The Sciart Origins of Bern Porter’s FOUND POEMS

Introduction to Found Poems by Bern Porter from Nightboat Editions (2011)

See also related images at Jacket2 Web Log.


The Maine State Library

Along with inscribed copies of Bern Porter’s authored documents and published books on art and poetry, social thought, scientific data, mathematics, governmental policy, cartography and bibliography, the Maine State Library Maine Authors’ Collection holds a thick, green ring binder systematically documenting the carefully composed, half-century long postal correspondence accompanying Porter’s periodic letters and dedicated, dated contributions to the collection of his home state’s official archive.


Establishing and maintaining records of his extensive, iconoclastic output and substantiating his status as author, publisher, poet, artist and scientist was a matter of defining self-regard. The meticulous literary correspondence between Porter and the archive’s librarians ensured his comprehensive inclusion among the state’s laurelled, accessible authors. Porter’s letters, some typewritten but most characteristically composed in his steady, rounded and rhythmical cursive hand, detail a long, singularly determined, far-flung, adaptive life of global travel and periodic residence, edgy creative activity and varied, generally short-term employment as a scientist or writer.

Bern Porter’s State Library correspondence chronicles mailing and forwarding addresses spanning five decades. The envelopes’ cancelled stamps intrepidly circle the Earth – Puenta Arena, Chile, the world’s southernmost city; Godthab and Balfour Island, Greenland; territorial Puerto Rico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Huntsville, Alabama; San Francisco, Berkeley and San Diego, California; early-statehood Alaska; Labrador and Newfoundland, Maritime Provinces, Canada; Portugal; Venezuela; territorial Guam; Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan; Burnie, Tasmania, Australia; Singapore, Malaysia; Benares, India; Houlton, Calais, Rockport and Belfast, Maine.

Porter’s file assembles a lengthy chronology of publications on science and the arts. The letters and documents abundantly detail and date Porter’s projects, cycles of travel, scientific and technical employment, and artistic residence. Periodical clippings, ephemera and newspaper articles in a diversity of languages accompany his letters, often written on hotel or ocean liner stationary replete with embossed logos and exotic addresses. An appendix provides citations for Porter’s lectures and presentations on a plethora of scientific innovations, futuristic applications of new materials, unrealized energy sources and technologies. The State Library’s off-site warehouse shelves additional corporate and government publications, technical documents and work for hire, texts and print materials characteristically published without author attribution under corporate or government agency imprint.

Because they are so distinctive, innovative and inherently recognizable, even in 2010 there may be inclination to regard Bern Porter’s unique FOUND POEMS as iconic curiosities. To do so would carelessly diminish Porter’s profundity and the durable stature of his founds. The Library’s shelves, catalogues and collections valuably underscore the variety, synthesis and cohesion of Porter’s vision, verifying the breadth as well as the depth, of his scientific expertise, far-reaching speculations and integrated creative practices.

Porter’s archived titles range across disciplines, fields and genres – Art Techniques, “The Watts Tower of Simon Rodilla,” What Henry Miller Said and Why It Is Important, H.L. Menken: A Bibliography, “Out in Front: An Illustrated Lecture About New Fashions in Everyday Things,” My Affair with Anais Nin (in 5 parts), the succinct I’ve Left: a manifesto and a testament of SCIence and –ART(SCIART) and many works of poetry, photography and collage. Porter’s technical, intensely data dependent, scientific publications include Colloidal Graphite: Its Properties and Applications, Wernher von Braun: A Bibliography & Selected Papers, Mathematics for Electronics, Physics Today and numerous specific Saturn V technical publications (e.g., “Saturn V Dynamic Test Program Requirements, 1965,” “Flight Stage Reliability Study, 1966”). There’s a photocopy of his Who’s Who in Space VI biographical entry and both full and summary copies of the compellingly prescient, future-sighted Regional Report he wrote in 1969 for the Knox County (Maine) Commissioners. Included are a number of works by valued friends and contemporaries, among them articles by Maine architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller and Porter’s well-annotated copy of Paolo Soleri’s 1966 book, an anecdotal topography of chance, its marginalia displaying Porter’s interest in Soleri’s theories of random placement and common objects. And, the collection holds ten major collections of founds, beginning with Aphasia, Scandinavian Summer: A Psycho-Visual Recollection, WasteMaker: 1926-1961 and Dieresis and extending to Sweet End, Porter’s massive rumination of founds on death and dying.

One senses germinating and embryonic found poems in the Library’s photocopied documentation of Bern Porter’s professional affiliations, publisher and author interviews, press clips, postal marks, letterheads and envelopes, publication releases, photographs, scientific data, promotional and technical information. Porter’s consistent, carefully calculated inventories of packaged and posted books and articles, with receipts of expenses incurred representing and maintaining his State Library status, inclusively gather and categorize the remarkably varied publications of an articulate, speculative innovator and mindful citizen of art and science.

Houses of Light & Walls of Air

Inducted into Phi Beta Kappa after graduating from Colby College in 1932 and subsequently thrice married, Bern Porter lived an irregular, thoughtfully directed, creatively purposeful life. He appropriated, cut, pasted and copied the planet’s texts and print graphics, naming the precisely re-presented work a found poem.

