64 Parishes

Summer 2021

Poetry by William J. Jefferson

Selected by Louisiana Poet Laureate John Warner Smith

Published: May 28, 2021
Last Updated: August 31, 2021

Poetry by William J. Jefferson

Photo by Jack E. Boucher, Library of Congress

Cane River Gin Company in Bermuda, Natchitoches Parish, after 1933.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “There is properly no history, only biography.” In the poetry of William J. Jefferson, who like Emerson is a Harvard graduate, history speaks resoundingly and profoundly in the “simple” stories of Jefferson’s past life. It is my distinct honor and privilege to introduce a gifted new poet whose verse is deeply personal yet deeply southern and American.

–John Warner Smith


College and Cotton (Circa 1952)

Momma and daddy said we all had to

Go to college

And cotton sold at the gin for 36 cents a pound

And college then cost $150 a semester

And Barbara, the eldest daughter, was salutatorian

And so, she had to go

And the ten of us children

Little and big of us

Had to pitch in and pick what she needed

And 1500 pounds of picked cotton

Turned into 500 pounds of ginned cotton

And that’s how Barbara got to

Go to college

And that’s how the rest of us went

Back when a pound of cotton sold at the gin

For 36 cents


William J. Jefferson’s educational background ranges from his start in elementary school at the East Carroll Parish School for the Colored, through Southern University and Harvard Law School. His vast life experiences inspire the moving and sensitive poems in his poetry manuscript, “Shades of a Simple, Unsimple Life.”