Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Beatnik from the Middle Ages

by Alastair Johnston

Notes from the Cosmic Typewriter The Life & Work of Dom Sylvester Houédard, edited by Nicole Simpson (n.p., occasional papers) 192 pp., paperback, with color illustrations $30

Though not as well known as his contemporaries Dieter Rot and Ian Hamilton Finlay, Dom Sylvester Houédard (dsh) is acknowledged to be one of the key figures in the concrete poetry movement of the 1960s. Starting (roughly speaking) from Apollinaire's Calligrammes, as well as Dadaist and Futurist experiments (Yes, I have heard of Ancient Greek acrostics), poets took an interest in the typographic form of their verse. Live performance also became an important component in twentieth-century poetry. For most people, poetry in the 1950s and 60s is synonymous with drug-taking Beatniks, but Houédard was a Benedictine monk who lived and worked in Prinknash Abbey, Gloucestershire, England. And while he was active in the poetry and small press publishing scene in the 1960s, his work has now vanished: most of it unique or produced in small editions ended up in private collections.

A lot of his creative output was in the form of typed pages produced late at night in his cell on his trusty portable Olivetti (like Aram Saroyan, he failed to interest the Italian typewriter company in sponsorship -- or even acceptance of how their machine had become a vital part of artmaking). dsh typed letters manifestos and sometimes would disconnect the platen to make free-floating abstract images using the typewriter keys. In this his work is similar to that of H.N. Werkman, the Dutch artist of the 1930s and 40s, whose typed 'tiksels' he would have seen in Typographica. dsh made poem objects (though often using non-archival plastic), and he published in little magazines.

a particular way of looking (1971)
courtesy of Ruth & Marvin Sackner Archive of Concrete & Visual Poetry

But dsh was instrumental in bringing a wider appreciation of concrete poetry (which includes sound poems in performance) to Britain. He first wrote about it in Herbert Spencer's influential bi-annual journal Typographica 8. He reached out to the Noigandres group in Brazil, Eugen Gomringer and Henri Chopin in Europe, and other British practitioners like Finlay, Bob Cobbing, and Edwin Morgan. He started Openings Press with the artist John Furnival and they involved German typographer Hansjörg Mayer in their productions also.

A spiritual as well as literary activist, dsh got out of the abbey to become engaged with the Tibetan community who were foundering once the Chinese had kicked them out of their homeland. As a child dsh had read in the paper of the "God-king" of Tibet and was fascinated, particularly since the British press did not use the quotation marks. His War service in India (with Army Intelligence in Bangalore) made him aware of how the spiritual becomes the everyday in some cultures. He was interested in Zen and read the writings of D. T. Suzuki. In 1949 he joined the monastery and was ordained as a priest ten years after. Later in life he became involved with the Oxford-based ibn Arabi society. So his was in fact an ecumenical dialogue with poetry.

In addition he spent five years as literary editor of the Jerusalem Bible (1961-6).

His most famous poem is a revision of 17th-century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho's famous "Frog" haiku, whose terse seventeen syllables read

     furu ike ya
     kawazu tobi ko mu
     mizu no oto

I am sure you know it by heart. But dsh stripped it even further to

            f  r o g
           p o n d
           p l  o p

Memorial print (litho, silkscreen & letterpress) by John Furnival, 1992

In later versions he enlarged the three Os, making them into an enso, or Zen circle, and further blurring the boundaries between poetry and painting. This reduction communicates his idea of "paintings and poems that are not 'about' life but that ARE live direct living acts."

dsh was very much an artist in the spirit of his age -- David Toop describes him (tonsured with horn-rims) as either "Sergeant Bilko in the unfolding of a scam or a beatnik from the Middle Ages, time-transported to the delirium of London's avant garde." Toop describes the sound poetry of the time (performed at "serious" venues like the Hayward Gallery or the ICA, so not merely coffee-shop ravings) as incorporating shamanic and secret speech, and he mentions the "range from Antonin Artaud to Slim Gaillard, and Screamin' Jay Hawkins to Professor Stanley Unwin."

dsh also collaborated with John Cage in the mid-60s, though how this came across in performance remains a paradox. They performed jointly in the "Chieko Shiomi Concert of Falling Events." Here are his notes for three of the seven movements in their collaborative work "c-dagesh" (the title is based on their names "cage" + "dsh"; dagesh is the Hebrew dot that accents letters to make them hard sounds at the beginning of words), a "7 note suite":
leave room for seven days: re-enter & sweep toward typewriter: type the following poem:
     c  -
         h -
           - observe dust resulting - some particles will have downward movements - those settling on the surface of the poems paper-environment constitute the total phonic event

asked two tibetan policemonks to hold a teak door horizontal - on it deposited a single bead of quicksilver - for 17 hours they succeeded in keeping the bead on the wood - 17 hours later an ant i had popped into a fold of the habit of one of them caused him to scratch with his left hand - & the bead rolled off the edge

wrote words cacaca lemm - nenipi roto tut - cut paper into 20 pieces - dropped on lawn from tuliptree they formed word immaculatecontraception
dsh 141164 Courtesy Ruth & Marvin Sackner Archive of concrete & Visual Poetry
That dsh was greatly loved and respected by his contemporaries is clear here from their devotion in the essays and the careful reproduction of his typed letters and typewriter poems. There are type facsimiles of his major essays and a bibliography. One of the contributors, Charles Verey, is working on a full-scale biography of dsh.

