Early Glimmer: The Young Writer’s Potential As Seen In Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr.

A stylized portrait of Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr.

Creative talent is not always easy to assess. At least not immediately. Rather, it is something more nuanced—something that requires not just practice but also understanding. (And this applies to both the creator as well as the percipient.) ‘Great art demands great audiences,’ Whitman said. And when attempting to assess talent, one must take into account the age of the creative individual.

‘Wait—but you have always said that what matters is what is on the page and that the artist is irrelevant! And here you are making excuses! A hypocrite you are!’ Hold tight, jerk-face reader. While this is true—that all that does matter is what is on the page, the age of the individual must be taken into account in order to render some sort of judgment with regards to talent. That is, one’s mere creative potential. As example, if a teenager writes a poem, it will invariably be filled with some sort of cliché. Not always, mind you, but one would be hard pressed to uncover an exception.

When young people have sent me their writing, I often focus on the phrasing—is there the occasioned good turn of phrase in midst the cliché? Is the young writer attempting something interesting? Or is this just another generic ‘I hate the world because my parents made me clean my room’ poem/story? Or another bad rip-off of Plath? Does this person seem to have a rawness within that only needs the nurture of dedication and study? Or are these clichéd works written by someone in their adult years still lauding the lazy, inarticulate Bukowski?

Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr. was born in Louisville, KY in 1895 and showed early potential as a writer. Backed by his father, Joseph Seamon Cotter Sr. (and a poet in his own right), Cotter Jr. was encouraged to pursue his craft. An African American much influenced by Keats, Whitman and Emily Dickinson, Cotter’s slim collection of verse displays a rigor within his oeuvre that cannot be overlooked. However, his poetic career was cut short when he died suddenly of tuberculosis at the age of 23. But what he wrote in the interim is much worthy of examination. Let us begin assessing his talent, shall we?

Is It Because I Am Black?

Why do men smile when I speak,
And call my speech
The whimpering spa a babe
That cries but knows not what it wants?
Is it because I am black?

Why do men sneer when I arise
And stand in their councils,
And look them eye to eye,
And speak their tongue?
Is it because I am black?

This is an excellent little poem that addresses race without resorting to cliché. The first stanza illuminates the patronizing attitude involving people of color. That white men merely ‘smile’ when he speaks, as in, they do not take him seriously. Following, they call his speech, ‘The whimpering spa a babe/ That cries but knows not what it wants?’ Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr.’s narrator is akin to a child, someone inferior and perhaps worthy of protection (albeit that is likely untrue given the racist times).

Then, the second stanza takes a turn: ‘Why do men sneer when I arise/ And stand in their councils,/ And look them eye to eye,’. Note the difference when the speaker ‘arises’—the men go from patronizing to sneering within a fast minute. Suddenly, this young black man is now a threat. Whilst this poem does not achieve the depth of Countee Cullen’s ‘Incident’, it is quite a good poem that reflects a wisdom from an early writer. Now, onto another:

A Woman At Her Husband’s Grave

Peace to his ashes!
I cannot for the soul of me
Sorrowing bow,
Tho I search thru the heart of me
Grieve for him now.
‘Tis well he is gone
And heart-break over,
A husband he was
But never a lover.

Yet again, this is a rather straightforward and simple poem that reaches beyond his years. Remember, Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr. was likely only in his late teens or early 20s when he penned this. And here he is getting into the mind of a widow weeping at her husband’s grave. There are no embellishments, but rather the believable voice of a character.

Let us also remember that culture is not so impressed with talent as it is with potential. How many ‘child prodigies’ do we hear of, only to have that child forgotten once they reach adulthood? How many talented young musicians grow into Mozart? There is an old adage about practice and how it’s not practice that makes one perfect but rather—that perfect practice makes one perfect. After all, is it not entirely possible that a young musician could spend hours supposedly homing their skill, only to realize they’ve been hitting the notes entirely wrong? Or the young MFA writer who spends hours trying to perfect that essay or story or poem of mediocrity, only to have learned all the wrong approaches?

My reason for choosing Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr. for this essay is not because his poems rank as nonpareil masterworks, but rather, that he was a young writer who displayed this early writing glimmer. Now, let’s examine another poem inadvertently involving race, albeit not necessarily:


The little child across the street—
Why does she wave to me?
What sees she in my wasted form
To hail so joyously?

Her olive face and curly hair
Are tidings of earth-peace,
Her golden smile’s a wealth of joy
That bids my sorrows cease.

To me she is a fairy sprite—
A heavenly harbinger
Whose sun-kissed eyes are songs of God—
But what am I to her?

Once again, this poem moves rather straightforwardly and carries the similar nice turns of phrases witnessed earlier. The rhymes are simple and yet they are not forced. In this instance, the speaker is imbuing himself into the mind of the child, asking what he is to her. And the only mention of color is that of her ‘olive face’, which can imply someone of Latin origin or even a fair-skinned African American. And given that Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr. himself was African American, race can be imbued into the poem, or not. Is the young girl waving to him because she sees in him a kind of comfort, as in, one of her kind? Or does this poem transcend race, and she is merely being trusting and friendly? Yet the speaker sees a celestial quality within her: ‘To me she is a fairy sprite—/ A heavenly harbinger/ Whose sun-kissed eyes are songs of God—’

But ultimately the speaker is stuck on the question of ‘Why?’ (hence the title) and asks, ‘But what am I to her?’ Just as with Hazel Hall’s poem ‘Loneliness’, the title of Cotter Jr.’s poem is also rather banal, yet it works for the scene. It is brief and effective. Moreover, it is a title that normally, by a lesser writer, would not work. Instead, Cotter Jr. allows readers to interpret the scene for themselves, as he does not dumb down nor preach what one should think nor believe.

