Bern Porter, USA | 1911-2004
Bern Porter on UbuWeb
Wisdom of the Questioning Eye
Five books from the 1960s, by found poet Bern Porter (1911-2004)
Aphasia (Bowdoin College Collection, 1961) [PDF 52mb]
Scandinavian Summer (Bowdoin College Collection, 1961) [PDF 77mb]
468B Thy Future (Colby College Collection, 1966) [PDF 19mb]
The Wastemaker (1926-1961) (Abyss Publications, Somerville MA, 1972) [PDF 77mb]
Dieresis (Bern Porter Books, Rockland, ME, 1969, edition of 100) [PDF 14mb]
Wisdom of the Questioning Eye
Five books from the 1960s, by found poet Bern Porter (1911-2004)
What to call Bern Porter? Found poet? Visual poet? Mail artist? Book artist? Pop artist? Concrete poet? He was each of these, and he will take his place in the histories of their genres (histories which have only begun to be written). And while it is true that the boundaries of these genres are permeable, allowing one to impregnate another, if we look for Porter's singular achievement, the one he delved into deeper and with more consistency than his contemporaries, it was as a found poet. As such, he is arguably the most significant found poet of the 20th century, if not all time.
Found implies lost. What others discarded he appropriated and claimed its authorship. He combed through trash (often at the post office, after sending off a fresh batch of mail art) to find new poems. In his life he scavenged for everything, not just language and imagery, but also food, clothing, and rides. (An ecologist before it was fashionable, he deliberately did not learn to drive or own a car.) He was living proof of his assertion, "Nuggets of value in the waste are everywhere for the looking, if only the viewer can develop his or her wisdom of the questioning eye."
He was born on Valentine's Day 1911, in Maine's northernmost county, Aroostook, to a family of potato farmers. From such bedrock emerged a physicist (tormented, post-1945, by his participation in the Manhattan Project), independent publisher (of the San Francisco Renaissance, publishing Henry Miller, Robert Duncan, Kenneth Patchen, etc.), and word art genius (being a pioneering book and mail artist from the 1940s onward). In the late 1970s, those who knew and were inspired by his work dubbed him, jokingly, "the poet laureate of the universe;" but they were also serious. Porter's vision was not tied to a specific place; his poetry could be of anywhere or everywhere, depending upon the source that he used for his founds. Theoretically, all words from all languages and all times were fair game (as were images and objects).
Though he created hundreds of titles, Porter and his books are surprisingly unsung. When he died on June 7, 2004, in Belfast Maine, his hometown for the last 30-some years of his life, a majority of his manuscripts had yet to be published or exhibited. They still exist, however, many as one-of-a-kind artist books, primarily in the collections he boxed and sent from age 33 onward, first to the special collections library at UCLA, and then to those at Maine's Bowdoin and Colby colleges.
Bern Porter was contemporary and mentor to many of the artists on UbuWeb. In acknowledgement, and gratitude, I am publishing five of Porter's books from the 1960s here on UbuWeb, three of them for the first time anywhere.
1. Aphasia (Bowdoin College Collection, 1961).
2. Scandinavian Summer (Bowdoin College Collection, 1961).
3. 468B Thy Future (Colby College Collection, 1966).
4. The Wastemaker (1926-1961) (Abyss Publications, Somerville MA, 1972).
5. Dieresis (Bern Porter Books, Rockland, ME, 1969, edition of 100).
Each of these titles exudes what Johanna Drucker in The Century of Artists' Books called Porter's "complex and multilayered eclecticism." As reproduced here on UbuWeb, you can all but touch the books. What was prohibitively expensive almost fifty years ago for Porter-the full-color reproduction of his pages-is today's electronic commonplace. You can view his titles as a series of double-page spreads, not so foreign from the experience of holding and turning a Bern Porter book with your "real" hands.
If aphasia is a condition characterized by the partial or complete loss of the ability to use language and know what it means, then Porter's title presumes a break with and a trauma from so-called normal means of communication. In 1961, America's mainstream may have been embracing the optimism of Kennedy's New Frontier, but Porter heard and saw something else: a breakdown of communication due to a degenerative American optimism.
Viewing disassociation head-on, unblinkingly, with a physicist's eye, Porter cut and assembled commercial and soft news language into a found poetry that is still original and fresh. He focused his attention on the unedited language of consumption, entertainment and news, and saw, improbably, poetry. Porter subtitled his book, "A psycho-visual satire on printed communication." While assembling it, he and his wife Margaret were living in Ashland, Maine (also in Aroostook County), where he tried to make his living as a public schoolteacher, only to fail almost as soon as he began because, as he remembered, "In the teaching world I thought I could be different, but I was soon regarded as strange."