Artistically, Porter might be playfully surreal, imaginatively relentless or technically exact and mathematical. There could be the testy irritability of surrealist theater in the construction of his personality and personae. His capacity for recasting two-dimensional materials, such as printed words, designs, marks, shapes and arrangements, parallels his transformative re-presentations of three-dimensional, obsolete, derelict, wastefully discarded, common objects. Often the transformation involved little more than exacting display – an automobile quarter-panel hanging on a wall as art rather than incorporated into a vehicle as a functional component, the fragment of a printed document excised from the whole and re-envisioned in radiantly altered context, a plastic soda bottle filled with curb litter and titled “bottle art.” Scientifically educated, conceptual, probative and provocative, Bern Porter inquired relentlessly into fundamental materials, physical relationships and language. His social and aesthetic propositions challenged conventional thinking, refreshed potential and expanded probability.

Expressing his vision of Sciart, the union of science and art, in the 1954-1971 manifesto, I’ve Left, Porter wrote: “physics projects poetry beyond the typographical entrapment traditionally circumscribing it as a visually read experience.” Instead of succumbing to specialization and textual traps, Porter proposed that artists explore phenomena, envisioning “houses of light and walls of air” and realizing the potential of inventions such as x-ray tubes, electrical accelerations, the mechanics of matter, cosmic and nuclear-particle beams “foraging a new reality” and expressed as non-rectilinear shapes – math forms, photo-poems, game poems, poemscopes and poster poems. With a working practice that combined a physicist’s fascination with the possibilities of matter and poet’s presumption of creative freedom, Porter’s FOUND POEMS are one realization of Sciart’s vision.

New York to Huntsville & the Moon

From 1935 to 1940, employed by the Acheson Colloids Corporation as a research physicist and technical publicist, Porter lived primarily in New York City, working on applied science and commercial uses of colloidal graphite. As a publicist for the company, Porter wrote technical manuals and scientific product monographs. His work for Acheson Colloids involved travel to London and Paris and a year at the company’s offices in Port Huron, Michigan, where, in the absence of New York’s cosmopolitan action, he extensively read James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, whose salon he was welcomed to during a 1937 trip to France. In New York he visited galleries and museums, repeatedly attending MoMA’s vast “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism” exhibition and in the process discovering Andre Breton’s concept of the objet trouve and the liberating freedom and validating wonder of the surrealists’ adoration of obsolete objects, dated technologies and commonplace forms. He attended receptions at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, salons at Mabel Dodge Luhan’s, took art classes, and was exposed to Duchamp’s readymades, Man Ray’s Rayograms, Joseph Cornell’s boxes and Alexander Calder’s Mobiles. In 1939 Porter applied, unsuccessfully, for a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1940 his draft board called.

During World War II and extending well into the subsequent Cold War, Porter’s 1933 Brown University ScM-Physics degree (specializations in astrophysics, nuclear physics and radio technology) qualified him for what, until 1969, became a pattern of intermittent corporate, government and quasi-governmental engineering, technical writing and journalist positions. Poetry and publishing might have been Bern Porter’s métier, but science and its technological application was his paycheck.

Drafted into the Army Corps of Engineers in 1940 as an assistant physicist, Porter was assigned to the Manhattan Project. He worked, under the program’s intense security, on the separation of uranium, initially on assignment in the Department of Physics at Princeton University in New Jersey, where he significantly met physicists Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, as well as Bauhaus master artist Laszlo Moholoy-Nagy. Security was tantamount, but health and safety standards rudimentary. Porter, in a 1993 Maine Public Television interview, discusses this wartime duty, noting that at the end of a day of separating uranium “the janitor was sweeping up the debris and nowadays you’d have shoes, mechanical hands and have to wear special clothes.” Porter remained with the Manhattan Project throughout the war, during 1943 working in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and in 1945 at the University of California, in Berkeley.For years following WWII, his body was routinely monitored for radiation levels.

Once in the San Francisco Bay area Porter became associated with the literary periodical Circle. In 1943 he’d met Henry Miller and over the next couple years, while subject to Manhattan Project intelligence surveillance, Porter published nearly a dozen books, collections or reproductions of work by or about Miller, including his anti-war satire Murder the Murderer. It will come as no surprise that security checks, FBI interrogation, and interviews with suspicious counterintelligence agents haunted Porter for as long as he worked within the military-industrial complex.

Miller and Porter ended their relationship after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fraught, despondent and emotionally shattered by the bomb’s slaughter and death, Porter left the Manhattan Project, settled in the San Francisco Bay area and focused on creative and cultural projects. As Bern Porter Books he published titles and folios by breakthrough writers and artists of the post-war 1940’s and 1950’s – Robert Duncan, Phillip Lamantia, Antonin Artaud, Kenneth Patchen, Frank Lobdell, Harry Bowden and Kenneth Rexroth, among others. He produced a genre-breaking broadside series of over fifty titles featuring photographs, drawings, collages, commentaries, family images, lists, type specimens and illustrated poems. He operated small art galleries in Sausalito and San Francisco, exhibiting collage, sculpture, photography and paintings by emerging West Coast abstract expressionists, among them Sam Francis, Richard Diebenkorn, Jean Varda and experimental cinematographer Frank Stauffacher.

