3 July, 2017Issue 34.9PoetryReligionVisual Arts

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“slipping sideways into god”

Rey Conquer

Typestract 260764, 1964
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery

Dom Sylvester Houédard: Typestracts
Richard Saltoun Gallery, London
26th May – 14th July, 2017

Dom Sylvester Houédard
Edited by Andrew Hunt and Nicola Simpson
Ridinghouse and Richard Saltoun Gallery
2017
157pp
£30

 

 

 

 

The works currently on display at Richard Saltoun Gallery, Dom Sylvester Houédard’s “typestracts”, are small and at first glance modest. The largest—and most legible—is an obvious homage to the Scottish concrete poet Ian Hamilton Finlay; those in the artist’s own idiom require closer attention. The abstract shapes and indeed lettering that can be made out at a few paces become, as you approach, much more obviously the work of a typewriter, each shape or line or letter made up of other letters and keystrokes, painstakingly overlaid and matched. You can see smudges and bleeding; in some cases the work has been folded to create mirrored figures, as in a Rorschach test. Some have glossy surfaces, but a sticky, mucosal gloss, reminiscent of PVA glue used as varnish as we did at primary school: despite the cerebral look of typewritten letters they are compellingly, if mysteriously, corporeal. (There are also collages proper, of found text and coloured plastic, but also spit, jam, talcum powder, dust.) Of a previous exhibition of the typestracts (the term was thought up by Edwin Morgan) the late Scotsman critic, Edward Gage, wrote that they were “much more positive than one might have thought possible”.

Installation view, Dom Sylvester Houédard:
Typestracts, Richard Saltoun Gallery, London,
2017. Photo by FXP photography.

Pierre Thomas Paul Jean Houédard signed his work dsh, and was known by his contemporaries in the avant garde poetry and art worlds of the 1960s as Silvester or Sylvester, the name he had taken on his profession as a Benedictine monk. (As an undergraduate at Oxford he had been Pierre; to his family on Guernsey, where he was born in 1924, Peter.) He was a distinctive figure: the black beret and Ray-Ban Wayfarers might have been on their own unexceptional, recognisably part of a beatnik uniform, but it was his black habit and characteristic cloak that marked him out—Edwin Morgan’s poem, “dsh: recollection of a vortex” begins, “a swirling cloak on great western road | a swirling monk filling the lift”. He made the typestracts in his cell at Prinknash Abbey, Gloucestershire on an Olivetti Lettera 22 (“olivetti himself/themselves show sofar a total non interest in this fact”). Cells, rather—as by his death in 1992 he had three, one that functioned as a study, and two for his large collection of papers and bits and pieces of a sort that might seem unusual for a monk (such as a foot-high lino elephant made by Eduardo Paolozzi). It is the sheer improbability of the idea of a “monknik”, and the difficulty of understanding the integration of his lives as monk and concrete poet, the integration of his religious thought and his art, that the monograph accompanying the exhibition seeks to address. The editors, Andrew Hunt and Nicola Simpson, have combined essays on his work and life written especially for the volume with, among other things,  pieces of Houédard’s own critical prose—“bits of autobiography”, “paradada”, “me as poet rather than critic” and others. In this last, Houédard states clearly the possible parallels between these two, seemingly incompatible, vocations, and makes of monastic vows a manifesto: “artist to soc like monk to ch: cf CHASTITY – of vision: OBEDIENCE – to material: POVERTY – of form”.

It is a good year, it seems, for Catholic artist-poets, and there are parallels to be drawn between Houédard and David Jones, whose work was described hyperbolically in Thomas Dilworth’s biography, which came out this April, as “probably the greatest existential achievement of international modernism”. While the story of David Jones’s neglect has been overstated, it’s true that he doesn’t quite have the reputation that others predicted for him. Both Jones and Houédard are overlooked in part because there simply isn’t all that much that is around to be seen. (The public unavailability of their work is also tied up with its form and what could be thought of as its genre: Jones’s inscriptions were often made as gifts for friends, as were Houédard’s typestracts, and continue to lie in private hands.) But in both cases it has also been argued that this neglect can be connected to their faith, and the demands this makes on viewers and readers.

There are important differences, however, in how these two artists approached Catholicism, particularly with regard to the liturgical reforms of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Dilworth unhelpfully and inaccurately exaggerates the changes within the Church following the second Vatican Council when describing Jones’s reaction to them, but it is certainly clear that he regretted the move towards celebrating the Mass in English, and was one of the signatories of a petition (along with, most famously, Agatha Christie) protesting the abandoning of Latin. Houédard, on the other hand, was involved with the committee responsible for implementing this reform in the UK, and translated other liturgical texts for the publisher Darton, Longman and Todd. Notably, he collaborated with the Catholic poet and translator Alan Neame as literary editor of the newly translated Jerusalem Bible, again for DLT. In an article, “Beat and Afterbeat: A Parallel Condition of Poetry & Theology?”, the council (or “Vat II”, as he calls it) becomes the pivot for this “parallel condition”, with its emphasis on dialogue: “Poetry all art is one of universal worships à l’insu of god the unknown… what Vat II is ABOUT is universal need to re-phrase without loss of content so as to communicate with the non-us”.

