"Canto I" marks the very beginning of Ezra Pound's beast of a project called The Cantos, which Pound started writing when he was thirty years old and didn't stop working on until his death in 1972—fifty-seven years later. By the time he passed away, Pound had created a gigantic poem that contained everything from passages in Latin to straight up Chinese writing characters (like these). Basically, The Cantos were like one huge receptacle that Pound poured his deepest thoughts and feelings into for over fifty-five years, and what we're left with is a set of poems over 600 pages long that most experts still consider "unfinished." Sheesh, what's a poet gotta do?
"Canto I" might seem to throw you into the middle of a scene you don't recognize. And that's because it does. Believe it or not, "Canto I" isn't even an original piece of poetry by Pound. It's his own really loose translation of a passage from The Odyssey, an epic poem written by a blind genius named Homer over 2,500 years ago.
We admit, this whole thing sounds pretty overwhelming. But don't worry, because here comes the good part. The section of The Odyssey translated in "Canto I" recounts the cool story of how the crafty and brave Odysseus voyages to the edge of the world and summons up spirits from the underworld. He asks them all sorts of questions and doesn't always get the answers he wants. But what did he expect from the underworld, a welcome party?
Why Should I Care?
Well, for starters you have to give some props to Ezra Pound (or "Ol' Ez," as he liked to call himself in his later years). He was a guy who was on top of the poetry world by age thirty, then decided to spend the next five decades writing a gigantic set of poems that he never even got to finish. On top of that, though, "Canto I" gives us an especially good look into the world of Ancient Greek myth. One really great way to get the most out of this poem, though, is to look for parallels between the struggles of Odysseus and the struggles being played out in the modern world.
For example, we know already that, in "Canto I," Pound retells the story of how the hero Odysseus journeys to the edge of the earth and summons spirits from the dead to ask advice about what he should do next. In one sense, this voyage could show us how we need to look to the wisdom of dead people if we're going to make sense of our current situation. The great thing for us is that we don't actually have to summon dead people to do this. We can read a translation of Homer, and poof—we have direct access to the best thoughts that belonged to a guy who died over 2,500 years ago.
On top of that, a really strong theme in this poem is the idea that we all share something in common with Odysseus. We go through our whole lives looking for the same sense of home that Odysseus is trying to rediscover after fighting in the Trojan Wars. In this sense, it's fitting for Pound to chuck us into the middle of a story we don't recognize at first. Because, for Pound, the more we can recognize the myths of our cultural heritage, the more we'll understand our place in history. And that's good for everybody. We'll be able to gain a better perspective on where we've gotten as a culture and where we need to go in the future. It's the kind of direction that you just can't get from your GPS device.