Sunday, April 01, 2012

Bern Porter

Bern Porter, 1933, Brown University graduate student

As recently as a couple weeks ago, I had never heard of Bern Porter. Now, I find myself, as I often have in the past, pontificating upon a subject based upon scanty and hastily-acquired knowledge.

I have a weekend subscription to the New York Times. I do my best to read as much as I can on Sunday, but I save the book review section to read during the week. After accumulating a few weeks' worth, I was preparing to dispose of the pile, when a brief review from January 25, 2012 caught my eye:

By Bern Porter. Nightboat Books. Paper, $24.95.
Inspired in part by Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades, Porter (1911-2004) created poetry from the mass-media images and "verbiage that one might call a kind of alternative literature - package labels, banal instructions, lists," David Byrne writes in his foreword. Above, "Glump."
If you are so lacking in self-respect that you have read this blog in the past, you may be aware of my interest in the art of Marcel Duchamp, including his famous urinal-as-art called "Fountain." Well, in my opinion, anyone influenced by Duchamp deserves further investigation.

As usual, I began, and pretty much ended, my research by typing "Bern Porter" into Google, which led me to I would encourage the interested reader to peruse the wealth of information at that site, as I do not have the time or energy to plagiarize it here.

Just a few highlights I would like to include here:
Porter was a scientist who worked on the development of the cathode ray tube but never owned a television, or for that matter, a telephone.

He worked on the Saturn V rocket.

He worked on the Manhattan Project, but later renounced the atomic bomb.

His FBI files, which can be accessed via, reveal that he was considered a "screwball" by many people who knew him. If you doubt this characterization, I would encourage you to check out videos of his poetry readings on the web site. He really was weird. He also had a habit of abruptly walking away from conversations he found boring. Ah, wouldn't we all like to be able to do that?
One particularly interesting section of the Bern Porter web site includes pdf files of several of his books. One of these is called Aphasia (1961). Porter called it a "psycho-visual satire on printed communication." It consists of fragments cut from newspapers and magazines, reflecting the culture of the late fifties and early sixties. Most of the pages are ads, with some Sunday comics, stock tables, and other ephemera throw in. I must say, crazy as the concept is, I found it appealing. In the spirit of Porter, I've electronically cut some fragments from the book, which I present here. These things stirred memories of my own childhood.


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