10th April 2017
After receiving feedback on the initial proposal I suggested, I have decided to move forward with my primary goal for this project being to create an interactive annotated set of Langston Hughes’ poems, that allows for flow of reading across literary and critical sources to accompany the primary texts. In particular, I will be setting out to highlight the influence of Walt Whitman’s poetry (Leaves of Grass), and even to track the presence of allusions and parallels between the two poets on a line-by-line level.
Consequently, I’ve made the decision not to pursue a more performative or creative interpretation of placing these two poets in dialogue, but rather to favour the production of an innovative resource to enhance the reading experience of those approaching Hughes’ work, whether this is from an academic background, or any other. This should not only allow for a higher quality of final product given the time constraints of the research project’s due date, but also allow for a more coherent scope and focus within the confines of the aspirational outcome.
What’s left for me to ascertain now is, which poems will I be including? Given that Langston Hughes is the active poet in creating the bridge between his own oeuvre and that of Walt Whitman from a century prior, I intend to base the project around a core selection of Hughes’ poems that showcase the full range of his thematic and technical concerns, and how this relates to the specific parts of Leaves of Grass that correspond thus. My plan of action then is to take my own reading, and use the critical works of scholars such as Ed Folsom and George B. Hutchison (since their critiques will similarly feature as source text to be included in the interactive product) in order to identify a sensible selection, ideally featuring poems from across the breadth of the anthology, and its composite “clusters” (a structural format favoured by both Whitman and Hughes alike, and grounds to assume an overarching literary kinship, not to mention a degree of shared preoccupation.)
Comparing Software & Technology Options:
This week I consulted with the Digital Humanities Lab at Sterling Memorial Library, and with our Digital Humanities Fellow for the class, Bo Li, in the hopes of identifying specific software packages or computer programs that I could use as the basis for producing the textual platform of my project. The program would ideally be flexible, allowing for smooth transitions between different bodies of texts, and multiple ways of formatting texts with images, colours, and margins that would allow an array of critical information and sources to be viewed in conjunction with primary literary sources.
To my somewhat surprise, it seems that there does not currently exist a wealth of facilities publicly available for the production of interactive literary analysis and annotated readings. While to some extent this probably does make sense to me given the niche nature of the academic industry and profession, at the same time I do wonder that a more adaptable platform has not been created or commercialised whereby writers and scholars could more freely arrange their written thoughts.
However, given the time constraints of this project, and the severe limitations on my own technical abilities, there is certainly no hope of building a new program to serve such a purpose from scratch in the given time frame of this calendar year–let alone the span of this semester! As such I find myself comparing the two prospective tools at my disposal to compare which of the two might prove most useful option to proceed with.
The first option, that is my instinctive choice having seen it demonstrated in class to some considerable effect in the earlier stages of this class, is an app called “Twine” (twinery.org) – that appears to be intended for the creation of multiple-path story or adventure narratives, presented on an interactive platform that allows users/readers to forge their own path through the series of texts presented, with a possibility for custom coding and adaptation to produce individualised results along the way, if so desired. It seems clear to me that while this will certainly be a useful starting point, my computer vocabulary will have to expand somewhat in order to be able to steer the course of the application towards my own more academic ends.
The second possibility is another that I have seen used previously, but moreso in archival or editorial analysis – this is a program called “Juxta”. True to its name, it allows for the direct side-by-side comparison of multiple versions of literary texts, and is coded to compute reports that highlight and dissect the discrepancies and changes across multiple versions of identical texts. While such a tool could certainly be deeply useful in principle to the tracking of poetic influence across separate literary generations such as I hope to do in the case of Hughes and Whitman, my preliminary experiments with the software have shown that the texts are unfortunately not quite verbally similar enough for the program to be able to produce many meaningful results through running comparison. The stylistic and structural nuances of influence, of the kind that run deep from Whitman to Hughes’ poetry, are not the most easily analysed by a computer that can (as yet) only possess an eye for data trends and parallel word clusters. If I were to extend this project centring Whitman and the multiple editions of his poems that are accessible through resources such as the Walt Whitman Archive, and comparing the shifts in his paradigmatic thought with the developments of Hughes’ own experiences, to see if the historical events of their respective eras could be traced down to a tangible parallel impact on their poetry––then I have no doubt Juxta would be a prime tool of choice.
However, on reflection thus, I have been able to successfully identify Twine as the primary platform for my final project; and will return with further updates as to my progress in developing greater proficiency using this software for my own nefarious (literary-critical) ends.
Getting Used to Twine
I have begun the task of transcribing my collected archive of poetry and literary criticism as compiles through broad reading over the past weeks, and attempting to link it together making use of the Twinery program in a way that will ultimately give way to a coherent and accessible database of poetry and information about that poetry, or at least this is my goal.
I mentioned my lack of technical skills last week when I came to post, and this problem has by no means magically resolved itself in the last matter of days. I’ve just about figured out how exactly the program functions in terms of linking bodies of texts and creating offshoot strands of narrative or analysis through clicking on specifically-highlighted words or phrases. However, I had hoped to find some more options for specific customisation in the visual format and aesthetic themes in the public-viewable edition.
