How Bern Porter Saw the World

How Bern Porter Saw the World

In his 93 years on this Earth, Bern Porter 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.

By Alex Irvine


 

image
Bern Porter at Schillerhaus, A Creative Center, in Hurricane Gulch in Sausalito, 1949. "The word Schillerhaus meant to me a house of creative thought, not a school or a forum, wherein the many who came there, exchanged notes on design, poems, art forms, and life."
You’d think that biography would merit an obituary somewhere other than the Waldo Independent, a twice-weekly newspaper in Waldo County, Maine. Porter’s passing, though, was largely unremarked; a few mentions in online poetry discussions and the single obit of a few hundred words.

It's not easy being an icon, and it was never easy to be Bern Porter. A bookish child in 1920s Aroostook County, he was labeled a "cold fish" by his mother, an incident that was still finding poetic expression as late as 1984 in "The Cold Fish Saga," from Sounds That Arouse Me: Selected Writings:

When Mother said

I was a cold fish

She did not specify

Cod

Halibut

Trout

Sword

Or

Finnan Haddie

All cold.

She only called me A Cold Fish.

To which I reply

Yes, I am cold

In temperature

In mannerisms

In approaches

In techniques

In ways generale

But being a fish

That I do not know.

 

Escaping via college, as so many other bright Maine kids have, Porter went to Colby and did graduate work at Brown University and was considered one of the brighter physics students. But the artsy end of the college scene drew more and more of his attention. Then in 1933, he was caught stealing from students in Brown's Lyman Gym, where he was working to make ends meet, and his academic career ended. But former professors put in a good word for him and by the fall of 1935 Porter was working for the Acheson Colloids Corporation in New York. While working on the cathode ray tube, Porter also took art classes and hit the museums, where he first started to encounter surrealism and the found aesthetic. He had always tinkered with making sculptures out of found objects, including old lab equipment at Colby; now he found himself able to look at works by Duchamp and Alexander Calder every day.

By 1940 some of his graduate school work had caught the attention of what later became the Manhattan Project, and Porter was covertly drafter and sent to Princeton University, where he worked on the separation of uranuim isotopes.

In the fall of 1937 Acheson sent Porter to England and then Paris, where he went to Gertrude Stein's house "on instinct," listening to what he later called "the carved, sculptural flow of her language," which would have a profound impact on his later performance poems. In subsequent years Porter would meet the artists who fled to Europe and ended up dropping by Peggy Guggenheim's weekly receptions: Chagall, Dali, Mondrian, Pollock, and others. By the late 1930s Porter was enough of a celebrity that the Portland Press Herald remarked on his return to Houlton for Thanksgiving in 1938. By 1940 some of his graduate school work at Brown had caught the attention of what later became the Manhattan Project, and Porter was covertly drafted and sent to Princeton University, where he worked on the separation of uranium isotopes—and met Albert Einstein, whose simplicity of lifestyle made a deep impression on Porter. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who would later head the Manhattan Project, was also there at the time. Porter worked in Oak Ridge and Berkeley, and by 1943, because he hung around with poets, the FBI was compiling a file on him.