During the early 1950’s Porter left the continent for Guam and the mid-Pacific. There he worked a succession of jobs, editing for the Guam Daily News and United Press International, working as a waiter, serving as an information officer for the Office of Price Stabilization, speculating in surplus government property and writing for the McClure Advertising Agency before leaving the territory and traveling to southeast Asia and Japan.

In the mid-1950’s Porter returned to the Bay area and on August 27, 1955, married Margaret Eudine Preston, a union that lasted until her death 20 years later in 1975.Porter worked as an engineer for Collins Radio in Dallas, Texas, during 1957, a position that sent him to Venezuela to develop remote communications technology. He was briefly employed in Alaska for the Civil Aeronautics Administration, while in the state developing an interest in sub-Arctic and Arctic cultures. Characteristically, none of Porter’s jobs were of long durations. Late in 1958 he and Margaret returned to California. He left again, working briefly in Tasmania, then returned to his home state of Maine, where, in 1960, he taught English at Ashland High School. The job lasted less than a year, as did a second teaching job in 1961 at a small school in Canaan, New Hampshire, where he taught Technical Writing and English several months before being discharged.

During two productive years, from 1962 to 1964, while employed as a scientific technical writer for the nongovernmental Federal Electric Company, Porter received security clearance from the Army, lived in Waldick, New Jersey, and worked in nearby Paramus, teaching technical writing and providing programmed instruction to Strategic Air Command installers and operators. After his Federal Electric Company contract ended, Porter was employed in Huntsville, Alabama, for the Boeing Aircraft Corporation on the Saturn Moon Rocket program directed by former Nazi scientists Wernher von Braun and Arthur Rudolph, “von Braun’s associate, who became general manager of the…project.” Cold War surveillance was menacing and, as his biographer James Schevill wrote after researching Porter’s security-file, “…from these reports it is clear that Porter could no longer fit into a team of scientists.” (p.201-208) A series of grave misunderstandings resulted in Porter’s admission to nearby Tuscaloosa’s Bryce Psychiatric Hospital for several weeks in May, 1967, and he resigned his Boeing position on February 7, 1968. Porter’s book, 468B: Thy Future, consists of a series of mainframe computer printout founds from the Saturn moon project. There is benefit in approaching his FOUND POEMS with this unsettling record of gossipy condemnation, darkly redacted information and suspect behavior in mind.

A Citizen of Belfast, Maine

Returning to Maine in April, 1968, after two months in Guatemala, Porter and his wife, Margaret, settled initially in Rockland where he was employed as a consultant for the Knox County Regional Planning Commission. Following an aborted 1969-1970 Republican primary campaign for governor, Porter moved to Belfast, the historic Waldo County city on Penobscot Bay, where he established the Institute of Advanced Thinking at 22 Salmond Street, a property that today is 50 Salmond Street. He resided there the last thirty-five years of his life, in 2001 being named Belfast’s first Poet Laureate.

Porter was a participant, paradoxical Belfast citizen whose annual list of suggested community improvements was published yearly as a notable Op-Ed by The Republican Journal editor Mike Brown. Indeed, Brown wrote that he beat the city to the laureate label for Porter when “…Bern was appointed by me as the Bitching Laureate of Belfast with all the rights, privileges, hassles and laurels that goes with such not-for-profit prestige.”(RJ, 10/96) Ever the prescient futurist, the farsightedness of Porter’s visionary and technically practical yearly list of projects envisioning a more livable Belfast is today remarkably observable in the small city and evident in its enhanced quality of life.

Adhering to Bern Porter’s wise proclamations and creative leadership, today’s Belfast enjoys bi-lingual signage recognizing and unifying historical buildings and facades. The city benefits from restored coastal bus service. There’s mechanically playful interactive found art throughout the community, a pedestrian walkway and footbridge system where once were abandoned tracks and dangerous trestles, a rejuvenated downtown and clean Belfast Bay and city harbor where for decades there’d been a hazardous brew of poultry industry waste and mishmash of derelict waterfront buildings. Porter’s Republican Journal lists called for concrete municipal cooperation and technically specific initiatives. He endowed the Porter Literacy Room at the Belfast Free Library, calling for the library’s renovation and expansion, which subsequently occurred. Built in 2008, he foresaw by more than a decade the construction and dedication of Belfast’s sparkling, utilitarian YMCA. Locally legendary, Porter’s outspoken creativity as a citizen expansively endures.

Porter’s relationship to red brick Belfast endures visibly in the city’s approach to art and material culture. In the backroom shop of Aarhus, one of Belfast’s dozen or so galleries, a typographically bold broadside, “Cheap Art Manifesto No. 3,” published in 1985 by the Bread & Puppet Press of Grover, Vermont, is straight out of Bern Porter’s aesthetic practice in its declaration that “c. Cheap art is light, little, quick and easy to do, made mostly from scrap and junk” and “e. Cheap art fights the Business of Art.” Imposing sculptures bonding and re-presenting recycled barn beams and old tools dominate the gallery’s floor space, the walls display bold geometric patterns painted on found and recycled surfaces, and the small founds of wearable art sit on shelves and under countertops.

There’s purposeful conceptual linkage between Porter’s dedication to found materials and his advanced, practical thinking as a citizen-scientist. Reconsider commonplace possibilities by looking at familiar materials unconventionally. Alter perspectives. Break things down. Be bold and concrete. Identify and creatively transform what’s wasted, rejected, stagnated, underutilized, dysfunctional or obsolete. Combine art and science in pursuit of unrealized, infinite possibilities.