It is clear that this tool was overall intended for something slightly different than poetic annotations and marginalia. However, I’ve found that with some slight adaptations to the focus of my project, I think it should be quite functional as a tool for creating a resource that does serve its purpose, even if it looks and feels somewhat different from my original envisioning of a palimpsest-like archival supercomputer.
For instance, there is no way of overlaying or subsetting additional annotations on the same page as an original poem (at least, no way that is accessible with my knowledge of computer software codes, html, java, etc.) This means that all secondary information, including comparative links to other poems between Whitman and Hughes must be transitioned to a whole separate page. I’m reluctant to just hurl my reader directly from one poem into the next, which makes necessary the creation of intermediary slides, from which the reader can choose how to direct their subsequent reading and follow through from a Hughes’ poem of 1959 all the way back to its Whitman counterpart in 1860.
Consequently, I’ve decided that I will be using a selection of poems from Hughes’ 1959 anthology as the central basis of the database. Given the vastness of Whitman’s works, and the crucial operative fact that Hughes came second, and so is the only poet acting consciously with regards to their poetic relationship, it seems much more germaine to focus on primarily producing an annotated edition of Hughes’ works as the central focus, and then employing Whitman as another secondary source tool alongside the wealth of tertiary critical pieces, to illuminate the construction and development of Hughes’ poetic voice and preoccupations.
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and the Physical Production/Performance of Texts
As the textual foundation for my final projection becomes more and more solidified, I’ve started to spend increasing amounts of time toying with display functions and experimenting with new strands of coding to observe their effects on how I could choose to present the poetry selection I have assembled and curated. As mentioned previously, I want to stress that as an English major and prospective humanities graduate student, this foray into the world of technical know-how is a tentative one to say the least. But having so far avoided any permanent damage to the body of my work thus far, and being always careful to save my progress, I’ve started to be able to make some more deliberate choices in terms of text structure and format, emphasis on the page, and how text is illuminated with specific colours to link together thematic strands of meaning, as well as common connections in rhyme or structure.
This marks an exciting new phase of the project for me, that in light of our final class meeting, has got me thinking increasingly about the role which poets, editors and publishers play a crucial role in the ultimate consumption of literary texts. This week we read Citizen by Claudia Rankine, a book that as you hold it in your hands and turn the pages, you can tell has been specifically crafted to create a very deliberate reading experience for anyone who picks up a copy.
While Rankine deliberately sets her images and poetry on the stark white background of American racial discrimination, Hughes errs in favour of the opposite––he paints in the broad stroke of the African American experience, positioning himself at times as the definitive representative of his race (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”). In a digital age that offers vastly more flexible capacity for textual production and artistic licence in the publication and arrangement of poems on a page (whether paper or web), an inevitable part of my project and its impact will be how I choose to present the poetry I have collated; and this in turn ought to be expected to have a significant impact on the effectiveness of my annotations, and highlighting besides.
See above for how I’ve decided to limit my colour coding choices to the red/white/blue of the American flag. While a subtle choice, and one that does potentially run the risk of limiting the extent to which I could discriminate particular strands of meaning, I feel that Hughes already more than compensated for this in his careful delineation of his poems by thematic cluster: a technique borrowed from the publication of Whitman’s 1860 Leaves of Grass, and one that I discuss at length in my own commentary throughout the compiled poems found in my program thus far.
Similarly, I’m pleased to now be able to incorporate deliberately the very first aesthetic specification I was able to control last week, which you can see in previous screen captures as the reverse-colouring of the text on the page; with the body of words standing out as white on a black background, as opposed to the conventional opposite. This choice was sparked in particular after reading Rankine’s Citizen, and also after examining the illustrations and frontispiece that accompanied my edition of Hughes’ Selected Poems (see below). It is my hope that thus, as the informative content of my final project continues to swell and size and complexity, the aesthetic choices of the final platform will continue to place all of this information in a coherent context that highlights the central themes of my investigation, and of the poetry of Hughes and Whitman alike.
As can be seen from the accompanying diagrams, the project has grown immensely in breadth and complexity, and thus became increasingly unwieldy over the last week or so of work as my computer physically struggled to be able to process the volume of data that was being moved around and reformatted constantly as I sought the ideal way of presenting the piece, to be most user-friendly. From the inside of Twine, shown here, it does not appear by any means to be the most aesthetically pleasing or coherent sequence of information and commentary:
However! I’m quite pleased to report that, contrary to what I had been previously told when consulting the Digital Humanities Lab, there is a way of publishing and exporting the results of a project such as this without mandating that others download and configure the same Twinery software on their own personal computers; this just exists separately from the Twinery app itself, at a free hosting website called “philome.la”. Though I have saved the archival and publishing html files from the production process, I believe that this website platform sees to be the most accessible way of disseminating my work, and so it is with this link to the project in its final stages that I leave off this work-in-progress blog.
I conducted multiple test-runs with fellow students in addition to myself to see how easy it was to access the project platform website, and was encouraged to add an answer key and more mobility buttons such as “return to table of contents” links throughout; and therefore did so. Ideally, this would be a feature that could be included more elegantly through programming icon buttons, or the inclusion of a moving tool-bar. Nonetheless, in the absence of these things in the software itself, I did my best to make the project as navigable as possible, and am happy to present the results.