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Bern Porter: Finding Poetry after the Manhattan Project & An Annotated Works Consulted

Arlo Quint

Additional Bern Porter Resources on UbuWeb:
Bern Porter on UbuWeb Sound
Bern Porter in UbuWeb Historical

Writer/Publisher Mark Melnicove first met Bern Porter at a Poetry conference in Bar Harbor, Maine in 1978. He describes the scene in his intro to Porter's Sounds That Arouse Me:
The meeting room overlooked the sparkling waters of Frenchman's Bay, yet Porter, off in a corner by himself, looked grief-stricken, as if that were no mere skull in his possession, but the world in all its turmoil. As he sat there snorting and grunting, he looked like a man who had, in his youth, invented the twentieth century, but now in his twilight years was dismayed to see that it wasn't turning out as expected. (n. pag.)
Melnicove's description reveals his knowledge of Porter's past. If there is a person who could accurately be described as having "in his youth, invented the twentieth century" it is Bern Porter. As a young physicist he took part in the invention of the television, the atomic bomb, and space travel technology. Porter lived the rest of his life with a sense of guilt for having participated in these culture-defining projects as well as a dedication to creating artwork in order to "twist American reality back onto itself for the purpose of re-knowing what's been happening all the while" (Schevill 306).

Bern Porter, born in 1911, grew up poor in northern Maine. He worked several jobs as a young man and earned enough money to attend Colby College with the aid of a scholarship. He was interested in both the arts and sciences but was forced to specialize in chemistry and physics for the sake of "practicality." He excelled at his studies and received a scholarship for graduate study of physics at Brown University. At Brown, he was mentored by the internationally known physicist Dr. Carl Barus. Porter's Master's thesis was on radioactivity but he got his first job in Physics after leaving Brown based on the strength of work he did in colloid chemistry with Barus. In 1935 he began his work for the Acheson Colloid Corporation in New York City researching and writing articles on colloidal graphite which was important in the first stages of television technology. Porter and other scientists at Acheson used the colloidal graphite process to coat the inner walls of cathode ray tubes which made television a viable product. In many interviews Porter has expressed his disappointment that commercial forces ended up controlling the television medium which, to he and his colleagues in the thirties, was conceived of as an educational tool.

In 1942, while still working for Acheson, Porter was contacted by the draft board in Newark, New Jersey. They assigned him to research the separation of Uranium using electromagnetic fields and he began his work immediately in the physics department at Princeton. At this point in time, the Manhattan project did not officially exist and there is no record of Porter's initial uranium separation work at Princeton; technically, Porter remained a civilian while being under the control of military security. Once the Manhattan project was officially underway Porter was sent to work at the uranium separation labs at Berkeley, where the EM separation techniques were invented, and then on to Oak Ridge, the site of a massive industrial complex devoted to the large scale uranium separation necessary for the construction of the atomic bomb. During this time he worked with scientists David Bohm and Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz, both students of Robert Oppenheimer, and was subject to F.B.I. interrogation and pressure to "inform" on his colleagues. Bohm and Lomanitz had their careers in the U.S. destroyed by unfounded claims about their politics which originated in the "security investigations" conducted during the Manhattan Project (both scientists were said to be a part of an organization connected to the Lenin school of espionage in Moscow). Porter's own career as a scientist was destroyed later as a result of similar "security measures" surrounding the Saturn Moon Rocket Project.

Along with its invasive security surveillance, and routine F.B.I. interrogations the Manhattan Project was structured to keep those working on it in the dark about the ultimate aims of the project. General Leslie R. Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project made sure that the science was compartmentalized and spread out all over the country. Scientists were warned not to talk about their work to other scientists outside their own unit. Of course, the scientists knew, on some level, that their research had the potential to be used in warfare. But it was not knowing for sure that allowed the Manhattan Project scientists to deceive themselves. Bern Porter described the state of his conscience in the pre-1945 stage of the Manhattan Project:
I tried to suppress the idea of a nuclear bomb. I wanted to get back to creative work. At Oak Ridge, we knew nothing about Los Alamos, where the big physicists were working out the scheme of bringing together the two subcritical masses of isotopes that would set off the bomb. More and more I tried to suppress what was going on or to justify it in terms of future social values. As I repressed my doubts, even at Princeton, I began increasingly to think of writing and publishing as a way to keep my sanity." (Schevill 66)
The suppression of the idea of an atomic bomb became impossible for Porter, and everyone else, in August of 1945. In 1978 Porter wrote this poem titled "Growing Up In the Nuclear Age":
    Leaving the dining room of the Faculty Club, University of California, after a more than pleasant lunch, I entered the Club's lounge, picked up that morning's edition of the New York Times to read not only that a bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima but also exactly what I had been doing with my life and talents the past four years at Princeton, Oak Ridge, Berkeley.

