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Hamilton celebrates Ezra Pound’s 128th Birthday

By Max Newman '16

October 31, 2013

Forum on Image and Language and Motion (F.I.L.M.) celebrated Hamilton alumnus and late poet Ezra Pound’s 128th birthday last Wednesday with a night full of history and experimental film adaptations.

Associate Professor of English Steve Yao opened the discussion with a detailed history of Pound from his time at Hamilton to his death in Venice in 1972. Professor Yao claimed, “Pound is arguably the most important poets of the 20th century,” referencing his controversial support of Benito Mussolini and fascism.

A graduate of the Hamilton Class of 1905, Pound portrayed his social and political beliefs in his poetry. “Pound’s goal was to solidify free verse as the dominant mode in American Literature,” Professor Yao said. Pound’s poems draw on revolutionary era American history, Chinese history and his own experiences.

Professor Yao describes Pound’s poetry as “difficult” and “mystical” because of its political commentary through romance language. This is especially true in The Cantos, Pound’s unfinished poem split into 120 sections. The poem was highly controversial as politics became heated at the start of World War II. Pound takes the reader through his ideas, focusing on oppression in China due to government corruption.

Professor Yao ended his opening words by introducing the evening’s main attraction: “Emergency-room physician in Toronto by day (and night), Bernard Dew has an aesthetic calling and artistic gift: he is a devotee of experimental poetry, and Ezra Pound in particular, and is fascinated with avant-garde film, especially the work of Stan Brakhage. In recent years Dew has brought these fascinations together in a series of remarkable cinematic adaptations of selections from Pound’s epic Cantos.”

Many of Pound’s poems are ekphrastic, written verses in response to visual images or paintings. Dew brilliantly took the text and turned them back into images through his films portraying Cantos #49 and #116. Four years in the making, Dew primarily gathered footage from Venice, Pound’s home for the last few decades of his life as well as his burial ground.

In Canto #49, Dew has a typewriter-at-work overtone throughout the movie as 15mm film images flash on and off the screen. The grainy collage of film allows the viewer, for even just a few minutes, to journey inside Pound’s complex poetic mind. The images move quickly from beautiful Italian architecture to abstract color flashes Dew filmed in his basement.

In his final completed Canto, #114, Pound reflects upon the poem as a whole. “It’s especially moving to see him questioning himself,” Dew said. Rarely do poets question the legitimacy of their work, yet Pound explores his crisis in depth.

Dew portrayed the beauty of Pound’s reflection by filming the first half of the Canto in in silence. Images of long, drawn-out ocean waves fill the screen in silence as if representing Pound’s mind at work.

Bernard Dew offers an intriguing perspective on Pound’s legacy. Although the films will unlikely appear in a theater near you, the adaptations are slowly circling around the world depicting Pound’s poetry in a language that is universal.

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