure, but I do “hear” some similarities.
    Brainard, who also wrote longer prose poems, is a master of the one-liner which expresses  folksy but hip knowledgeablility. Some of my favorites are

Being blond is more than hair.

A child on the beach may be important.

He was at the airport when his ship came in.

Thank God there is nothing to remember about 1972 yet.
                                                   December 31st

In many pieces, Ruscha displays this same ability to succinctly sum up certain of modern life’s lessons in catchy phrases and puns like


             IS  A  VERB










Then too, both men often choose very mundane moments to take note of. So while Joe Brainard writes: “For once in my life, today, I dropped an open faced peanut butter sandwich that landed right side up,” Ruscha floats the sentence, “SHE BROILED A CHICKEN” at the top of a drab, khaki-colored background in letters so small and distant as if to make it seem a piece of sky writing. It seems funny to imagine this idea as something we need to look up to — a message from above.
    Often the humor in both their works is derived from elevating something utterly banal into the context of art or poetry. Neither, it seems, could resist a joke about pee pee. In one poem, Brainard proclaims: “roses are red/ violets are blue/ God made me beautiful/ pee pee on you.” Ruscha makes his point by filling a whole page with the two giant letters “P” “P” which look innocously like a set of initials or monogram until you notice the periods next to them are actually double e’s.
    Is it possible, I keep asking myself, that I am reading too much into Ruscha? It is true, I admit, that seeing so many of his works in one place has allowed me to connect the individual words and phrases in ways that seeing them in smaller gallery shows did not. I have to be careful though, because especially with work like Ruscha’s which implicitly assumes a wise-ass attitude of playful disrespect toward overly serious high art, I would hate to think I was placing an unnecessary and ponderous weight on his words.
    Still I keep returning to the idea that these are not just random words encountered by chance, the way store signs or billboards flash in front of us while walking or driving. They may give that illusion at times, they may borrow the impersonal ambience such an imagined encounter creates, but in reality, Ruscha’s words are all very particular and personal choices. And to this poet’s eye and ear, they hold up very well. So while I admire the bravado, the rhythm, and the line-break of Ruscha’s




— in this case, I’m glad there was one.

New Work, Joe Brainard, Black Sparrow Press, Los Angeles, 1973.
Nothing to Write Home About, Joe Brainard, Little Caesar Press, Los Angeles, 1981.
Peterhead Fragments, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Wild Hawthorn Press, Scotland, 1980.
A Pretty Kettle of Fish, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Wild Hawthorn Press, Scotland, 1985.
Pages, Aram Saroyan, Random House, New York, 1964.
Aram Saroyan, Aram Saroyan, Random House, New York, 1966.

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