Claude McKay's Early Poetry (1911-1922): A Digital Collection

Introduction: About this Site

In This Collection...
Constab Ballads (1912)
Songs of Jamaica (1912)
Early Uncollected Poetry (1911-1922)
Workers Dreadnought Poetry (1920)
Spring in New Hampshire (1920)
Harlem Shadows (1922)
Selected Poems (1953)
Criticism and Contextual Essays
Welcome to Claude McKay's Early Poetry (1911-1922): a Digital Collection. This site began as a collaborative WordPress project put together by students in a graduate seminar in fall 2015. The site has evolved since fall 2015 and been reworked for the Scalar platform; as of 2017, it offers digital editions of all of McKay’s early poems, including Songs of Jamaica, Constab Ballads, Spring in New Hampshire, and Harlem Shadows, as well as uncollected poetry published in various Jamaican, British, and American magazines from the 1910s and 20s not included in those volumes. 

[Update from 2022: The materials on this site are being blended into a new, much larger project, Anthology of African American Poetry.]

One aim of this site is to use Scalar's innovative architecture and in-built visualizations to show relationships between the poems McKay published from his early years in Jamaica through 1922 that might not be otherwise apparent. While biographers and critics have suggested a strong divide between McKay's more aesthetically-ambitious poetry and his more activist writing, this site shows that the two streams of McKay's literary output overlapped to a considerable degree. Moreover, while there is a clear change in voice and style after he moves to the U.S., the concerns of McKay's early Jamaican poetry in collections like Constab Ballads and Songs from Jamaica overlap with the themes of his later work more than has been generally acknowledged. 

While the digital editions on this site are nearly complete as of summer 2017, we have made the intentional decision not to present these as definitive scholarly digital editions. First, for a full scholarly print edition of McKay's poems, readers are encouraged to consult William J. Maxwell's Complete Poems: Claude McKay (2008). This is the authoritative collection of McKay's poetry, including poems he authored later in life; we have consulted it extensively as we have expanded this site -- especially when trying to ascertain the whereabouts of McKay's various uncollected poems. For readers looking for a scholarly digital edition of Harlem Shadows by itself, we would highly recommend Chris Forster and Roopika Risam's Harlem Shadows project. In addition to the primary text, their edition contains a great deal of helpful supplementary material, including reviews and textual variants.

A key goal of this project is to use semantic tags to demonstrate the relationships between McKay's early poems in the context of his personal experience: 1) as a migrant nostalgic for his childhood life in rural Jamaica, 2) as a person with radical political beliefs, 3) as a gay man, and 4) as a minority poet aspiring to acceptance and critical respect in the overwhelmingly white literary culture of Anglo-American modernism. 

The payoff of this kind of analysis might be in visualizations like the following network diagram:

It's worth mentioning that the tags we have chosen are the result of close reading and the choices made by a group of human readers (the site editor and a group of graduate student collaborators), emerging as we read the poems and looked for interesting recurring themes. The thematic clusters we found would not be surprising to anyone who has a familiarity with McKay's poetry: "Nature" and "Home" are themes in many of McKay's poems, as are "Race" and "Class"/"Labor." What might be novel is the way the diagram gives certain poems special importance as "bridge" texts -- works that show how seemingly disparate themes in McKay's body of work might be more connected than it might otherwise appear. (See a more detailed interpretation of the above diagram by Amardeep Singh here.)

Introducing Claude McKay

Claude McKay
 is one of the central poets of the Harlem Renaissance, whose works had a broad audience in his day. As an accessible and highly readable poet writing about themes that resonate, we believe that he could be better known even today. We have tagged poems thematically to guide readers to works they may be particularly interested in, including especially poems that deal with issues of race, class/class warfare, gender, and sexuality. (Use the VISUALIZATION>TAG menu on the upper left corner of the screen to access this feature.) Several short, contextual essays place McKay’s work in both historical and contemporary contexts, and we also offer interpretations of select poems and educational materials intended for readers interested in doing further research about McKay. Since we believe that literature can be a powerful tool for imagining a more socially just world, we are committed to making McKay’s work accessible to the public. Thus we have aimed for simplicity of design; we hope this version of Claude McKay's early poetry will bridge diverse groups of people and spark conversations around McKay’s legacy.

This project is driven in part by an interest in considering Digital Humanities methods in relation to social justice. Approaching the Digital Humanities from a framework of literature and social justice encourages us to consider the contributions of marginalized writers and to ask how the study of literature and literary history bears upon our understanding of contemporary social and political contexts. We have created this site as both a digital humanities experiment and a social justice intervention; we are invested both in exploring and advocating for McKay and for aspects of his writing—especially along themes of race, class, and sexuality—that have historically not received the greatest focus from previous generations of McKay scholars. McKay's poetry is not only stunningly beautiful, but speaks to continued problems of racism/white supremacy and the exploitation of workers that persists in the United States today.

--Amardeep Singh, Site Editor

--With editorial contributions from: Kyle Brett, Joanna Grim, Jenna Casciano, Heather Simoneau, Sarah Heidebrink-Bruno, Alex Thompson, and Brenda Martinez 
Department of English
Lehigh University
Contactamsp AT Lehigh DOT edu 
Amardeep Singh's web home:

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