Howard Bergerson

By Eckler, A. Ross | Word Ways, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Howard Bergerson


Eckler, A. Ross, Word Ways


Howard Bergerson was born in Minneapolis on July 29, 1922 to Margaret Jeske, who six years later married Ludvick (or Louie) Bergerson. Howard served in World War II, and moved in 1951 to a small house in Sweet Home, Oregon, down the block from a shingle mill where he was employed for over 40 years.

In 1967, Howard met Nellie, suffering from multiple sclerosis, with three young children, Gerald age 10, Earl age 8 and Merla age 4. Not wanting to see this family broken up, he married her, exhibiting a nobility of character inexplicable to many (Dave Silverman, Kickshaws editor from 1969 to 1976, wrote me "The poor fellow is the only martyr I know. And I don't even know to what!"). He found Gerald's "disruptive, destructive and criminal" tendencies were too much to deal with, even resorting to hypnosis (with some success) to modify his behavior. By the age of 15 Gerald had left home, to live with relatives. When Merla "fled the coop" in 1982, he had to get a home health aide to watch Nellie while he worked. Nellie died sometime in the 1980s; Howard later married the teenage home health aide, but this apparently did not last long.

Howard himself suffered from grand real epilepsy, fortunately well-controlled by medication.

When Faith and I visited Howard in the summer of 1979, he was living with Nellie and Merla (the boys by then had left) in straitened circumstances. His somewhat dilapidated house was filled with books which Howard had collected over many years, piled from floor to ceiling (Faith joked that the books in the living room were helping to hold up the roof). There were at least twelve thousand of them on a variety of subjects, principally linguistics, philosophy and sociology, which he donated to the Sweet Home library in 2005. It is likely that he read many of them, for he is a polymath, knowledgeable in a variety of fields, from mathematics to numerology, from physics to reincarnation. A journalist who interviewed him in 1995 commented "You might think he was a professor of philosophy or mathematics ... he speaks clearly and precisely, pausing frequently to gather his thoughts." Howard denied receiving a formal education in reading or writing, adding "to me, education implies something systematic--there was nothing systematic about the way I got to be who I am".

Howard's first passion was poetry. In his youth he wrote many poems, published in The Spirit of Adolescence in a limited edition in 1950. As a result of this work, the state of Oregon nominated him as its Poet Laureate in 1957, but he declined. His reason? "At that time, McCarthyists ran the government and anyone who took an official position was subject to intense scrutiny" which he did not want.

His interests broadened to palindromic poetry in the winter of 1961-2. Howard had discovered Bombaugh's Oddities and Curiosities of Words and Literature (the 1961 Dover reprint) which contains the palindrome "Egad, a base tone denotes a bad age". He became fascinated with the thought that maybe there could exist a full-length palindromic poem containing a coherent story; aided by a friend, he generated lists of palindromic words such as redder and reversal pairs such as ergo/ogre and dual/laud. He felt as if he were under the spell of a magician with a kind of excitement he had never dreamed of before! In the middle 1960s he finally got around to composing "Edna Waterfall", a palindrome of 1034 letters which later was cited by Guinness as the longest palindromic creation in the English language. Here is his description of its creation:

    The poem expanded and contracted for three weeks; it would expand to
   points where where the poem was still developing but the
   palindromic
 paths were all closed off, so it was necessary to go
   back to the nearest point where alternative palindromic paths
existed,
   from which point it would expand anew. Every day for three weeks I
filled
   a wastebasket with these crumpled dead ends. … 

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