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


Porter was a relentless innovator. "In the heyday of the mail-art movement and of poetry," said Portland gallery owner June Fitzpatrick, "he was certainly a leader in the field, and young people flocked to him. A great avant-garde artist."

Along the way he also wrote some more traditional poetry, and it is here, when he is leaving his theories on the back burner, that a reader can get at the emotional core of Bern Porter. The deepest emotional attachment of his life was to Margaret, who died in 1975, shortly after they'd finally settled in Belfast. "He never got over that," Melnicove said. "Her death was sudden and unexpected, and it ripped him apart."

The loss affected Porter so profoundly that for a time he wore her clothes under his, and it shows through in lines like these from "Etta Flora/Margaret Eudine":


Is the word

Take it

Or leave it

This here is the world

Without breast milk

Breast softness

So pliant



And the womb gone


Mother gone

Wife gone

Near mothers gone

Near wives gone


In the end, Porter’s most enduring influence is probably the example of his life. "For me," said Sylvester Pollet of the University of Maine, "the crucial thing was his example of how to work outside the system, to publish whatever you want to publish, without asking anyone’s permission."

Melnicove agrees. "If you just think of it in terms of Maine artists, I think he’s one of the major Maine writers of all time. He’s a product of Maine. He did incredible things in both science and art, and as an experimental writer, I think he’s a major figure."

Porter in 1981 at his home, "The Institute of Advanced Thinking."
For years, Porter encouraged visiting "scholars" to come to the Institute of Advanced Thinking. University affiliation automatically disqualified an applicant, and many others were doubtless turned off by his refusal to let them use the house’s kitchen or bathroom; nobody, in fact, cooked in the kitchen, since Porter used both refrigerator and stove to store papers and sculptures. Porter almost never cooked, preferring instead to loot sugar packets from restaurants or order a cup of hot water into which he would stir ketchup. He was also pretty free with other people’s food, once walking into the house of an acquaintance and lifting her breakfast literally from under her nose.

Somewhere along the line he got interested in Wilhelm Reich’s theory of orgone energy and built a platform for the accumulation of that energy behind his house. In addition, this man who played minor roles in the creation of television, the atom bomb, and the Saturn V refused for years to install a telephone.

Institute attendees were, however, welcome to put up found sculptures in the large yard, and a great number of those sculptures came and went over the years. Many of them are still there. A visit to Porter’s house in 2004 brought home how very isolated he had become in his later years. Nearly three months after his June 7 death, his clothes were still heaped on a chair in one room along with a pile of children’s toys—at least some of which were purloined from the yard of the family across the street, who eventually got so exasperated with Porter’s sticky fingers that they fenced in their yard. The refrigerator was covered with big plastic magnetic letters; in one corner of an outbuilding Porter called the "hotel," a pile of moldering mattresses was all that remained of the accommodations of the Institute for Advanced Thinking. The orgone platform was rotting away somewhere back in the woods, and the yard had grown up to obscure many of the found sculptures. Next to the driveway, a child’s toy horse reared up out of the weeds.

Aphasia (1961), a handmade book that Porter referred to as a psycho-visual satire on printed communication.
Colby owns the house now and plans to sell it, with the proceeds to support the Bern Porter Collection at the College, per Porter’s wishes. One wonders if the new owners will know about their predecessor. A museum is unlikely, but to one standing in the overgrown yard the idea has a strange rightness to it—not because of Porter’s contributions to art or literature, or even his scientific work, but because lives like Bern Porter’s aren’t lived any more. "We’re so homogeneous now, so generic," Pinette said, looking wistfully at the house.

"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.


This story first appeared in the Portland Phoenix. It is reprinted with permission. The Bern Porter Collection can be touched in Colby's Special Collections, in Miller Library.

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