February 2, 2012

Birth of Cotter: a tiny song

Joseph Seamon Cotter was born in Kentucky on February 2, 1861. Raised in Louisville, he had very little schooling and was mostly self-taught; he claimed he could read before the age of four. He got his first job at age eight. Over the years he was a brick-layer, worked in a distillery, then, at age 20, he decided to go to night school in a program especially for "colored" people. Soon, he became a teacher himself and, along the way, became a writer (and an advocate for education for blacks).

Cotter's published works include collections of short stories, a few closet dramas, and several books of poetry. His first collection of verse, A Rhyming, was published in 1895 and included several poems dedicated to fellow educators. Some are humorous, some are lengthy, and the shortest is a mere two lines. The book closed with "A Song":

I sang me a song, a tiny song,
   A song that was sweet to my soul,
And set it a-float on the sea of chance
   In search of a happy goal.

I said to my song: "Go on, go on
   And lodge in a tender spot
Of some human soul where the fires of hate
   And selfishness are not."

My song went on but a little space
   And hied it back to me;
And fell at my feet in a sorry plight—
   The victim of cruelty.

I gazed a moment and quickly saw
   Just how it had come about,
A cruel critic had caught my song
   And probed the soul of it out.

O, poor indeed is the human mind
   (And why was it ever wrought?)
That can thrive on husk in the form of words,
   And not on a sturdy thought.

Incidentally, Cotter claimed that his son, also a writer, was born in the room where Paul Laurence Dunbar gave his first reading in the South. That reading happened to have been in the Cotter home.

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