After years of managing digital humanities projects for organizations, this past fall, I had the opportunity to contribute to a digital humanities project as a student.
In a graduate seminar on Eighteenth-Century Poetry at San Francisco State University, Professor Bill Christmas assigned us the task of finding an obscure, forgotten poem from the time period and annotating it. We were to consult a digital or print archive to identify a poem—one not readily available in teaching anthologies—worthy of discussion in seminar.
In the process, my fellow graduate students and I modernized the long s’s (which look like f’s, which was in the 1700s the standard way of writing non-terminal s’s) and to correct any printing errors, but otherwise to stick to period spelling. When in doubt about whether something is an error or a period-spelling, we were to err on the side of preserving the text as is, and note our thinking in an annotation. The idea was for our transcriptions to match as closely as possible the original text. In other words, to be as reliable as an anthology of poetry of the period.
Annotation, we learned, is more art than science. We were to note historical references, names, or allusions that require explanation. And explanations were to be as simple as possible.
Note that, up to this point, everything I have described could be completed using word processing software and a printer. In fact, Christmas explained that he had previously assigned annotations in just that way.
But after attending a digital humanities panel at a conference, he was inspired to develop a new project for his classes. The annotation assignment was a natural choice. By setting up a simple WordPress website, the annotation assignment moves from paper filed away in a cabinet at the end of the semester to a growing body of under-recognized poetry. Since miscellanies (1) were so popular during the 18th century, Christmas thinks of Poetical Scavenger as a “digital miscellany.”
The Poetical Scavenger resurrects forgotten poems and gives them new life beyond the limited number of students who will ever take a small graduate seminar at San Francisco State. The digital miscellany can be a resource for other classes Christmas teaches as well as a resource for students outside SFSU.
I used Gale’s Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) to find the poem I contributed to the annotation project. I discovered Richard Jago’s “The Blackbirds” by accident. In the results of a search for another term all together, I stumbled upon John Bell’s classical arrangement of fugitive poetry. The reference to “fugitive poetry” intrigued me, especially because of the 20th century Southern American poets who called themselves The Fugitives. I browsed the book, and when I came across the title “The Blackbirds,” I could not help but think of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” I read Jago’s poem out of curiosity more than anything.
Jago personifies the blackbirds with the rituals of courtship, marriage, and sacrifice. Attributing to the birds these human characteristics creates in the reader a sense of empathy and identification with members of another species. The poem can be read as an argument for animal rights, an ecological sensitivity, as well as a lyric depiction of tragic love.
I appreciated the assignment. It called upon different sets of skills: one part detective work, one part editorial, and one part hypertext. After having worked for more than ten years in the field, it was refreshing to be on the student end of a digital humanities project.