The Benedictine Monk Who Connected Concrete Poetry And Design

By Meg Miller

In the 1950s and ’60s, the counterculture scene, the introduction of typewriters, and a new interest in typographic innovations all converged to form the concrete poetry movement. Visual poets like e.e. cummings and Ezra Pound made poetry that was increasingly abstract, where letters formed images and the typographical effect conveyed as much, if not more, meaning as the words on the page.

Less typical to members of the concrete poetry movement was to split their time modernizing Catholicism as a Benedictine monk. The realm between this new poetry movement and a 16th-century monastery was occupied solely by Dom Sylvester Houédard, also known also as dsh, the monk-slash-beat poet who made typewriter art, wrote poetry, studied theology, worked with the Vatican, and was an early champion of concrete poetry. His “typestracts,” the abstract concrete poems that he had typed on his Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter, will be on display at the Richard Saltoun Gallery in London at the end of this month.

[Photo: courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery]

Until recently, information about Houédard and his work has been scarce, and his delicate typestracts hard to find—his estate was bequeathed to a UK library after the 1970s, and is now scattered in private and institutional collections. But a book of essays published in 2013, Notes from the Cosmic Typewriter: The Life and Work of Dom Sylvester Houédard, and a few exhibitions since then have re-introduced him to a modern audience. Houédard’s legacy holds a sort of mythical significance—for poets but also for designers. Per the concrete poetry tradition, the placement of the letters and even his typographic style is as compelling and as important as the meaning and the cadence of the words they form.

Born in 1924, Houédard grew up on Guernsey, an island in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy. After both of his parents died while he was a teenager, he was sent to England, where he pursued a degree in modern history at Oxford University. He went into the military and later joined Prinknash Abbey as a Benedictine monk. In 1959, he was ordained as a Catholic priest.

[Photo: courtesy Richard Saltoun Gallery]

Luckily, Houédard was at Prinknash under the progressive abbot Wilfrid Upson, who encouraged him to pursue interests in the arts and to study other religions besides Catholicism. After studying at Sant’Anselmo, the Benedictine University in Rome, Houédard worked for religious publishers and started to write poetry, joining the inchoate concrete poetry movement and eventually becoming an authority on the subject. In the 1960s, he began publishing his own work, which he typed on his Olivetti typewriter. Over time, his poems became more and more abstract—at times just patterns of letters on the page, or no legible letters at all. His friend, the poet Edwin Morgan was the first to call them typestracts, a portmanteau of “typewriter” and “abstract.”

It was around this time that Houédard published a piece in the 1960s U.K. design magazine Typographica, alongside other prominent figures experimenting with typography at the time, such as graphic designer Robert Brownjohn and the artist Edward Wright. (Wright would also become the “typographical editor” at Openings Press, the concrete poetry publishing house that Houédard co-founded.)

Houédard gained even more recognition in the 1970s when he was given a major solo show at the Victoria & Albert Museum. According to the press release for the new exhibition, however, his fame came at a price: “Towards the mid ‘70s such was his fame that his presence became problematic for his monastery, not least because his connection with the prevailing revolutionary moment meant that he dealt also with politically and sexually explicit subject matter.” Eventually, Houédard would succumb to the pressure from his monastery and give up art and poetry to focus on his theological practice. Today, however, his idiosyncratic talents, as well as his contributions to the concrete poetry movements and his way of bridging literature and design are still getting their due.

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