Albert Einstein at the Belfast Free Library

Among nearly 200 unpublished founds in the Bern Porter Collection at the Belfast Free Library are a half-dozen images of Albert Einstein. Uniformly proportioned at 5&1/2 by 8 inches, each paper collage is carefully cut, composed, glued, cropped and photocopied. They depict a range of whimsically reconstructed Einsteins and, in the manner of most of his gathered founds, are neither numbered, paginated nor specifically sequenced.

In one, Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice whispers in Einstein’s ear while pointing an elongated forefinger into undefined space past the bemused physicist. In another, a rabbit-bodied, Woody Guthrie-like Einstein strides upright across a grassy hummock playing the banjo, an oversized chick between his dungaree shorn legs and exposed rabbit feet. A third collage offers a sloe-eyed Einstein, hands and feet shackled with multiple chains and locks, disproportionately oversized violin filling the right half of the composition’s background. There’s an effervescent, softly stylized old hippie Einstein attempting to hang onto a cascade of books and papers while perilously peddling a bicycle along the concourse of what appears to be a dam or aqueduct, the lower border of the found adorned with lacy filigree. There’s a double image of a bug-eyed Einstein cartoon on Christmas paper and another, entirely textual, reading ALBERT ALBERT EINSTEIN EINSTEIN a theory of relativity.

Replication and rearrangement of the familiar alters and articulates one’s sense of information as Porter playfully idealizes Einstein. As a collagist, Porter works with what’s visually ready made, reconstructing precedent from the material form of the found image and text, reassembling Einstein and independently visualizing his image. Porter re-contextualizes Einstein’s iconic status, transforming him into troubadour, into Harry Houdini, into a theatrical man of fiddling whimsy, into a Disney cartoon. Though the images synthesize commonplace period graphics and are precise, familiar and immediate in their design and visual iconography, they do not instruct the viewer of the poem as to how or what to think about Albert Einstein. No matter how perplexing, fragmentary or paradoxical, Porter invariably leaves the relative interpretation of a found up to the reader.

These several Einstein collages provide another entrée into Bern Porter’s investigations as a scientist, technical writer and engineer. Collage, for Porter, is a concrete technique and material practice. Found images predicate rearrangement, with elision and abutment replacing narration, transition, explanation and syntactical conventions. Graphic visualization of data sequences, mathematics, analytic tables, calculations and the calibrations of scientific instruments are central to Porter’s poetics – a found poem’s sine wave is both dynamic mark and scientific representation. An eye for graphic design and appreciation of symbolic content aids a reader in sorting out a found poem’s information. The Einstein founds archived at the Belfast Free Library suggest and unify ideas developed in his theoretically far-reaching “Sciart” manifesto and function as a lens for viewing the evolving play, juxtaposition of materials and speculations about language and the human condition that indelibly characterize Porter’s FOUND POEMS.

Bern Porter’s reverence for Albert Einstein likely influenced his dedication to a simplified lifestyle and manifests itself in Porter’s lifelong aversion to the conveniences of personal technology. Though Porter worked on the development of television’s cathode ray, he never owned a TV. He had no phone. He neither owned a car nor drove. The founds of 468B: Thy Future are indicative of his proximity to 1960-era mainframe computers, but he never used a personal computer.

What is Found is a FOUND

The applied poetics and distinctively uncharted practice of an independent, creative, analytic and iconoclastic scientist, Porter’s found poems are literary events.

At a glance, each poem occupies one page’s space as a visual text. In aggregate, they thematically display printed matter, usually alphabetic language, numerals, retail and wholesale catalogue elements, product images, advertisements and inducements, charts, lists, instructions, icons and glyphs, abbreviations, demographic data, technical or scientific symbols. Appropriating and graphically recombining found images, Porter’s poems alter, crop, collage, juxtapose, synthesize and rearrange their deconstructed sources into authentic, fresh work subsequently reprinted into an unindexed, unpaginated book.The absence of page numbers encourages multiple entry points, lessens serial predictability and eliminates both tables of contents and indexes, valuably freeing the reader’s attentions from prearranged assumptions.

The poems’ original sources range widely, from junk mail and other postal throwaways Porter systematically found, retrieved and retained, to typographic and print materials he attentively clipped and kept. Certain texts derive from promotional hokum and shill, banal instructions, gags, jokes. Others resonate with the grids and diagrams of imposed order and effective technologies. He discovered images by thoughtful plan, conspicuous pattern, conscious scheme or adroit, bold usurpation. He found objects and physically useful printed matter by coincidence, attentive randomness, chance and playful serendipity. His pedestrian pace and the ambling attentions of walking suited discovery.Porter’s graphic eye was canny and precise, his wit skeptical, paradoxical and menacing, his scissors sharp.

