16th February 1924
Birth of concrete poet Dom Sylvester Houedard
Dom Sylvester Houedard was a poet and monk, born in Guernsey this day in 1924. He was actually born Pierre-Thomas-Paul Joesph, but by the time he enrolled at Elizabeth College had adopted the name Peter.
He was evacuated to Britain in 1940 and spent the last few months of the Second World War – and until 1947 – working in British Army Intelligence. In that capacity, he took posts in India, Sri Lanka and Singapore where he developed an interest in what would become known as concrete poetry. More on that in a moment.
Poet, monk and priest
In the meantime, he joined the Benedictine Abbey of Prinknash, Gloucestershire, in 1949, and was ordained ten years later. He was literary editor of the Jerusalem Bible, and was often known by just his lower-case initials, dsh.
He’s best known for the concrete poetry he created on his Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter. This is a form of poetry in which the layout is of at least equal importance to the words themselves. His work earned him several famous followers, including Yoko Ono.
His interest in making poetic art with a manual typewriter emerged in India. Here, he “realised the typewriter’s control of verticals and horizontals… offered possibilities that suggested the grading of Islamic calligraphy from cursive writing…”
In 1965 he founded the Association of Little Presses and, in 1967, the Gloucestershire Ode Construction Company.
Art vs poetry
It’s difficult to say where his work sits on the division between poetry and visual art. The Victoria and Albert (V&A) museum in London held a retrospective of his work in 1971.
He produced the majority of his work before the mid-1970s when his fame started bringing unwanted attention to the monastery. At that point, he took a step back. He refocused on religion and spent the last ten years of his life as an infirmarian.
He died, aged 67, on 15 January 1992. The following year, Prinknash Abbey gave his papers to the John Ryland Library on permanent loan.