    One physicist reader started crying, screaming in a wild destructive frenzy and had to be carried out strapped tightly to a stretcher. Another, dazed, voluntarily stumbled to an asylum for relief. A third took off for Minnesota to become a dairy farmer.

    Myself, I am still numb after thirty-seven years, yet strong enough to have lived since in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Norway, Russia in a futile attempt to understand what took place that August day of 45'.

    I am very sorry Madame Curie and Lise Meitner did not keep their findings to themselves, that their facts ever got into the textbooks, that war makers pulled their ideas out and ran wild with them to destruction in the interests of nationalism and money.

    I am even more sad about my part in it all, even ashamed, and do here now apologize to all and sundry, as if such as that could conceivably aid, even assuage my conscience now that time is too late; and of course confessing does not help in any way, it is too late—the monster is permanently out.

    War is a mental disorder of the highest order, a public manifestation that all who arrange, direct, participate are madly deranged. The insanity touches us all and we have nowhere to go. (Sounds That Arouse Me 127)

Immediately following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Porter left the Manhattan project; he didn't officially resign, he simply never returned to work. His activity as a writer, artist, and publisher, which had begun earlier, increased dramatically. He had published Henry Miller while still working on the Manhattan Project, including the anti-war book Murder the Murderer. After the bombing he became co-editor of Circle, George Leites' magazine, and continued publishing Miller as well as many other writers in the bay area and elsewhere including, Kenneth Patchen, Robert Duncan, Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Durrell and William Carlos Williams. Circle also became the venue for Porter's own highly original work which included (and sometimes combined) experimental photography, collage, poetry, and even conceptual cartography. Porter devoted more and more energy to the arts into the late forties, buying and operating an art gallery in Sausalito in 1949 and continuing to spend his own money publishing avant-garde writing with no expectation of turning a profit. His own work became even more various—he wrote manifestos demanding the union of science and art, he created sculptures out of found materials, and wrote a treatise on architecture. In the early Fifties Porter moved to Hiroshima to see and talk to the people there about the effects of the atomic bomb. He designed monuments to those who died in the atomic blast but they were never built As he got older, Porter's artistic work continued at the frantic pace that began in August of 1945 but he became more or less focused on a particular form. In 1961 Porter created his first book of Found poetry (or simply "Founds" as he called them) titled Wastemaker: 1926- 1961. Porter's Founds are made from all sorts of printed materials which he manipulates, combines, and puts into books with unnumbered pages. In the 1980's Porter produced his masterwork of Founds, the trilogy of The Book of Do's, Here Comes Everybody's Don't Book, and Sweet End.

When Bern Porter read the New York Times on August 7th 1945 the true nature of the elaborate system that he took part in was completely revealed. Porter came to understand that that system extends beyond the bounds of the Manhattan Project itself to include the entire culture that is afflicted with the "mental disorder" of War. His task ever since the bomb was dropped has been to reveal that system. When asked why he makes "abstract" poetry as opposed to working with more traditional forms (forms that use words) Porter explained: "The word has become abstract today . . . The bomb splintered language, turned the tower of Babel into a shadow" (Schevill 123). Porter's great trilogy of Founds reveals the nature of the system that has made "the word" abstract by reveling in that system. The Founds play with the commanding noise of advertising language that promises fulfillment through consumption and threatens those who refuse to buy. They show us the absurdity of War-on-Drugs-style rhetoric that reduces individuals to their symptoms, and suggest to us our collective willingness to trade in the possibility of knowledge for mere surfaces. They show us that following orders has somehow been mistaken for making choices, and, finally, that ultimate destruction has somehow come to be accepted as a form of creativity. The evidence Porter provides is taken from everywhere from sales flyers to corporate memos. His recontextualization and manipulation of these materials make them absurd, that is, contrary to Reason. And it is Reason which called for a bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima killing over 200,000 people instantly, and Reason which has led our culture to replace speech with noise.