Mastering artistic craft is not something that only those within some elite club can attain. Everyone is welcome. Unlike MFA programs, which teach all the bad habits (over description, over modification, excessive use of politics as justification for poor work, the failure to recognize clichés), to learn on one’s own is to learn freely. Let me say that again. To learn on one’s own is to learn freely. And to actually master one’s craft requires that one must first recognize what is good in other writers—especially young writers.

Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr. is an excellent poet to study because one can see both the strengths and weaknesses within. Many years ago, I read a bio on Robinson Jeffers, which shared a number of his early, mediocre poems. I don’t recall them other than how generic they were. A distressed Jeffers knew this. In many ways, Cotter Jr. shows more early potential than Jeffers. Yet Jeffers ultimately developed into a Poetic Master. Had Cotter Jr. not suffered such an early death, he could have quite possibly become a Top Tier Poet himself.

Now, onto a work that demonstrates his skill with music and rhyme:

Looking at a Portrait

O why are there eyes like these,
That sparkle and dapple and tease,
So wide with the morning, so deep with the night,
Dancing and gleaming in passioned delight?
O why are there eyes like these?

O why are there lips like these?
Caressed by the southern breeze,
That beckon and call and hold a slave
All who therewith each soul-cry leave?
O why are there lips like these?

O why are there arms like these?
That crumple and crush as they please
A weak man’s heart, and in their embrace
Bring a glow of red to a strong man’s face?
O why are there arms like these?

This is an excellent poem that does contain some bordering clichés. Again, when considering the age that Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr. would have written this, the language and music show a vigor and skill beyond his years. The poem would otherwise be a throwaway save for the word ‘slave’ within. This is an example of a writer who writes an ok, decent poem that, with the addition of one word, can elevate this poem into very goodness or even excellence—that is, a higher status. Here, he uses the classical themes of love, loss and longing as a means of expressing the physical, as revealed in the final stanza.

The first 2 stanzas read rather classically, Romantically, even—save for the word ‘slave’, which in the final stanza reappears as:

O why are there arms like these?
That crumple and crush as they please
A weak man’s heart, and in their embrace
Bring a glow of red to a strong man’s face?
O why are there arms like these?

We go from the Romantic and gentle to the physical—the ‘arms like these/that crumple and crush.’ He then subverts the cliché by saying, ‘a glow of red to a strong man’s face.’ In reading the final stanza, the violence is implied, as brought on by the aggression of these nameless arms. Read it again and notice how he uses the arms as their own entity—as though they exist without any mind behind them, but rather, that they operate involuntarily. Once again, I will stress how Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr. possessed both a skill and insight beyond his years.

In prepping for this essay, I skimmed though his entire corpus of sonnets that, after several reads, became indistinguishable. While they all contained good rhyme and music, the ideas and language very often fell into cliché. Yet I must stress, readers, that he was only 18-22 when he would have written most. What did you write within that age that could rival? While they are no means excellent poems, they do show a progressive pattern that all young writers should frequent.

I have included one of his better sonnets within as a means of showing his best. Within the collection, the poem is merely called ‘Sonnet’ but on another webpage, it notes the poem’s title as the first line:

I sometimes wonder if the mighty God
Cares aught about the little deeds of men;
And if their day and time can reach his ken
Or raise their breath above the hungry sod.
Does He who lightly holds th’ eternal rod,
Now taut, now loose, the threads of Why and When?
Giving passing heed – or be they one or ten –
To one-time flesh but now the wind-blown clod?
If men can die who never yet knew life,
And, smiling, hold it is no strange affair;
Or live when death were welcome boon of strife,
Torn, broken sheaves the ghostly reapers spare;
The saints must grieve for earthly sorrows rife,
And God must heed, yea surely, God must care.

Cotter was not without his philosophical nihilism and nor was he without cynicism. The last line, especially, exemplifies this. Note the freshness of language and rhyme. This is an excellent poem from anyone of any age, much less from anyone before the age of 23. I will allow you, intelligent reader, to uncover the strengths of his work.

Poetry is hard. It is. (Why else would there be so many bad poets?) I am only now returning to the craft after almost 20 years hiatus. I found myself having to relearn certain techniques, given that I have spent so much of my time within the world of prose. I want to stress the importance of reading. I stress this to those who wish to write with creative potency. Very often, we learn from the near misses, rather than the home runs. To say it was a shame that Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr. did not live into a full writer would not only be an understatement but also condescending. It is obvious.

There are true tragedies in the artistic world—the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, which resulted in his early death, the death of Buddy Holly at 22, the death of John Keats, and the death of Joseph Seamon Cotter Jr. All would have certainly gone on to create more.

It is always tragic when someone of great potential dies young. Learn from them. Grow. Don’t let their works go overlooked. They too have purpose. Grow. Not just from them but for them.


The saints must grieve for earthly sorrows rife,
And God must heed, yea surely, God must care.

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If you enjoyed this piece, check out the automachination YouTube channel and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include an interview with singer Eva Schubert on writing good songs, a philosophical look at kitsch, aesthetics, and NFTs with UK painter Ethan Pinch, and a long discussion on Edward P. Jones’s classic short story collection, “Lost in the City”.

More from Jessica Schneider: The Assertion of Character in Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder”, Contained in Captivity – On Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Mirror” (Zerkalo), The Grit and Dirt of Carl Sandburg