Bern Porter, USA | 1911-2004
A selection of Founds including Do's, Don'ts, and Gee Whizzles
from the Bern Porter Collection at the Museum of Modern Art Library, NY.
Wisdom of the Questioning Eye: Five books from the 1960s
The Last Acts of St. Fuck You (Xexoxial Editions, 1985) [PDF]
How Bern Porter Saw The World
by Alex Irvine
Lives don't come any more interesting than Bern Porter's.
In his 93 years on this Earth, he contributed to the invention of television, worked on the Manhattan Project and the Saturn V rocket, and made the acquaintances of Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Werner von Braun. He published Henry Miller, Kenneth Patchen, and Kenneth Rexroth, among others, and knew Gertrude Stein, Anaïs Nin, Allen Ginsberg, and many others you might name. He exerted a profound influence on the phenomenon known as mail art, traveled hundreds of thousands of miles on cruise ships, was married three times (once happily), spent several years in Guam, was an irascible crank, theorized a union of art and science called Sciart, was briefly committed to a mental institution, wrote more than 80 books including important bibliographies of Miller and F. Scott Fitzgerald, had a massive FBI file, lived and worked in Rhode Island, New York, Tennessee, California, Texas, Alabama, and Tasmania. At last he settled in Belfast, Maine, where he ran for governor, served on the Knox County Regional Planning Commission, called his house the Institute of Advanced Thinking, barraged the local paper with letters, and at the end of his life subsisted largely on soup kitchens and food gleaned from the munchie tables at art openings.
Porter's parents came out to visit the Schillerhaus and see their son the "cultural entrepreneur," as James Schevill would later characterize Porter in his biography, Where to Go, What to Do, When You Are Bern Porter. During this visit, Porter's father was arrested for fondling a 12-year-old girl, and Porter discovered that his father had a long history of molesting children in Maine. Refusing to see his father, Porter ran, not just from his family but from America. He spent the next five years in Guam, first working for the Guam Daily News and moonlighting as a waiter at the Club Bamboo, then writing for an ad agency. During this time, Porter traveled widely in the South Pacific and spent several months in Japan, meeting artists and writers and observing the rebirth of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
On his return, he wrote I've Left, a sort of strange apologia for his life so far. Schevill writes that I've Left is part of "the tradition of distinctive autobiographies that express meaningful rebellion and the discovery of a new identity," and it seems true that Porter's Wanderjahre in the Pacific changed him. When he returned to the United States, he began designing books and broadsides. His second wife, Margaret Preston, had known him before he left for Guam, and about a year after his return they were married. In contrast to his comfortable marriage, Porter's working life became very difficult during these years; the paranoid security apparatus of the time and his own prickly personality resulted in his leaving a number of military/technical jobs after only a few months, often followed by unflattering assessments of his mental health.
The summonses came on plain post cards, postmarked Belfast, Maine. The messages, for Patricia Burdick, special collections librarian at Miller Library, were terse: "Come pick up books."
Bern Porter '32 had another carton ready to go.
Thus played out the final years of Porter's seven-decade relationship with Colby, as the physicist/poet/publisher/artist continued in the last years of his life to donate to the archival collection that bears his name. Disillusioned Manhattan Project physicist, publisher of Henry Miller, barrier-blurring artist—Porter filled the Miller Library archives with books, letters, and the juxtapositions of images and words he called "found art."
"He was codifying the intellectual output of that period," said P.-A. Lenk, one of Burdick's predecessors at Special Collections, now retired, who was also regularly summoned to Belfast. "The guy had a mind like a magpie."
The globe-wandering Porter grew up in Porter Settlement, a scattering of homes outside of the northern Maine town of Houlton. After a year at Ricker Junior College, he came to Colby and threw himself into college life. His academic record was marred only by a single "C" in math his junior year; he aced physics and chemistry, along with French and German, and won the third-place Forrest Goodwin Public Speaking Prize as a sophomore (cash award, $15).
Porter sang baritone in the Glee Club and was a cartoonist and art editor for The White Mule, the student humor magazine. After graduation it was science that drew him to Brown University, and a year later he was back at Colby to give a lecture sponsored by the Physics Society and attended by President Franklin Winslow Johnson, among others. "He discussed in a most convincing manner his research work in the field of Radio activity," the Echo reported. "The nature of this work has been the devising of an electrical method for the counting of Alpha particles."