Scandinavian Summer is deceptively artless. If one is looking for hidden messages in this book, there are both none and an infinite number of them. The book is maddeningly obtuse and unforthcoming. It's as if a vandal had entered a cosmopolitan library, cut out pages from Scandinavian, Russian, and American newspaper archives at random, bound them together, and called the result a book. In reality, it took a physical engineer and writer, a man who invented the term "sciart," to represent his desired ideal of the union of science and art, to compose this hand-sized, slip-cased, unpaginated gem of a book.
Similar in format to Aphasia, and assembled during the same year, Scandinavian Summer was touted by Porter as a "A Psycho-Visual Recollection in Six Languages of a Journey thru Norway. Sweden. Finland. Russia. Denmark. 1961." He had used the same term "psycho-visual" to describe Aphasia. The perceiver does not see without the psyche interpreting what he/she had just seen.
468B Thy Future
A completely different approach to content than Aphasia or Scandinavian Summer came five years later with 468 B Thy Future. The pages of this book were taken from computer printouts Porter lifted from the 1960s Saturn moon project at Huntsville, Alabama. A low-level technician on the project, Porter probably used printouts that came across his desk, which were not top secret. (Or were they? Who can tell?)
The book is written entirely in computer code. These are instructions for the construction of the rocket to send the first men to the moon. Others at the time were trying to write computer poetry that made machines sound human. Porter turned his attention to poetry as unintentionally written by machines, in machine meter. This, Porter told us, is the poetry of the future: a poetry of numbers, repetition, function, gravity, and trajectory, redefining the standards of human emotion and tone. The English words in the text are nearly all nouns, and, like phantom limbs, vestigial. Numbers and codes have all but taken over. In the context of Porter's book, it's not clear what they mean or signify. These could just as easily represent instructions for dropping bombs on innocent civilians as describe the sequencing for spacecraft coupling. Words and symbols are being groomed for the future, so Porter suggests ominously, not so much for their traditional roles of connotation and denotation, but for their ability to power machines.
The Wastemaker, 1926-1961 (with introduction by Richard Kostelanetz, 1972.)
The Wastemaker should be on everyone's short list of the most notable poetry books of the 20th century. No one had produced poems quite like these before1961, but they have not been included in the major (or even minor) anthologies because, unfortunately, found poetry is still scorned by the perpetuators of poetry's various canons.
In The Wastemaker, each page issues organically from its own center. These texts are in each case divorced from their sources. With their origins disguised they speak in a new tone, not intended by the original author. This change of authorial tone and nuance is what allows Porter to claim them as his. In his introduction, Richard Kostelanetz puts Porter's poetry, not inappropriately, in the same league as Whitman's. Both poets were endless cataloguers of human activity; each created the illusion of being in all places, at all times, with their individual egos subsumed by a collective vision of multitudinous, multifaceted songs.
In the late 1970s, Porter wrote a poem accurate in its characterization of Whitman that is also a self-portrait:
FAR, FAR AWAY AND OUT IN FRONT SO VERY MUCH SODieresis
Though one can view each of the pages in this book singly, it is most apt to view them as a series of double page spreads (as available on UbuWeb). This side-by-side display creates a link to the book's title, for dieresis refers to two adjacent vowels in a word, with the sound that they make together different from what one would predict if sounding out the vowels singly. In Porter's book, the verso's image is always vertical, whereas the recto's is horizontal. This produces a "problem" for the reader (which way to hold the book), but this problem is its own solution, as Porter rebelled against the notion of having to always view a book right side up. The unexpected juxtapositions create synergies of new meaning. Likewise against the grain, Porter saw the photographs in this book as the modern equivalents of ancient ideograms, capable of being read as texts.
He wrote: "To feel visually is the thing. Persons who feel, comprehend, know, understand through their eyes find great excitement in the found arts. Persons whose five senses are not dulled, bruised, warped, wounded by the terrible forces inflicted upon them from the outside can feel and know through their eyes, fingers, nose, ears and taste. Persons growing like the flowers in the field as nature intended find finding and seeing founds an exciting thing." Bern Porter dedicated his art and life to this excitement, to this attention to what is.
From 1979-1996, Mark Melnicove
Bern Porter's audio in UbuWeb Sound
Arlo Quint -- "Bern Porter: Finding Poetry after the Manhattan Project" in UbuWeb Papers