Nightboat Books is, according to its website, “a nonprofit publishing company dedicated to printing original books of poetry and prose, and bringing out-of-print treasures back to life.” Bern Porter’s Found Poems, a collection previously published in 1972 by Dick Higgins’ Something Else Press, is surely one of those treasures, and we are fortunate now to have easy access to such a singular text. This handsome reprint — which includes a foreword by David Byrne, an introduction by Joel Lipman, and a creative afterword by Mark Melnicove — should become a key reference in current discussions about the poetics and ethics of copying and textual appropriation in the long twentieth century.
In order to fully appreciate the curious collages that Porter called “founds,” we need to first distinguish Porter’s compositions from the found poetry that was popular in the late 60s and early 70s. While Porter’s founds and the more mainstream found poetry that predominantly relied upon the lineation of preexisting prose (“redeemed prose” in the words of the Canadian John Robert Colombo) all came out of a vigorous cultural matrix influenced by pop art, Andy Warhol, concrete poetry and Marshall McLuhan (“something was in the air,” says David Byrne’s foreword), Porter’s pieces are far less recognizably poetic and challenge the reader’s perceptual and cognitive capacities with an obdurate yet beautiful opacity. We can, for example, consider a few sections from Richard O’Connell’s “Brazilian Happenings,” which was published in a 1966 issue of The New Yorker, though a piece from Ronald Gross’ Pop Poems (Simon and Schuster,1967) could have sufficed as well:
Essentially this is prose from the Brazil Herald chopped up into vaguely iambic pentameter lines, which — along with the roman numerals — cast an aura of “poeticity” upon the outrageous, tabloid-like content. O’Connell’s use of the term “happening” conveniently encapsulates the idea of news as a reporting of what happens as well as a sense of Allan Kaprow-like happenings that puncture, however ill-manneredly, the homogenous fabric of everyday life. If not exactly “news that stays news,” “Brazilian Happenings” is both an academic exercise in lineation and a satirical ethnography of people performing badly. It is, unlike Porter’s work, eminently digestible and can sit quite comfortably among New Yorker content. In contrast, this is a page from Porter’s Found Poems, which James Schevill, Porter’s biographer, calls his “breakthrough volume”:
These bits and pieces of language and schematics are cropped, manipulated, and arranged in unconventional and non-intuitive ways and resist being made intelligible by an overarching conceptual regime. While Porter has worked in more overtly satirical modes — he calls Aphasia (1961), his artist book that reveals the ways in which domestic subjects are interpellated into capitalist desire, a “psycho-visual satire / on printed communication” — Found Poems cannot be labeled in such a convenient manner or interpreted as solely a societal critique. The word “coupon” above may point to a consumerist culture, to be sure, but the construction, as a whole, is about more than that. Nor is it clear how this hieroglyph, assembled from the dregs of print culture, can represent a “redeemed” (to use Colombo’s term again) cultural artifact. If it does, it depends upon the audience perceiving it in a non-conceptual way; Porter has written, “Things of mine are meant to be touched, sensed but not read or understood mindwise.”
In Found Poems, one might encounter a recipe, a word search, a fragment of an advertisement, a questionnaire, a diagram of circuitry or a technical graph; one even might not know exactly what one is looking at, and Porter’s actions of defamiliarizing and decontextualizing his sources until the point of unrecognizability contributes, to a large extent, to the allure and fascination of the book. Interpretation, in some ways, is too easy for even the most random text, and it can be a refreshing relief not to approach a text “mindwise,” to be given a text that doesn’t even remotely invite analysis. If the students of Stanley Fish’s seminar on seventeenth-century religious poetry were famously able to make poetic sense out of a list of assigned readings left on the chalkboard from the class before — which Fish misled them to believe was also a religious poem (the text in its entirety read, “Jacobs-Rosenbaum / Levin / Thorne / Hayes / Ohman (?)”)—then I wonder what they would have done with this Porter piece (see Fish’s essay “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One”):
It is important to note that this list is from just one page from Found Poems’ nearly 400 pages. In other words, Porter’s achievement must be understood in relation to his sustained, life-long commitment to the objet trouvé and he demands to be read in bulk. Found Poems represents the first volume out of a projected seven-volume series (Porter published four in his lifetime), which I believe should be considered as important as more high-profile life-works of the twentieth century such as The Cantos, “A,” and Paterson.
Details of Porter’s colorful biography can be found in Schevill’s Where to Go, What to Do, When You Are Bern Porter: A Personal Biography (1992) and elsewhere, but it is worth mentioning here a few notable facts. Porter — who was born in 1911, just a year after Charles Olson’s birth — was a true polymath, a utopian thinker who wanted to synthesize art and science into what he called “Sciart.” His work as a scientist at various facilities contributed to the invention of the cathode ray tube as well as the Manhattan Project and the betrayal he felt when he realized his work had been instrumentalized for destructive purposes can’t be emphasized enough. If Kenneth Goldsmith claims that “so many writers now [are] exploring strategies of copying and appropriation … [because] the computer encourages us to mimic its workings,” then Porter’s practice of appropriation was pursued under the influence of another kind of technological development: the atom bomb.
Porter has said, “Confronting the bombed buildings, the concentration camps and the gulags, artists had the choice of saying nothing or transforming anything that came to hand into something new.” This is, of course, a logical fallacy, a false dichotomy: artists did indeed have more options in responding to the traumas of the twentieth century; nevertheless, Porter’s statement suggests a compelling way around the Adornian dilemma that “to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” His post-lyrical founds constitute a major statement about the status of knowledge and art after Hiroshima. Like Adorno, who, with Max Horkheimer, wrote The Dialectic of the Enlightenment during World War II, Porter acutely grasped that the so-called progress of science and technology had led to regress, that rationality had become irrational. Porter’s multi-volume series of founds amount to a kind of counter-encyclopedia, a massive archive of obscure fragments that refuse instrumentalization, a repository of fractured knowledge that, in its glorious indecipherability, stands in tacit protest to the ravages of modernity.
Bern Porter’s Found Poems (Nightboat Books, 2011) is available at www.nightboat.org.