Found art, and the synthesizing economies implicit in Porter’s founds, presumes a different conception of language than that which serves the strategies of the lexical poet, whose approach to the word and its aggregate goals predictably ensures a writer will think and shape art word-by-word and line-by-line, with familiar syntactical and figurative measures guiding the poem’s composition. Porter’s collagist dissections and assemblages derive dynamically from photography and graphic design and involve both language and iconic mark – cuts and splices, viewing words upside down or perhaps mirrored backwards. Porter seeks to get outside of typography’s grid and to break with the page’s horizontal axis, locating resonant enjambments independent of the sentence, with visual-verbal elocutions inhabiting a paper landscape in-part about looking, in-part about reading, in-part about uncertainty, relativity and paradox. Frequently playful and darkly comic, Porter’s FOUND POEMS are no easy giggle, but the product of a man who knew immediately and experientially the radiant burn and terror of nuclear destruction and the restrictive conformity of Cold War American society. He ironically worked within the 20th Century’s military-industrial complex. Neither militarist nor warrior, he was an artist and poet.

A master of appropriation and transgressive arts practices, Porter progressed beyond his era’s standards and conventions of poetry’s possibilities. Using the simple tools of scissors and gluepot, he seems to have anticipated today’s digitally enhanced potlatch of visual poetry. But, photocopying aside, Porter’s found approach to visualizing and reinventing materials had little to do with the current toolbar of reshaping technologies and the facility of software. He knew what was coming, but the Sciart foundation of his founds has little to do with the fluid electronics of digital culture and graphic manipulations of web design.

Porter’s theoretical and practical dedication to the material fusion of science and art resulted in founds remarkably without sentimentality, cant, romance, narrative contrivance or conventional figures of poetic speech. There is a sufficient sense that in categorizing his poems as found, Porter intends to extend the word’s definition beyond discovery to include both the industrial founding of strong and resilient structural material and the legal authority of a court’s finding, a statement ending argument and declaring the outcome of evidence and representation. In the introduction to his 1999 limited edition book, Bern Porter: To the World, Porter observes that “the American College Dictionary in the course of defining found, founder, foundry, page 480, reveal[s] anything, everything can be cast, recast, including words, hymns and art.” Succinct and obviously devoid of scientific and technical specifics, the minimal clarity of Porter’s cogent proposition offers a utilitarian vision consistent with a sustainable, regenerating future.

It’s a commonplace to observe that an overarching commerce of information technology shapes and substantially administrates today’s culture of pervasive, fingertip immediacy. Relentless multi-tasking has become a workplace norm. EBay’s commodified the new old. Found is a trendy website and product line, garbage-picking vogue. For many communities, recycling is the neighborhood Envirosafe’s toxic landfill, a sleeve of plastic between methane belching chemical stew and sustaining aquifer. The newscast is satire, irony the label on your shirt pocket, parody the next authoritative Power Point presentation. The legal standard of fair use is anybody’s elastic measure. Transgressive arts’ strategies, adaptation, appropriation and re-use are aspects of the learned curriculum and functional keyboard. Typeface, font and orientation shifts with a touch of the toolbar. The question of authenticity is moot and what passes for innovation often troublingly derivative. How does one determine the authenticity of photo-ops, infomericials or air guitar, digitally manipulated photographs or Photoshopped graphics, copy art, sampling, dubs and re-mixes, lip synching, karaoke, prequels or altered books? What’s the quest pursuing a question in a Google-determined universe? What is the point of who or what was first?

The metaphysics of Bern Porter’s found art recognized that everything retains a shard of meaning, even the rudely discarded or woefully obsolete. Porter’s values and practice elevated the balled up bag from McDonald’s or rain-soaked junk under a blue tarp along the side of the road to a luminous, mysterious iconic stature. The gravity of obsolescence invited attentive wonder, speculative reassessment and the challenge of imaginative transformation.

Contradiction is a form of articulation and Porter has occasionally been characterized as confusingly contradictory. But his approach to founds is unified, sublimely meditative, attentive and fundamental:

“In the course of waking in the morning and retiring at night in a world ofcomputers, cars, planes, trains, trucks, ships, earthquakes, snow slides,cables, war, famine, death and peace, it is gratifying that words and scenescan be recast.

What is readable can be read.

What is feelable can be felt.

What is seeable can be seen.

What is hearable can be heard.

What is dreamable can be dreamed.

In a possible looking, feeling, seeing moment one can search and find in multiple form and what is found is a FOUND – one’s own for all time.” (To The World: From Bern Porter, introduction)

Synthesis rules, originality adapts. We use what we use.

Critical Testimony

Porter published Kenneth Patchen’s Panels for the Walls of Heaven in 1946. Though Patchen’s inspired book became the basis for an unresolved dispute between the two men, Porter admired Patchen’s expressively painted, visionary, hand-drawn visual poems. While Porter’s work is minimal, understated and emotionally restrained when compared to Patchen’s abundantly rich, physically warm palate, their artistic areas of similar practice are evident when viewing Porter’s founds in the context of the typographically innovative, concrete pages of Patchen’s novels of the 1940’s.

Similarities between Porter’s found poems and the typographic objectivism of concrete poetry are unmistakable and it is difficult to determine the reasoning behind Porter’s lack of inclusion in the principal English language anthologies defining this modernistic movement. While there are competing definitions of “concrete,” all emphasize centrality of the medium, ideogrammatically reduced language and concentration upon the physical material of word, image and print. Concrete Poetry: An Annotated International Bibliography, with an index of poets and poems (Whitson Publishing, 1989) subdivides the concrete genre, but inexplicably doesn’t use “found” as one of concrete’s determining categories, which include shaped poems, semiotic poems, computer poems, typographic poems, kinetic poems and others. The 1,000-page bibliography’s encyclopedic list of 40 major concrete poets does not include Bern Porter and his omission from this inventory of major concretists is a troubling, perplexing absence.