A decade later Porter already was beginning his lifelong effort to combine art and science, and it was his life among the literary avant-garde that continued to garner occasional attention as he was discovered by subsequent generations of Colby students. One of those students, Nathan B. Winstanley III '76, now the owner of a Massachusetts advertising firm, was directed to the Porter Collection by Professor of English John Sweney. Winstanley went to visit Porter in Belfast and eventually invited him to speak in the lounge of the Delta Upsilon fraternity house, now Piper Hall.
"It was four o'clock in the afternoon and he started talking to the dozen or so people there—students, professors—and he just went on," Winstanley said of the 1975 talk. "He knew everything. He really was there at the center of that tumultuous time when all of these literary styles had come together. . . . We had no idea when we invited the guy that he would take us on such a ride."
Many people could say the same.
-- Trying to get away again, the Porters split for Tasmania, but only stayed four months before coming back to Maine, where Porter tried to teach high school English and French. That didn't work, and with the label "eccentric" starting to ring in his ears, he found himself back in the embrace of the government, at the Marshall Space Center in Huntsville, Alabama. There followed, in 1967, an event the full truth of which is surely lost to history. Schevill's version of it is that Porter was out for a walk, got startled and fell over when a cop pulled up next to him, was run in for drunkenness and then arbitrarily committed for three weeks to the state mental institution, where he was diagnosed as having a paranoid personality and then released. Whatever really happened, the Saturn moon-rocket project couldn't have security risks like that on its payroll, so after a brief sojourn in Guatemala, the Porters came to Maine again, this time for good. In 1969, Porter wrote a 700-page report for the Knox County Regional Planning Commission, decrying—surprise—control of the Midcoast region by outside interests, primarily summer residents and real-estate speculators. The commission published a heavily chopped 200-page version, and an infuriated Porter decided to run for governor. He didn't make it through the primaries, but thus was born the familiar Belfast persona of Bern Porter, town gadfly.
Many more people in Belfast know of Porter the gadfly than of Porter the ex-physicist and avant-garde publisher/poet/sculptor. He has his partisans in the broader world of contemporary American poetry, including Robert Creeley and Jerome Rothenberg, and is revered in mail-art and performance-poetry circles. Those aren't very big circles, which may be why Porter remained largely unknown. "There's a couple reasons why he's not so celebrated," said Mark Melnicove, a Falmouth High School English and humanities teacher who traveled and performed with Porter from the early 1980s until Porter's death. "One is that what he got interested in—found poetry, visual poetry—in the world of literature, it's the least celebrated form. The kind of poetry he did is just off the beaten track anyway."
The second reason for Porter's marginal status is that by all accounts he was difficult to get along with. "To say he was cantankerous would be an understatement," said Melnicove.
The Belfast Historical Society's Megan Pinette agrees. "You either loved Bern or you hated him," she said in a tone of voice that suggests she's well acquainted with both feelings.
Melnicove is firmly on the love side, for a number of reasons. "There was a soft side, a dear side to Bern that he wouldn't show unless you had his confidence." Melnicove believes that Porter has been actively shut out of poetry discussions. "If you're into poetry, especially found poetry, found art, mail art, you know who this guy is," yet his work doesn't find its way into anthologies—not even the recent The Maine Poets.
"One of the fabulous things he did was deposit all of his books and manuscripts in about five or six different collections," Melnicove said. There are Porter archives at Colby, Bowdoin, UCLA, the Maine State Library, and the Belfast Historical Society—and probably elsewhere.
The Belfast Historical Society museum has several of Porter's sculptures, a shelf of books by and about him, and two boxes of miscellany, including a pair of white leather baby booties. Pinette saw a lot of Porter, giving him rides to art shows or other events and sometimes finding herself on the receiving end of Porter-style generosity. "Bern would arrive with two shopping bags," she said, demonstrating with her arms held out from her sides, "and just start putting stuff around" in the museum. "Sometimes you didn't want to be around him," she said. "But he really was a visionary and a great thinker."
"Things of mine are meant to be touched," Porter wrote in 1982, "sensed but not read or understood mindwise, though pronouncing out loud is useful." Twenty-two Salmond Street in Belfast was his final found piece, put together over painstaking years.
Bern Porter's audio in UbuWeb Sound
Arlo Quint -- "Bern Porter: Finding Poetry after the Manhattan Project" in UbuWeb Papers