Certain cultural theorists, Theodor Adorno and David Antin come to mind, have described something like the system that Porter's work both reveals and revels in and the French situationist Guy Debord seems to have described it exactly, naming it "the spectacle":

The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation . . . Images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost forever . . . The spectacle in its generality is a concrete inversion of life, and, as such, the autonomous movement of non-life. (12)

Bern Porter's poetry takes place in the spectacle (rather than in language) and exposes the discontinuities and paradoxes of modern consciousness with the hope of creating some sensible unity. This is ambitious and desperate art that imagines the possibility of co-opting modern lifeless spectacle for independent ends. Porter is attempting to create a context for our splintered language. His disjunct work, simultaneously poetry and spectacle, is born out of the collision of disjunct worlds directly experienced by many Manhattan project scientists. The trauma of seeing his science, the most beautiful thing in the world, become the most horrible thing in the world lead Porter to his particular post-lyric form. Bern Porter's personal trauma is the trauma of the twentieth century and his poetry is a way to contextualize or re-know what has been happening ever since the unity of life was lost.

Works Cited

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books, 1995.

Porter, Bern. Sounds That Arouse Me: Selected Writings. Gardiner, Maine: Tilbury House Publishers, 1993.

Schevill, James. Where To Go, What to Do, When You are Bern Porter: A Personal Biography. Gardiner, Maine: Tilbury House Publishers, 1992.

An Annotated Works Consulted

Dunbar, Margaret. Bern! Porter! Interview!. Gardiner, Maine: The Dog Ear Press, 1981.

This book is "conducted" rather than authored by Margaret Dunbar. She conducts most of the actual interviewing of Porter as well as the assembling of Porter's Founds, photos of Porter, and work by artists Carlo Pittore, Kendall Merriam, Gary Halpern and others. These works include an imaginary chronology of Bern Porter's life as well as postage stamps (designed by Pittore) featuring images of Porter. The interviews, conducted over the course of one week in December of 1979, focus mainly on Porter's ideas about science and society. He speaks about the absurdity of the automobile, problems with Nuclear energy and modern medicine, and his concept of the energy that is infused with all living things (he calls it plasma). There is also quite a bit of discussion about Wilhelm Reich's concept of orgone energy.

Nurenberg, Phil. Bern Porter: Interviewed by Phil Nurenberg. Ellensburg, Washington: Vagabond Press, 1983.

This interview was published along with a collection of poems by Robert Grady Head titled The Enriched Uranium Poems. The published interview is excerpted from 27 hours of recorded conversation between Nurenberg and Porter that took place over just three days (8/25-8/27, 1980). The actual published excerpted material is only 12 pages long with a strong focus on the famous people that Porter has known including Albert Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg and others. There is also some discussion of the Manhattan project and Bern's work at the Acheson Colloid Corporation. The short intro to the interview invites readers to contact the interviewer if they have any interest is hearing the rest of the 27 hours of material.

Porter, Bern. I've Left. Pasadena, California: Marathon Press, 1963.

This is one of Porter's most amazing written (rather than Found) works. It is a kind of fantastic cultural philosophy that sometimes evolves (or devolves) into poetry. Porter gives his thoughts on art, science, clothing, architecture, automobiles, theater, diet, bookmaking and more. There is a kind of fantasy narrative structure that places all of the narrator’s revolutionary ideas in the past rather than a hypothetical future. Here is an excerpt:
    A whole series of constructed forms adaptable to work and living resulted because in my concentrated effort to reform and redirect the development of architecture I, (1) burned all existing journals, texts, and monographs on the subject, (2) shot all living architects, and (3) combined architecture with physics.

---. Wastemaker: 1926-1961. Somerville, Massachusetts: Abyss Publications, 1972.

