Michael wrote:

"the initial pages read like a ticker tape parade of history - are  
there fictional characters of Pound's own making in the Cantos - or is  
every name i meet someone i could go look up on Wikipedia"

Look them up in Wikipedia

Or better still purchase another fat book to have alongside "The Cantos".
It even has a fat title; "A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound" by
Carroll F Terrell.  Terrell starts with each canto with three brief notes on
"Sources", "Background" and "Exegeses".  He then explains each character's
name, every place name and translates each non English text.  He even gives
a transliteration of the many Chinese characters that you are going to come
across.  My Terrell is a quality paperback that has held up fairly well.

Also note that "The Cantos" starts with the word "And".  You might ponder
this.  It may seem to be a finger in the eye of every high school English
teacher but it is more than that.  And, it is grammatical.  :>) 

Have fun with one of the greatest books in the world.

Rick Seddon
Portales, NM