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Poetry from Afar: Distant Reading, Global Poetics, and the Digital Humanities

The Poet Tree in Cabbagetown Toronto
Fig 1. “Deconstructing poetry with wind. To use nature to physically deconstruct a well-known poem by letting words individually blow in the breeze, when released from the tree. To have the public involved in reconstructing the poem by catching/collecting the words and recording the randomly reassembled new form. The reassembled poem(s) would be displayed as they appear. A contemporary art moment in the spirit of Robert Rauschenberg’s erased de Kooning drawing in 1953.” Kelly Rogers, “The Poet Tree in Cabbagetown Toronto.” Carlton Street and Sumach, October 4, 2008. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In the spring of 2019, a new and welcome contact of mine in Ghana sent me a PDF of an anthology he had put together with a number of promising, young African poets. Through conversations with those involved with the making of the anthology, I began to note that these writers and editors are part of my intellectual and creative social-network and members of my living archive. In the days following my reading of the anthology, it struck me that the only reason I was able to have access not only to the anthology but also to relationships with these poets was due to a particularly digital connection, which inspired me to consider the processes one might take to formally document these relationships and visually map them out. It had not occurred to me until then that it might be useful not only to document these encounters with poets and to document their work, but also that this might take on the form of a digital project.

A few months after those communications, I received a graduate fellowship in the digital humanities, offered through the Cornell University Library and the Society for the Humanities, which allowed me to develop a sense of the digital as a methodology through which poetry can be studied. With the fellowship’s support, I published The Global Poetics Project, a digital humanities project that maps out global poetry, and reconciled what it means to do literary work with digital technology. If you were to google “digital humanities,” you would undoubtedly discover the critical debates which are occurring across the web. For example, a series of essays have been chronicled in The Chronicle of Higher Education and in a recent issue of PMLA. Arguments engaging big data appear on the web alongside university initiatives that act as incubators and spaces for digital work amongst students and faculty. These initiatives and essays utilize terminology such as computational literary studies (CLS), algorithmic literacy, machine learning, or literary data mining. Yet, what remains consistent across a good majority of the scholarship which pushes against DH is that, to use Nan Z. Da’s terms, it “come[s] up short [. . . and] produces bad literary criticism.”

Of course, digital tools cannot do the critical and analytical work that we do, but neither can we do the work that they do. The digital is a tool. It is, as Franco Moretti puts it, a methodology. In a rapidly digitized and globalized world, incorporating the interdisciplinary methodologies provided by digital practices, not only into literary study but to the production and dissemination of knowledge, makes sense. Indeed, what better way is there to take on global texts than through a method that can handle the “big data” that is the globe? Moretti tells us vis-à-vis Max Weber that the categories through which we engage with the global must become different, that what we are dealing with when we think of the world is not about interconnection but instead “the conceptual interconnection of problems.” (I take it that neither Moretti or Weber are taking up the word “problem” with a negative connotation, but that they are thinking of a set of intellectual curiosities and a set of conditions that must be contended with.) World literature then is a problem that demands a new critical set of processes.

Therefore, digital scholarship offers the critical apparatus of reimagining the scale of the global, and collection is essential to my process. As with all processes, there is a level of experimentation that we must contend with. Kwabena and I have been using our bot, a web crawler, (that we have endearingly named Anansi and is still in development) to move through the web and aggregate information on post-1960s Caribbean, Black American and African poets alongside post-1940s American poets. This compiling in and of itself is a process that will give us a couple thousand data points (probably more). For many years prior, I had been compiling the names of poets and their books in Zotero, but what this did not allow me to do is map out “the conceptual interconnection of problems.” While my original process of collection was undoubtedly digital, it lacked the scale that would allow me to move from observations to the kinds of implications achievable through higher order digital tools like stylometry or mapping. First, what a digital methodology allows for is the conceptual interconnection of a diverse and large number of texts, which is made most apparent when our traditional poetry archives are sat up alongside living poets. When this is done, temporal comparisons can be made across generations, showing lineages both imagined and real.

The Global Poetics Project map.
Figure 2. The Global Poetics Project map. The screenshot is zoomed on West Africa, specifically the coasts of  Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria. July 2019 rendering. Courtesy of the author.