However, Porter does have eight entries in the bibliography, including one indexing the 1972 Something Else Press edition of FOUND POEMS, which is noted as: “A collection of experimental poems, including some in the concrete mode and also including ‘The computer’s second Christmas card,’ attributed elsewhere in the literature to Edwin Morgan.” And, George Quasha and Jerome Rothenberg anthologized Porter – they stand out as two of the rare editors who included Porter’s found poems in academically marketed textbook literature.

By the 1970’s the academic template for found poetry was sufficiently established. Poet and critic M.L. Rosenthal, in his 1972 book Poetry and the Common Life, emphasized poetry’s capacity to speak to “our daily preoccupations, both public and intimate.” Concluding a vivid, verbatim analysis of Lieutenant William L. Calley’s Vietnam War era Mylai massacre court-martial testimony, Rosenthal resolved that “…this court testimony is not poetry, unless we consider it ‘found poetry’ – that is, language not consciously meant to be poetic but nevertheless possessing poetic qualities.” Rosenthal considered the testimony’s “deliberately flat” tone, the “barely concealed terror of what is being developed,” and the implicit irony in the prosecutor’s “objective tone,” pointing out that when one compresses and “isolates a bit of actual speech or conversation and…puts a frame around it, it begins to behave like a poem.”

Unlike the analytically framed compression, dialogic orality and patterns of conventional syntax characterizing the found poetry lurking within Calley’s gruesome testimony, Porter’s found poems, significantly, distinguish themselves as objective, overt kinetic constructs and visual material. Porter’s manifesto, I’ve Left, insists upon a “new order for creators,” a “fused imagination…uniting the subject matter from nature [and] life.” His innovative founds would be “asymptotically all,” encompassing “concave surfaces, convex surfaces, nonrectilinear shapes, transparent mats, ether mats, space mats, edge frames, framed two sides only, on side, no side at all.”In opposition to Rosenthal’s defining concept of the framed found poem, Porter demands that artists “reverse perspective,” “discard frames” and “kick in the wall and let the stuff stand alone.” [I’ve Left, p. 26-27]

As a surface illustrative of a single plane within his multifaceted theory of physical, actual discovery and reuse, the poems are but one representation of Porter’s Sciart-inspired founds. In his discussion of Scicom (the union of science and communication) Porter poses the possibility of a “simplified alphabet, the abbreviated word which when put into groups that fit an eye space…provide[s] the most direct responsive impression under all conditions of impact from page, screen and billboard.”

The questions, parallels and correspondences illustrated by Rosenthal’s discussion are intriguing, but ultimately creatively restrictive and meek.Porter’s found poems reappraise and reposition familiar codes of visual information and communication. Graphically more astute and creatively risk-taking than a critically determined process of selectively isolating words and framing them, his found poems are best approached and reflected upon as an element within his liberating, overarching theory.

The Knox County Regional Development Plan

In April 1968, after leaving Guatemala City where he’d briefly worked for the educational publisher Editorial Pedra Santa, Porter returned to Maine. Hired as a consultant for the Knox County Regional Planning Commission, he began working on a comprehensive master plan for the coastal county’s economic development. It was a fortuitous opportunity for both the provincial county and the visionary Porter, whose futurist thinking, practical experience, engineering abilities, empathetic regional knowledge and skill as a technical writer would enable him to compile a document detailing a cohesive economic and social development plan.

In-keeping with his employment pattern, Porter lasted about a year at the job. The Commissioners reduced his exemplary 740-page study first to a 400-page publication and ultimately to a 54-page summary text. Though he was outraged and grievously disappointed by the expansive document’s wholesale butchering and reduction in size and scope, even its condensed version poses a compelling vision, physically immediate and practical, while simultaneously far-sighted, sustainable and uniquely a product Porter’s direct language, observant eye and technically integrated, conceptual thinking.

Substantial aspects of the economic development model’s proposals are evident in 21st Century Knox County, among them a venture capital think tank, greatly enhanced recreational, health and educational opportunities, research centers, tourism, zoning, ocean energy initiatives and integrated community planning. Porter recognized the economic development potential of mining and offshore energy technologies. He comparatively enumerated the environmental impacts, specific waste disposal issues and social upheaval inherent in promoting such industries and supporting investment in the necessary public infrastructure required. His plan articulated potential benefits and cautioned the county’s commissioners about grim and perhaps irreconcilable risks. He was well aware of the awesome weight of heavy industry on a fragile coastal environment and its tidal ecosystems.

An essay considering aspects of Porter’s FOUND POEMS isn’t the appropriate place to expansively inquire into his 1969 plan for the organization, funding and implementation of Knox County’s development. However, looking at a mid-alphabet sequence of the recommendations Porter itemized to articulate the planning needs of each Knox County town provides a focus for observing how his systematic clarity as a technical writer and precision with language supported his exacting work as a collagist and found poet.

Community House

Controlled Areas

Court Facilities

Education Facilities

Fallout Shelters

Fire Prevention

Health Clinic

Helicopter Site

Housing Authority

Industrial Park

Insurance Program

Launching Site

Mail Service

Ordinances

Look inquiringly. Take out your scissors and glue stick. Where and how would you make the cut? What other clipped text or graphic fragment might complement or complete the found poem?

