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Introduction: About this Site
Amardeep Singh, Lehigh University
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.
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
[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
Contact: amsp AT Lehigh DOT edu
Amardeep Singh's web home: http://www.electrostani.com
Interpreting Two Network Diagrams--Thematic Tags, Publication history
Contextual Essay. Exploring Network Diagrams
Essay Author: Amardeep Singh
Below I'll present two different network diagrams I've derived from Scalar's built-in visualization feature. One looks at the clusters created by thematic tags, the other looks at the relationship between poems published in different venues.
Skeptics of Digital Humanities scholarship sometimes see objects like network diagrams and wonder what they might tell us that we don't already know. And indeed, even here, to some extent, the diagrams below do show us visually some things we might have been able to intuit without the benefit of this tool. I should also acknowledge that the thematic tags we have been using are somewhat subjective. We have the poem "A Capitalist at Dinner" tagged by "Class" but not by "Labor." Others might structure these tags differently and end up with diagrams that look different.
That said, there are some surprises here. In McKay's poetry I'm especially interested in thinking about the connections between the two streams of his writing from this early period, which we might loosely divide into a) political poems (including race-themed poems and Communist/worker-themed poems) and b) nature-oriented, pastoral and romantic poems. At least in terms of publication venue, there is quite a bit of overlap between these two broad categories. McKay excluded the most directly Communist poems from his book-length publications, but he included—often at the urging of his editors—poems expressing decisive anger at racial injustice in American society. And even in the body of poems published in magazines like Workers Dreadnought there are hints of the nature themes in poems like "Joy in the Woods "and "Birds of Prey." The network diagrams show us a series of other poems as well at the "hinge" between the two clusters. These poems might be particularly worthy of special attention and study in the future.
A. Thematic Tags.
Take a look at the following network diagram showing the relations between a limited set of thematic tags, generated by Scalar using the built-in visualization application. The image below is a static image, but if you click on VISUALIZATIONS > TAG on the menu in the corner of this site, you'll get a "clickable" diagram that is also live and manipulable. The body of poems included here is comprised of all of the poems from Harlem Shadows as well as about fifteen of the early poems not included in Harlem Shadows.
What does this diagram show? First, we should note that the red dots show tags, while the orange dots show poems. As of November 2016, only eight thematic areas have been tagged: Race, Class, City, Nature, Home, Sexuality Homoeroticism, Labor. (More Tag information from the earlier, Wordpress version of this site is currently in the Metadata for individual poems, and is discoverable using the search function on this Scalar site. Try searching for "Birds," for instance.)
What Can We Learn?
1. Thematic Clusters. First and most obviously, certain themes are "clustered" together. Nature and Home have many overlaps, and thus appear clustered. Sexuality and homoeroticism also form a cluster. And finally, the tags focused on Class, Labor, and city life also form a natural cluster, though the clustering is significantly less tight than the others.
2. Centrality of Nature. An obvious discovery is that "Nature" is one of the most common tags in McKay's early poetry. This was a surprise to the students in the Digital Humanities class (given that we think of McKay as a black poet with militant/leftist politics, we might expect those themes to be more dominant). Of course, many of the poems marked "Nature" also overlap with race, class/labor, or sexual/queer themes. The surprise in finding so much discussion of Nature—and specifically McKay's interest in writing about birds—might remind us that we actually need to read a poet's poems before rushing to narrowly define them (i.e., as a black, political poet). (I would encourage visitors to look at Joanna Grim's essay exploring the "bird" theme in Harlem Shadows)
3. Home. Many of McKay's poems in this period thematize his memory of life in Jamaica. Thus, a few of the poems (for instance, "The Tropics in New York") reflect McKay's nostalgia for his pastoral upbringing from the vantage point of someone now living in a much larger, modern urban setting.
4. Poems with three or more tags. I'm interested in the poems that presently have three or more tags: "The Barrier," "The Castaways," and "On the Road." These are poems that scholars may not have paid very attention to in the past, but diagrams like the one above might lead us to think of them as newly important as they bridge some of McKay's most important themes from this period. (Again, the number of tags is a bit arbitrary and at present an artifact of the way metadata has been tagged. At most this information might nudge readers to pay a bit more attention to some poems rather than others, not to make any sweeping conclusions about the poems as a whole.)
I would encourage users of this site to play with the live visualization tool and send me (Amardeep Singh) any screen captures that seem interesting or telling.
B. Publication Venues
This diagram is a bit more messy. It contains nodes for publication venues (which are organized on this Scalar site using "Paths"). These appear in light blue in the diagram below. Here is a static image captured as a screenshot from earlier in the site's history (i.e., before the early Jamaican poetry was added):
What do we see here? (Note: the blue dots represent publication venues. The red dots represent thematic tags. The orange dots represent individual poems. The green dots are media files uploaded to this site. Readers should probably try and ignore the green dots.)
Essentially there is a larger cluster around Spring in New Hampshire and Other Poems and Harlem Shadows, and a smaller cluster around the Workers Dreadnought path and the Early Uncollected Poetry path I've constructed on this site. Perhaps not all that surprisingly, the sexuality and homoeroticism tags are mostly entirely disconnected from the labor & class oriented poetry published in magazines like Workers Dreadnought. But there are some poems right in the middle between the two clusters that seem especially interesting to consider -- poems like "Joy in the Woods," "The Battle," "Summer Morn in New Hampshire," "Birds of Prey," and "Labor's Day" that appear with strong connections both to the "Nature" tag and to "Class" and "Labor" tags. Though few of these poems have been looked at closely by critics, they are in some ways the key to understanding the two major aspects of Claude McKay's poetry in this period.