Cowboy Poetry

Cowboy poetry is poetry by or about cowboys. Its direct origins are from the great cattle drives after the Civil War that brought beef from the isolated West to the populated cities of the North and East. This poetry blossomed as an insider's art form at the height of the cowboy in popular culture, the first half of the twentieth century. In 1985, folklorists from the West first staged a forum for cowboy poetry in Elko, Nevada. This now yearly event, The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, sponsored by the Western Folklife Center, has spawned a grassroots arts revival throughout the American West.

Cowboy poetry is a tradition of working ranch people writing, reciting, publishing, and performing poetry that illuminates the occupational life of herding cattle on horseback. It is most prevalently written in traditional forms—rhyme and meter—with structure inherited from the ballad tradition of Great Britain. However, some of the finest of this contemporary poetry breaks all the rules of the tradition. Cowboys are generally critical of the inauthentic and put a high value on poetic craftsmanship, though the values for appraising the poetry are quite different from modern, academically-based poetics.

Every artistic tradition has a murky past marked by high creativity, low self-consciousness, and marginal popularity to outsiders. For cowboy poetry and cowboy lore in general, this past is the trail-drive days of the 1870s and '80s, when the American West still seemed a frontier. This is where the expressive life of the cowboy became legendary.

There are no historic narratives from the trail drives following the Civil War that fully explain the chemistry of an incredibly diverse lot of men brought together, in the wilderness, relying on each other and animals for long and trying odysseys. From this experience came an amazing amalgam of life that forever would identify Americans. It was a jazz of Irish storytelling and lore, Scottish seafaring and cattle tending, Moorish and Spanish horsemanship, European cavalry, African improvisation, and a reluctant observation of Native American survival that can be heard and seen in this way of life, even today.

Starting in the 1880s books of cowboy poems started the trickle out, cowboy novels spread like prairie fire, and, by 1910, cowboy song collections appeared. The cowboy image was set on its own course with music, filmmaking, and literature that, as the years passed, strayed increasingly from the reality of ranch life. Since the poetry and oral storytelling of working cowboys only slightly permeated the popular cowboy stereotype, these insider expressions, for the most part, stayed an insider's art form.

The golden age of cowboy poetry roughly runs from the closing of the frontier through the 1950s. The best of cowboy poetry spread widely through ranch country, though access to published material was scant. This poetry has always had two parallel and interacting poetic traditions, one oral where poetry was passed through recitation, and one literary with reading at its core.

The poetry, which reached cowboys first, came out of periodicals, small-town papers, stock growers' newsletters, and on ephemeral advertising material. An early example is Frank Deprez' poem, "Lasca," published in an 1888 Montana Stock Growers paper. The poem, widely recited by cowboys, took on a far greater audience, becoming a popular performance piece in Chautauqua presentations. Deprez, a London theater critic, wrote the poem after a visit to the Wild West.

Self-published and small-press books and pamphlets of poetry have always been prevalent in cowboy poetry. Notable is Curley Fletcher's 1917 pamphlet, which included a classic, "The Strawberry Roan." Fletcher and his brother produced the booklet and peddled it at the original Prescott (Arizona) Rodeo. Another poet from Prescott, Gail Gardner, produced one book and kept it in print throughout his long life. His standard, "The Sierry Petes," was included in the book. Bruce Kiskaddon, one of the most respected cowboy poets of the age, also self-published three out of four of his books, the other being published by his principal benefactor, Western Livestock, which used his poems on Union Stockyard Auction notices and in its monthly magazine.

A small group of poets published through New York and other mainstream publishers. Notable among these were Charles Badger Clark, Henry Herbert Knibbs, James Barton Allen, E. A. Brininstool, Arthur Chapman, Larry Chittendon, Elliot Lincoln, S. Omar Barker, and Robert Carr. All these authors wrote a good deal of poetry for the popular market, and it shows in the subjects and style of their poems. Stories of gunfighters, prostitutes, and gold prospectors made little impact on cowboys and ranchers. Others wrote in a stilted cowboy dialect tinged with syrupy sentimentality. Of these widely published poets, Barker and Knibbs display honesty and straightforwardness. Their knowledge of horses and the cowboy life rang true to cowboys and still does today.

In 1985 the first Cowboy Poetry Gathering was staged in Elko, Nevada. At the end of January each year, over 8000 people descend on Elko to celebrate the expressive life of ranching people. Based on cowboy expressive culture, the event is full of verse, music, dance, craft, and food. That first year The New York Times' banner proclaimed "Whoopee Ti-Yi-Yea, Git Along Little Doggerel." The Wall Street Journal wrote a front-page article all rhymed in iambic pentameter. People ran an article entitled "Out Where the Sages Bloom, 120 Rhyme-Stoned Cowboys Show How the West Was Spun." Today there are hundreds of yearly grassroots events across the country—particularly the rural, ranching West—that feature cowboy poetry as the main event. There are now hundreds of new books and recordings of cowboy poetry.

Why does cowboy poetry matter? Mix the stark realities of a life outdoors with animals. Add a heavy dose of the creative juices of the popularizers. Combine that with civilization's ancient metaphors from the pastoral life and myths of the man on horseback. And, for good measure, threaten the agricultural foundation of society by moving most of our population from the farm to the city. What you get is a concoction that is, at once, the story of America, a myth of major proportion, and a pretty fair view of human nature. That's cowboy poetry.

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