Mail Art

On January 21, 1986, a few weeks before Porter was booked to embark on a world cruise coinciding with his 75th birthday, he received a telegram of “congratulations and salutations for an incomparable 75th birthday voyage.” In Western Union’s unadorned upper-case letters, the telegram’s 28 signees included Fluxus artists Alison Knowles, Dick Higgins, Ed Plunkett and Ray Johnson, writer Margaret Dunbar, expatriate Russian samizdat publishers and performance artists Rimma and Valery Gerlovin, figurative painter Charles Stanley (Carlo Pittore), mail artists Citizen Kafka, Lon Spiegleman, E.F. Higgins, Mark Bloch and John Jacob, and poets Richard Kostelanetz and Bob Holman. A personal network of well-wishers from a complex variety of global art-making communities anticipated and commemorated the pending departure of this iconoclastic septuagenarian from remote Belfast, Maine.

Mail art established for Bern Porter an artists’ network meeting the needs of his income, personal habits, art materials, conceptual practice, and Belfast home. He had long and habitually frequented post offices where he was a presence and a bit of a show, digging into the trash for discarded periodicals, catalogues and junk mail. More significantly, mail art’s direct democracy suited Porter and celebrated his work. Money was not part of the arrangement. Immediacy of correspondence and punctual dailiness were mail art requisites, as was compression of language, experiment and invention. For the cost of a pre-stamped postcard, Porter’s ready mail art canvas, he was connected, exhibited, catalogued and often honored and celebrated.

Porter’s found poems discovered mail art before the genre was named. The strategies of Sciart and the specific content and practice of Porter’s found poetry suited the international vision, techie media and global venues of Mail Art. Porter’s work, as a manila postcard or folded into an envelope, reached international audiences of all ages.

Mail Art’s liberated absence of jurying, academic standards and editorial prejudgment suited Porter’s founds and their concrete, direct manner. He opposed explaining his work, choosing to present it confidently and obligating people to think for themselves.

Scrapbooks at Sea

The Special Collections of Porter’s alma mater Colby College houses a large archive of Porter’s work. The cataloging and digitalization of these materials benefits from the bequest and subsequent sale of Porter’s Belfast residence, willed to the college upon his death in 2004 for the purpose of establishing an endowment that would maintain his collection in perpetuity. Colby materials include more than twenty years of Porter’s scrapbooks, among them books compiled during annual cruises taken with his friend and patron Marion Gettleman from the early 1980’s until her death in 1990.

A few examples from the pages of Volume VIII, Porter’s 1982 scrapbook made during a voyage to India in the company of Ms. Gettleman, provides an alternative perspective to the themes, materials, strategies and characteristically minimalist personality of his found poems. Unexpurgated, private and diaristically personal, the voyage scrapbooks emerge as transitional documents, occupying a place somewhere along a dotted line connecting the raw notes and scraps of a writer’s workbook to collaged journals to unique artist’s books and published found poems.

The scrapbook’s pages and portrait composition consumes one’s attention with the inclusion of shakily handwritten poems filled with rage and despair over his disastrous, tempestuous third marriage to the proselytizing Jehovah’s Witness, Lula Mae Schekel Bloom (“…the engagement ring/the wedding ring/the house/the two-hundred a month/were not acceptable/like my hair/my clothes/my life/my business/my work/my ideas/all rejected rejects/N.G. as/they say…So I ate/in silence/not knowing/what the attack/was all about….”). Textured with marginalia, catalogues, lists, documents and travel ephemera, these intensely intimate, hand-made, one-of-a-kind books display the shapely design elements, textual vitality and crisp graphic attentiveness of found poems. VolumeVIII inscribes and celebrates distinctive passenger names (“Hail Siegmund Nimsgern/Hail Frederica von Stade/Hail Fritz Abbado/Hail Jean Farr Martinon/Hail Yuri Spivakov”), and as well provides dates, photographs, sequence, pattern and an accommodating narrative structure. If the FOUND POEMS seem impersonal and cool, the scrapbooks are viscerally physical, intimate and hot.

Structurally, each handcrafted scrapbook fills a recycled, altered, 6 by 9 hardbound book, which opens to a 12X9 landscape surface. Porter’s added blank papers of different colors, textures and weights to accent the scrapbook’s contents. Some pages approached as single sheets, others as two-page spreads, the pictorial and textual images are cut, torn and pasted from a trove of ephemeral global paper sources. Given that Volume VIII documents a cruise to India, Porter’s pages burst with snippets of print and brim with languages and alphabets from the Philippines, China, Thailand, Japan, Sri Lanka, India and elsewhere. Colors, paper textures, typography, logos and arrangements resound with disparate sources in active and dynamic juxtaposition, tuck, tear and overlay. The world’s racial and ethnic diversity commands the eye, whether distinctions are couched in cutesy animations, snapshots or somber gray-tone obituaries. Unfamiliar product labels, employment ads from regional Asian newspapers, maps, flirty pin-ups, headlines, newsprint photographs and snapshots, official notices from the captain or shipboard news covering everything from weather to local customs or rates of exchange in the next port of call, menus, wine lists, pages torn from pulp novels, and all manner of shipboard literature from filched personal notes to orgasmic, multi-lingual erotica.

