A Startling and Unexpected Wonder: 10 Ideas about Bern Porter’s Founds

In this essay-list, I want to interrogate the meaning of the Found Poem, as practiced by one of our greatest practitioners of the form, Bern Porter.  I’m not as interested in historically reconstructing Porter’s notion of the Found, so much as extrapolating from the various Founds I have seen some semblance of a theory concerning them, in the belief that such a theory or theories might overlap with Porter’s theories and provide a contextual framework within which we may consider Porter’s Founds more robustly.  So what’s my theory about Porter’s Found poems?

  1. Porter’s Founds are meditations in and on consciousness.
    1. They are meditations in consciousness because they are the products of decisions made and taken by a resolutely purposive and purposeful mind, dedicating itself to rediscovering nooks and crannies of our cultural space that we either take for granted or marginalize as so much more junk and waste.
    2. In this sense they are obsessive attempts to discover things we are not conscious of.  Why?  In the hope that in becoming more conscious of these things, we are expanding our imaginative repertoire and becoming richer, more variegated, more complex and diverse human beings.
    3. They are meditations on consciousness because they are reflective practices, meta-moves, that force us to take a step back from our normal way of doing things and think about, direct our gaze towards, our typical habits, norms, values and practices, with the hope that in so doing our norms, practices, values and habits will change.
    4. In this sense, Porter’s Founds operate from the stance or perspective that change happens or is activated through awareness.
  2. Porter’s Founds take as their starting point a kind of inspiredly relentless phenomenology that is half-parts very serious and half-parts very ironic.
    1. I say phenomenology because, again, Porter’s Founds truck in an interest with consciousness, awareness, and attention; and while it is clear that in a Porter Found we are looking at a certain kind of object, a certain kind of text, a certain kind of form, what we are also looking at is our response and attention to this object, text and form.
    2. In this sense, Porter’s works are as much about the forms themselves on the page, as the forms of attention our gaze takes as we look at the page.
    3. Porter’s Found Poems therefore involve an incisive exploration of our emotional landscape, and sweep into their attentional field emotions and qualities ranging from wonder to disgust, hilarity to confusion, high seriousness to kitsch.
    4. They are therefore as much mirror as they are puzzle and text.
  3. Porter’s Founds begin with a certain knowledgeable trepidation about expression.  Because Porter, according to his biographer, worked on the Manhattan Project without knowing the ultimate aim of that project, it makes sense that he might view with ferocious suspicious most if not all acts of human creation.  Because of this suspicion, his works minimize expression in the name of form, and minimize content in the name of context.  We can thus look at Porter’s work as proto-Conceptual, or just plain Conceptual.
  4. One can view Porter’s Founds as an immense and intense laboratory of forms .  But why would he so obsessively collect and archive forms?  Because it hadn’t been done before; because Porter was seeing in these typographical forms an entirely new and different way of approaching the page; and because Porter suspected – and this is part of his genius – that these new forms could and would lead to new areas of appropriation and creativity. How and why do new forms lead to new areas of appropriation and creation?  Because they are imaginative alternatives, because they kick open new doors.
  5. How does one approach a Porter Found?  With a certain willed ignorance, a willed naivete.
  6. Porter’s Founds trouble the distinction between creation and appropriation.  Because it is impossible to know what the Founds might provoke and help produce in the future, it is equally impossible to articulate any sort of ratio within the Founds concerning their degrees of “creativity versus appropriation.”  Indeed, much of the creativity surrounding and impelling the Founds is not necessarily, on first glance, seen – actions like seeing, looking, choosing, placing, cutting, pasting, arranging, finding, discovering, exploring, questioning.  What we see is only the “top of the iceberg,” underneath which all of these actions have occurred and are occurring.
  7. To look at Porter’s Founds is to (refreshingly, boldly, fearlessly) test our own boundaries concerning what we consider art and what we consider not-art.  They deliberately, and in a tone that is simultaneously comic and grave, force us to confront our own staunch horizons, our own limiting markers, that we hold onto very fervently, and which we use to decide what is art, which is another way of saying what we value, and even and especially what we live for.  This is perhaps why they are so simultaneously comic and grave – because in the most unobtrusive way, they call everything we ever thought about art into question – a thrilling and liberatory (comic) but unsettling and discomfiting (grave) experience.
    1. There are other binaries what Porter’s Founds assimilate or straddle.  They are simultaneously utterly accessible and utterly foreign; lexical and visual; profound and trivial; fascinating and infuriating; concrete and conceptual; what we know about and what we’ve never seen.  For these reasons, Porter’s poems have everything and nothing figured out.
  8. While Porter’s Founds are confident experiments, or even arguments, in form, they do not necessarily form connections for us.  Instead, we are asked, looking through, at, with, among the forms to develop our own connections or gaps between the page’s revelations.  This is one reason why they are radically democratic – they force us, even against our will, to participate in the new meanings, sublimities and profundities that evolve naturally and spasmodically out of the Porter’s juxtapositions and arrangements.
    1. I say “gaps” along with connections because Porter’s Founds allow themselves to be as discontinuous as they are continuous with our experience.
  9. What are we confronted with when looking at a Porter?  Ourselves, our blindnesses, our numbness, our culture, our waste, our creativity, our innovation, our absolutely astonishing and endless preoccupation with form, our defenses, our strangenesses, our wonder, our ideals, our fears, our hopes, our beliefs, our values, our practices, our norms, our minds and bodies, our ways or modes of thinking and being, our ideas and conceptions and habits and notions.
  10. Porter’s Founds build in power through accretion, through the process of looking through a whole (or large chunk of a) book of his.  It’s one thing to see a diagram we’ve never seen before; it’s another to see this diagram juxtaposed with any and every imaginable thing conceivable.  To look through large chunks of his books is therefore to experience a startling and unexpected wonder.
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