A July 2019 rendering of a map that I have been developing utilizes a tiny data set for the sake of testing out a digital methodology (fig. 2). The data points are real people, their work, and their artistic communities. They are also contemporary, living poets. Hypothetically speaking, if we were to include the data set we are developing of post-1960s poets, some of whom have passed away, these living poets and their material productions would be pressed right up against poets of the past. If, for example, a poet had published in a specific set of journals or had been part of a group whose members went on to affiliate with other organizations, we would be able to start connecting poetic practices across space and through time.

Second, our goal is that by using digital tools we will be able to notice patterns of migration, travel, etc. Our hope is that these patterns will allow us to hone in and begin the traditional work of literary analysis and close reading to see why these patterns have emerged. Mapping can give clear indications of how the material, political, and historical conditions at play in any given moment can give rise to a poem. This is an issue of the paratext and what counts as one. The study of an area or region of the world is undoubtedly complicated by these chosen and forced migrations. What cultural practices end up in new spaces? What politics emerge in new landscapes? What aesthetic practices are shared and rearranged as individuals move?  How are references to both the local and the global articulated in light of these movements and crossings?

Therefore, I am not calling for a distant reading of the poem, but of the paratext that envelops it. This is not text mining. Data should not drive the work but should and can inform the work that humanists already do every day. In putting together this post for the Process blog, I have been working with Kwabena to utilize digital tools (such as Python and Carto) to aid us in our work for The Global Poetics Project in the hopes of creating an example of what this might look like. In trying to do so, we realized that we. Still. Need. More. Data. My intention is that we not be driven by data but that new relationships and connections—either historical, interpersonal, or cultural—might emerge in our analysis of the data.

I hope that over the next few months as Kwabena and I continue to aggregate data before publishing it on the website, we will be able to ask new questions of a text; we will think about digital scholarship as something that can bring us closer to the text because it understands not only the text as a self-referential object but also as the intersection of a set of global conditions. This para-reading—the reading of the paratext through distant reading methods—allows for us to visually see how texts come to be.

Many of the literary, social, and cultural concerns that we are engaged with have a reach that extends beyond the nation-state or one singular location. Indeed, in our moment of what feels like heightened globalization, there has never been a time such as now when the most tantalizing issues have been more interconnected and interdependent. Their interdependency requires, even demands, an interdisciplinary approach. The digital can be viewed as a set of methods that can help us to contend with both the slipperiness of space and place as they are transformed by our global influences and the complexities inherent in the sociopolitical dynamics of particular locations. As always, we could read more and navigate the intricacies of the global through a variety of texts, but we could also have a tool aid us with that process, a digital rendering that makes those connections that form the world even more explicit.

The limits of comparison on the global stage are evident. How can we begin to consider different types and genres of texts in relation to one another? How can we account for area studies alongside literary studies through a digital methodology? How do we account for different Englishes the world now uses in the wake of colonialism? When those Englishes take on the form of Pidgin or Patwa, how do we make sure that digital tools can account for these nuances and differences? As Alan Liu has written and spoken about both on his blog and the 2018 Modern Language Association conference, one of the “next-generation problems that digital humanists” must contend with involves thinking through and understanding the place of diversity in technical innovation.

Yes, digital work allows for and creates important and necessary interventions into authorial attribution and issues of plagiarism, but from the angle I occupy, one which focuses on the diversity of the world, digital tools must be able to contend with the variety of ways in which we all navigate places of varying scale—the local and the global, English and Pidgin, for example.

The process, then, of thinking about poetry on a global scale is a complex one. Many poems are not tethered to a particular geographic location, and, especially in our contemporary moment, neither are poets. Their engagements with various audiences, literary institutions, publishing houses, and poetry communities throughout a number of different geographic locations highlights that there are also a number of cultural, political, linguistic, aesthetic, formal, and social variables now at play within any particular poem. The “data” we now have to contend with is dynamic, fluid, and global in scope. How do we engage with comparative work at this scale? How do we contend with the convergence of multiple “locals” that make up the context and paratext of a poem? The process of thinking about poetry beyond the “provincial,” as W. H. Auden once characterized the genre of poetry, requires an orientation towards the “conceptual interconnection” of texts and the people that produce them. This, for me, requires a practice of engagement that is always tied to the global diversity of poetry and poets. As Anansi crawls the web and I plot more data points on the Global Poetics Project’s map, I hope to become more attuned to the web that connects my literary concerns and the poets I engage with. These relationships already exist in the world and the movements of people and textual materials are already in motion; they just need to be made visual.