Bern Porter’s writing and art have enjoyed a well-deserved revival in the years since his death in 2004. His work recently merited a solo retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. An eccentric, who could perhaps be classified as an “outsider” artist, Porter is best known for his “founds,” or found visual poems. The new Nightboat Books reprint of Porter’s most famous book, Found Poems, is a welcome addition to the Porter revival. Originally printed by Something Else Press in 1972, this new edition features informative, useful introductions by David Byrne and Joel Lipman.
Porter was a physicist by training—but he was also an artist, writer, publisher and general polymath. He worked on the Manhattan Project and on the Saturn V rocket. He met and worked with Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Werner von Braun. He never owned a car or a television. Though he lived without many modern conveniences, he also polemicized starkly: “Obsolescence revolts me.” Porter was deeply conflicted about the effects of technology, but he was also committed to using applied science to expand the realms of art and poetry. In the late 50s, he proposed a “scipoe,” which would explore the implications of technological change. According to his biographer James Schevill, Porter was centrally “concerned with revealing how science and technology can combine with art and poetry to show us a world so loaded with new information that it is almost impossible to catalog it completely.” The books of found poems that Porter created in the 1960s took as their sources all manner of textual and visual material—from advertisements to computer printouts from the Saturn V rocket project. So eclectic are Porter’s materials that it is difficult to trace the origins of many of his appropriations. The founds are implicitly skeptical of American consumerism and mass culture. In effect, the founds parody an increasingly technocratic and bureaucratic postwar society.
Porter’s books of found poems tend to be sparing in their manner of collaging together materials. By contrast to the tradition of Dada photomontage or even of early pop art collage (such as the work of Richard Hamilton), Porter tended to use only one source, or at most several sources, per page. Porter composed his founds on the scale of the book as well as on the scale of the page (or page spread), and each book typically constrains itself to a sequence of texts and images on a given theme. Those who are unfamiliar with Porter’s work should seek out the excellent selection of his early books available on UbuWeb, including The Wastemaker, 1926-1961, Porter’s first major book of founds. The Wastemaker, like Found Poems, presents a fascinating cross-section of recycled texts and images, many of them presumably found in the trash at his local post office. As its title suggests, The Wastemaker recycles the detritus of consumer news and information. Like the print advertising that came of age in the 1920s, The Wastemaker is detached from any sense of individuated, localizable meaning. Lists, formulae, questionnaires and charts appear seemingly at random. Porter’s books often explore themes of remediation to the extent that the books themselves function as long meditations on the disconnection of words and images from everyday experience. Each of Porter’s found books in effect presents a survey of the commercial graphic design of a specific era. The founds reconstitute an eclectic world of lost ephemera to the extent that his biographer claims that “In the end, Porter himself becomes a Found.”
This new edition of Porter’s Found Poems offers the best point of entry to Porter’s work. Rather than offer a synopsis of this work that resists reduction to a singular message, I urge you to get your hands on this book a.s.a.p. As David Byrne writes, “Here is the hidden literature of the twentieth century. Hidden in plain sight.” Found Poems is far more than the sum of its findings. Be patient with it. Be impatient with it. Make yourself at home in Porter’s lost and found.