His was not, then, a religion that tended to separatism or exclusion, and while there is a theological density to his writing that can be off-putting, it is rather his deep interest in and openness to the “non-us”, his “wider ecumenism”, as he termed it, that forms one of the greatest barriers to his work. His range of religious reference was impressively vast, and sometimes frustratingly so. In his funeral homily, Dom Stephen Horton spoke of this, saying, “it was very difficult to follow his mind – so often his reasoning seemed obscure and one was left feeling like an idiot or rather exasperated. I personally found it hard to admit that I had not read all the apocryphal literature of the inter-testamental period, the Kabala, or the works of the Fifth Dalai Lama.” (Houédard gave a lecture with Neame on the literary problems of Biblical translation, of which problems an anonymous diarist for the Catholic newspaper The Tablet wrote, slyly, that “the audience found these more subtle than they had expected.”) 

He rejected the idea of art or poetry as a form of persuasion, which “makes art like its some form of religious indoctrination — like its some aperient/carminative med’cine”, and appealed to the notion of “kerygma”  (that is, the proclamation of the Christian message) over “catechism” (the teaching of Christian doctrine), the latter “ingroup reinforcement – a partyline imposition” and the former “announcement fanfare & proclamation exuberantly made to anyone in earshot”. Houédard’s critical writing is always generous in intent—he was, for instance, the first to write about concrete poetry in English, in the hope of bringing it to a new public—and the self-consciously ‘beat’ rhythms, dense quick-fire allusions and syntactic and orthographic concision certainly create a sense of exuberant proclamation, but also, to re-use Morgan’s image, of a kind of maelstrom of ideas that is hard to follow. Where a certain coterie mentality can make both physical and conceptual access to British concrete poetry difficult, Houédard seems sometimes to exist in a coterie of one.

Houédard wrote sensitively of A J A Symons’ A Quest for Corvo, trying to expose the extent to which this celebrated experimental biography gave more a picture of Symons than Rolfe, turning the latter into a far less reasonable person for the sake of a good story. We might similarly want to avoid exoticising Houédard’s eccentricity, for all that his presence as a central node in the art world sounds, certainly from 2017, unexpected (“It seemed almost as if … he appeared from another planet”, Charles Verey, one of the book’s contributors, notes). In profiles, obituaries, and so on, the emphasis on certain trappings of his monkhood—the clothing, the way that letters of invitation should include a line or so persuading the abbot to let him out—make of this aspect almost a gimmick. But he was a monk long before, and long after, his involvement with the experimental poetry world, and he was as well-connected in the Catholic world as he was in that of concrete poetry (at Oxford he was president of the Newman Society, for instance). He may have been seen as a kind of dilettante by, for instance, Elizabeth Anscombe’s son John Geach, but his commitment—even if on some level a commitment to dilettantism—was profound.

seven stacked squares on two lines,
1972 c.
Courtesy of Richard Saltoun Gallery

The various essays and other material in the exhibition catalogue try, then, to deepen an understanding of Houédard’s context, to tell us “something about the artist” in the hope of encouraging wider recognition of the work. It is lovingly, and generously, edited: the detailed bibliography compiled by Gustavo Grandal Montero will be invaluable for future researchers, and the book also contains near-lifesize reproductions of the works from the exhibition, with the aim of allowing for a longer-standing engagement after the originals have once again been dispersed and sold off to private collections.

When printed next to, for instance, a typewritten script of a talk on apophatic art, full of visual puns, we can begin to imagine the extent to which the typestracts and concrete poems were continuous with Houédard’s prose writing and letters, and appreciate the intimacy of it all. One typestract made for Neame (who becomes in Houédard’s orthography “alaneame”), seems to encapsulate the quality of expansiveness in these works: there is something like a cloud, and dashed parallel lines in two colours falling to a ground made up of indistinct letters, out of which emerges “E / LEI / SON” and “HO / HO HO”. (It was only on returning to it in the book that I realised that I had mentally added a “SANNA”.) Even without wider context there is something arresting about these works, an incitement to a kind of devotional looking. “i see my typestracts as icons depicting sacred questions” Houédard wrote:

they should probably be viewed like cloud-tracks & tide-ripples – bracken-patterns & gull-flights – or simply as horizons & spirit levels

Later typestracts have the look of visionary architecture, along the lines of Vladimir Tatlin or Peter Cook, as if they might be designs for cosmic churches. Houédard wrote of one of his few published collections, “the range of these poems can be fully traditional – sacred secular lyric erotic didactic (tho hardly epic) funny & metaphysical” and this range can be seen, too, here. He continues, “the perils they face are equally traditional – the glib the clever flat & esoteric are all as ready to hand but have i hope not crept into the narrow limit of this collection”. Glibness will always be a risk in concrete poetry, and in particular the manipulation of found text can end up little more than a cheap joke, but the collages here maintain a mantic edge. Houédard wrote of Vatican II that it acknowledged the “SACREDNESS of ambiguity”, and the works here are not the sort of thing that can be paraphrased or explained. (Other, more well-known, pieces of Houédard’s, such as the reworking of Basho’s most famous haiku, “frog pond plop”, are.) And god is always at the edges of these works, whether implicitly, as in ‘typestract 150664’ where gs drift towards forming os, not yet ds, or explicitly: one contains the text, “slipping sideways into god”; another, “draft for etymological poem”, mischievously posits a connection between “god” and “cock”. (Mischievously—but sexuality was for Houédard certainly, and perhaps problematically, part of the sacred.) But god is also in the delicacy, the deft and concentrated craft of this “monk-making”, which, as in Houédard’s definition of kerygma, is

lyric & appeals to the fruitful dharma depths in others from which wild independent things are hoped for – to spring up & resound & ‘be the next thyng’.

~

Rey Conquer is a postdoctoral fellow in German at the University of Oxford, and currently Editor-in-Chief of the Oxonian Review.