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


 

#portersintersections#right#60%#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.

any 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.

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Porter at a poetry reading with Allen Ginsberg in New York city, 1979.
"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."