This is Bern Porter's first book-length collection of Founds. The manuscript was finished in 1961, shipped to UCLA special collections which houses the largest collection of Porter's work, and published eleven years later by Gerard Dombrowski. The book is made up of all sorts of print material "waste" and is born out of Porter's idea that it is possible to create beauty by remaking waste and that one can develop their senses, their eye, for this beauty that is all around us. It is also a harsh critique of the wealthy, and wasteful U.S. culture. This is the first example of the form that would become the focus of Porter's creative work.

---. Found Poems. Millerton, New York: Something Else Press, 1972.

This is, after Wastemaker, the next major collection of Founds from Porter. The materials include come from a variety of places; there is a lot culled from scientific manuals (charts, graphs etc.) and corporate brochures. This book contains more unaltered materials than the later books of Founds as well as the most amount of material with difficult (at least for me) to identify sources. The effect is that of constant non-sequitur, and general bewilderment as to where these things are coming from, which leads, perhaps, to giving oneself over to the Porter's design aesthetic once his sources have become unimaginable.

---. The Book of Do's. Gardiner, Maine: The Dog Ear Press/Tilbury House Publishers, 1982. This is the first book of what, to my sense, forms a strong narrative trilogy of Founds. The do's, the don'ts, and then the "sweet end" contain that narrative precisely; follow orders and then you die. The Book of Do's contains the most material from advertising of all Porter's Founds books, and the essential paradox of advertising language is repeatedly exposed. The book shows advertising's constant appeal to one's individuality and will power while simultaneously giving an order, demanding that you buy the product. But that's not all that is in the book; one gets a sense of the fear of death that drives consumerism, the inhumanity of mass-produced "messages," and the range of specialized languages (jargon) that isolates people from each other.

---. Here Comes Everybody's Don't Book. Gardiner, Maine: The Dog Ear Press/Tilbury House Publishers, 1984.

The second book in the trilogy. All of the Found images in this one contain an order that you not do one thing or another. There are many combined Founds in this one that match a picture with a text. "Don't Worry" and "Don't give up" are common sentiments in this book, usually laid over images that are very worrisome or that make one want to "give up." This book also contains a lot of material that suggests the coldness of modern personalities shaped by familiar, anti-natural, sayings like "never let them see you sweat" or "never grow old." This is also the book of Founds which explores the ultimate "don'ts" of modern culture—sexual taboos. It also wins my vote for the funniest of Porter's Founds books.

---. Sweet End. Gardiner, Maine: The Dog Ear Press/Tilbury House Publishers, 1989.

This book ends the trilogy and the “Founds” take a darker turn. There are a lot of combined Founds here; food and clothing advertisements mixed with guns. The disturbing equality among commodities in our late-capitalist culture (the gun is the same as a dress) is presented again and again. There are also a lot of obituaries, some of which, sadly, have not been altered by Porter but actually appeared in newspapers right alongside advertisements.

---. Sounds That Arouse Me: Selected Writings. Gardiner, Maine: Tilbury House Publishers, 1993.

This is the widest range of Porter's writing available in one place along with a good introduction by the editor, Mark Melnicove. It contains Porter's early surrealist texts "Waterfight" and "Doldrums" both from 1941 as well as selections of Porter's writing from the following four decades.

Schevill, James. Where To Go, What to Do, When You are Bern Porter: A Personal Biography. Gardiner, Maine: Tilbury House Publishers, 1992.

This is by far the most important work on Bern Porter. Schevill was first published by Porter in the 40's and they remained friends ever after. So Schevill has access to Porter, and is also a well-trained academic and it shows in the research. The narrative of Porter's life begins in Houlton, Maine where Porter was born and continues through to Porter's eightieth birthday celebration in Belfast which Schevill attended. The narrative is supported with some amazing materials including, pictures of Porter's experimental photography, personal correspondence between Porter and Henry Miller, and even copies of reports on Porter filed by his neighbors in Huntsville, Alabama who were paid to spy on him. There is a final section, after the biographical narrative, titled "The Founds Achievement" which is the best critical assessment of Porter's Found poetry available. Schevill's book also includes a sizable Bern Porter bibliography.

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