Porter’s hand-written poems are searing, emotional, humanly intense and fleshy, almost painfully sensual, in style tending toward anaphoric, incantatory lists and repetitive catalogues. Voyeuristic pictures of lingerie models pattern his scrapbook pages, often touched-up photos cropped by Porter to focus the eye on sexy glimpses of fannies, thighs and high-heeled, nylon-stockinged legs, with leggy cut-ups positioned adjacent to images of thrusting international style skyscrapers, traditional goddess images and carefully positioned ads for women’s shoes. Throughout, the factual immediacy and line of Porter’s handwriting and sketches fills the margins and interstices. The impact of the scrapbook’s pages, with Porter’s overt expressions of marital anguish and torment, and a theatrical erotic gaze bordering on soft pornography, intimately complements and humanizes the sustained, monotonic print media template of Porter’s FOUND POEMS.


The Ohio State University Avant Literature Collection

Bern Porter died at age 93 on June 7, 2004, with his death in Belfast followed by internment in the Porter Family plot at Evergreen Cemetery in Houlton, Maine, near the original Aroostook County Porter Colony settlement. Six-and-a-half years later, on January 28, 2010, The Ohio State University Library’s Avant Literature Collection catalogued a number of boxes of Bern Porter materials contributed to the library by Peter Huttinger, a Cincinnati-based artist and curator, and Porter’s occasional publisher. OSU Special Collections librarian John M. Bennett, inventoried the contents:

2 boxes misc. files

5 cut up books, signed

1 metal cabinet with contents, 1993

3 bottle poems, signed

3 fruit bowl assemblages, with BP notes

1 broken boom box cover found sculpture, signed

7 chunks Styrofoam, 2 with BP notes

2 tubes BP poster proofs and negatives

1 tiny shoes and grate assemblage

18 original collages, approx. 9X12

24 original collages, approx. 12X18

3 printed poem broadsides

Group of b/w photos of women

1 box of turned wood pieces, “Wood Dowel Piece, c. 1992”

3 found object sculptures, 1992-3, with BP notes

The cartons were bulky and their contents, even to Avant Literature Collection archivist Bennett, perplexing. The chunks of Styrofoam were art to Porter and sent to the Collection as art by Huttinger, but to one unfamiliar with Porter’s Sciart aesthetic and practice they might appear to be discarded, pre-formed, pressed packing material. “Wood Dowel Piece,” also Porter’s art, was a rough box containing unfinished, turned scraps of pine. The broken boom box cover, signed by Porter, was a grim bit of scuffed, busted plastic housing and the bottle poems, materially, plastic soft drink containers stuffed with various gutter pickings. Other contents were easier to reconcile with what is customarily archived as art – concrete, precisely composed collages, graphically innovative broadsides, finely printed photographs and altered books.

Huttinger’s hoard was characteristic Porter. Ever probing limits, the boxes’ contents pushed beyond the ecological attentiveness of Porter’s recycling inquiries into paper matter, printed texts, physical mass and volume, inviting a consideration of Porter’s stress reducing “mallies,” playful “do das” and “feelies,” his variant and prototypical adult toys. The Huttinger collection reveals Sciart’s manifest determination to physically project poems beyond the limits and restrictions of “typographical entrapment” to “electronic recording in the pure word state by microphone, tape, record and loudspeaker.”

There is no easy precedent to the work of Bern Porter. Sometimes playful and emotional and other times icy and severe, not infrequently contradictory and paradoxical, Bern Porter was, as he indicated by the title of another of his 1972 books, the WasteMaker, a direct, descriptive and foreboding title for the former Manhattan Project physicist. Scientist and poet, Porter continued finding, founding, creating and authenticating into his 90’s. Working with language, volume, space, physical materials and sound, he made art out of mundane pre-existing stuff, identifying and articulating fragments and throwaways, sometimes with barely an alteration other than, importantly, its attentive recognition and return. He lived all around this beautiful, troubled planet, ambled, observed and discovered, recycled and re-presented, performing the honored social function of the poet – contemplating and mediating the realities of his immediate world, then turning the mirror back for the viewer’s reflection. Welcome to Bern Porter’s FOUND POEMS.

Joel Lipman

August, 2010

Northport, Maine

Acknowledgment for sources & information gratefully credits the following libraries, archives, materials, texts & individuals: Bern Porter Collection, Colby College, Patricia Burdick, Special Collections Librarian; Bern Porter Collection, Belfast Free Library, Betsy Paradis, Collection Librarian; Belfast Historical Society, Megan Pinette, Director; Ohio State University, Avant Literature Collection, John M. Bennett, Collection Librarian; Bowdoin College, George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives, Richard Lindemann, Director ; Maine State Library Maine Authors Collection; Maine Public Television; The Republican Journal; Where to Go, What to Do, When you are Bern Porter (Tilbury House, 1992), James Shevill; Concrete Poetry: An Annotated Bibliography, with an index of poets & poems (Whitson Publishing, 1988), Kathleen McCullough, editor; Poetry and the Common Life (Oxford University Press, 1974), M.L. Rosenthal; Mark Melnicove, Literary Executor, Bern Porter Estate and the numerous, books, papers, objects and incidental resources of Bern Porter and the Institute of Advanced Thinking.