The poems are a delight but the main course is the group of five essays included. dsh is curious and smart and takes the pulse of the moment (end of 1963) in "Beat and Afterbeat: a parallel condition of poetry and theology," written in familiar beat-prosody which readers of Ginsberg and Kerouac will recognize. His bibliography for this article includes four works of Anselm ("the Finn at the BBC") Hollo: Red Cats, Jazz Poems, Paul Klee, and & what else is new, a small poetry pamphlet; the Selected Poems of Corso (just published in England) alongside Edith Sitwell's latest collection; two magazines (Evergreen Review & Pa'lante) and a list of anthologies that defined the canon of 60s poetry: New American Poetry edited by Don Allen, Living Voices edited by Jon Silkin, New Departures edited by Michael Horovitz, Poetry Today edited by Elizabeth Jennings, and A. Alvarez's Penguin anthology, The New Poetry; he also includes Elias Wilentz' The Beat Scene. The first page is a total rush:
So what's happening? 1963 times running short & poetry the mad sad joy of the shadow church wefting nylon tantras inter man & man & world & Yahweh patching up the zimzum with a certified 2-way stretch of now & bursting thru our mental claptraps giftwraps & stale thought-think outlines with delirious mantic words has come a bit unstuck. And poetry here to begin with can include any even 1-line stuff from real poet shadow saints.

Then he introduces Anselm Hollo, before getting on to Vatican 2! A few pages later he tells us what's wrong:
After WW-2 we never felt naively déçu like after WW-1: partly because of the 20s partly because the 40s saw the real shrinkage (planetarisation) of the world begin partly because todays ultimate horror is the art-protest area built-in to new social fabrics (Germany England France America) that make both god & poet hygienic.

He rapses waxodical about the Beats: calling Burroughs a "writing liver." He feels for Corso, adores the hairy smelly Ginsy, but his biggest thrill is meeting another French-Catholic in Jean-Louis Kerouac. (dsh was born Pierre Houédard in Guernsey which is a British isle but geographically French.) What he detects is a heart/mind schism and he tries to explain this in art as well as theology:
…this new beat/monknik wind of popular fauve livedeparture biblical-liturgical theologies reacting against dessicated past systematisations - & this 2nd live wind of creative systematisation or cubist theology freezing for dead guests the mind-spirit impetus by conceptual bottling while hosts with satori participate in this & every insight - like reverse zen-archery & readers the hit becoming the hitters.

His task in this article is "the impossible serialisation of the surreal." He manages to separate British-English poetry from American-English, but only just, and sees the hope in pidgin "(esp Ee Tiang Hong of Malay Wale Soyinka of Nigeria & Zulfikar Ghose of Pakistan; french equivalents have had more influence on french eg alive negro poets Ed Glissant, Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor - lyric firbank/lorca negritude)."

Hollo, he thinks, is too too kind to the Brits, but also "whats it like to be translated by ah? A jokey fauve sensation like going through a loss-of-outline tank - he's creative exciting as zen when loose on noncrib russian translation he ties his love into lovely knots with two loose ends. His J poets are the ones to watch…"

dsh ends this blockbuster essay/crash course in modern poetry with a flourish:
The mad gay bliss of benedictine gravitas - so other than puritanical seriosità. Some people (?Mary McCarthy) get so wild at this sort of thing: theyd rather go to what they think their image of hell ought to be just to PROVE that gods like the image theyve given up of him reflecting themselves. They cld SHAKE that god - where the new wave just breezes around unzipping him & showing the mysterys all much deeper more mysterious. The new wave & the new wind are in the same direction: life prayer poetry jazz are participation in creativeness in god - they just dont exist outside performance.
i possibly am again (1967, PVC laminate) Courtesy Ruth & Marvin Sackner Archive of concrete & Visual Poetry

The second essay "Between Poetry & Painting" is a Master's Thesis in telegrammatic form. dsh explores the Dadaist notion that "word and image are one," or as he puts it, Logos & Ikon on equal terms. There are no illustrations (but you can find many of them in Massin's Lettre et Image [Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1970]), however a very wide range of sources is cited in his chronology including another clever typo: "1923 Werkman begins his 600 druksels: e. e. cunnings writes tulips and chimneys." Musicians, painters and architects make it to his shortlist as well as asian/arabic/hebrew sources. We also get a key glimpse inside his mind/lair when he contrasts his kinetic concrete poetry with writing about it:
kinkon/spatial is cool: hot-media (like this note about things) leave nothing unsaid: depend on fictitious feudal-author caged spirit in superior private-mind bossing the tenants of his literary space: cool is nouvelle-vague selfregulating anarchic system - communicator-receptor on equal terms sharing telstar communication ball…
wind grove mind alone
Courtesy John Rylands Library

His famous essay "Concrete Poetry & Ian Hamilton Finlay" expands on the last in more detail, explaining his terms such as constructivist, constrictive, nonsemantic & coexistential. "Introductionancestry Andchronology" is more of the same, this time with an emphasis on sound poetry (Finlay is a visual artist or environmental word-sculptor). These essays presents one aspect of Houédard's work; his commentaries on Meister Eckhart will have to wait for another anthology, but for those of us interested in visual arts and the poetic conjunction between language & typography this is a hefty box of chocs.

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