I think the thinking is a bit skewed here... none of the literature above were the "beginnings" of anything. The language and culture already existed and this literature was the >outcome< of that language and culture, not the other way around. Sometimes I think professors and poets think a little bit too highly of themselves!I do take a “great poet” approach to literary history. I dislike “great man” theories of political or cultural history generally. I read Tolstoy at a tender age, and I've thought ever since that his picture of how history worked, with the great names simply chips thrown up momentarily to the top of the surf, was basically right, if a little exaggerated. And of course if you're a settled enemy to sexism and racism it makes you feel unhappy, or downright mutinous, to follow the “big battalions” of Western literary history, which is a long roll call of comfortable white guys in cultural capitals. Nevertheless, I think the most rewarding way to absorb a literature is to read its “greats” in roughly historical order. It makes most sense as a conversation, and there are touchstone works that everyone returns to over and over. You have to know those, they're the backdrop to everything else going on. Without them you're lost.
It's not fair. The Gawain-Poet, or Pearl-Poet, if you prefer – we don't know his or her name -- deserves on his or her own merits at least as much attention as Chaucer. But if I was writing a world literature syllabus, and I could put in only the Gawain-Poet or Chaucer, I would put in Chaucer without a moment's hesitation. Practically all the English poets of note who came after him read him, and practically nobody read the Gawain-Poet until scholars unearthed him or her in the 19th Century. You just get more understanding, more grounding in English and World literature, you get smarter about it faster, if you read Chaucer first.
And the fact is, that you can only shoehorn so many poets into any syllabus, or into any reading life. There seems amongst modern academics a curious inability to grasp this. Everything you push into a syllabus pushes something else out. It's that simple.
At this point I can hear Miguel interposing that it's not all about schools and syllabuses. And again this is a place where I run counter to form. I hate schools and certifications, I hate them as nests of self-satisfied authoritarianism. I think they waste huge amounts of kids' time. I cut my teeth on Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society). My anarchist leanings are pronounced.
Nevertheless – most people here first learn poetry in school – they first learn good poetry in school – and the things they learn in school stay with them the rest of their lives. And that's been true in the West for a very long time. Poetry in the West is very much something that incubates and is transmitted in schools. And that's not going to change any time soon.
And finally, a lifetime's assiduous reading has convinced me that actually literature is composed of “greats”: it's as true of literature as it is false of history, that it's mostly made by a few people who are much better at it than the people around them. Chaucer is not half-again as good as Gower. He's not twice as good as Gower. He's immeasurably better than Gower. His failures are far more interesting than Gower's successes. We're not on a linear scale, we're on an exponential one.
I don't have an argument for this. I don't even know how to start arguing it. But I think many people who read a lot, and read intensely, would agree with me. This is not to say that there isn't a huge amount of stuff worth reading, there is: and there's as much brilliant stuff moldering away unread as there is brilliant stuff that's recognized, especially in modern times. But still, to take a nearby instance, it's much more worth your while to read Emily Dickinson's poems than to read mine. Even after you've read Dickinson carefully for the first time, it's still more worth your while to read her again than to read me for the first time. And it's still true for the third, fourth, maybe fifth reading. Memorize her stuff. It's better, that's all. I'm not saying my stuff is worthless: I wouldn't inflict it on you if I thought that. But I know my place.
I say all this, because I'm about to unsay it in my next chapter. Stay tuned.