As critics have been bemoaning the decline of poetry and literary writers have been defending their small yet loyal audience, another trend has taken root at ranches, rodeos and country-and-western bars across America: the rise of cowboy poetry.
I was able to explore this trend last year when I was asked to judge the National Cowboy Hall of Fame poetry competition out of Oklahoma City. (The biggest cowboy poetry event, The Gathering — a convention that began in 1985 in Elko, Nevada — now attracts more than 8,000 poetry lovers, which may make it the largest annual celebration of verse in the world.)
Generally, cowboy poets don’t approach the muse the way many other creative writers do, worrying about each syllable and metric foot. Their verse is mostly rhymed and rough-metered, and usually employs rural settings and Western dialect. Cowboy poets don’t worry much about whether a poem “succeeds”; it’s the writing thereof that counts. Neither do they worry about competition; they are by nature competitive with themselves, whether on a bronc, in a rodeo ring, or on a combine in the fields. (And most also accept “drugstore” cowboys, those who work white-collar jobs in town but buy Western clothes and mimic the lifestyle and art of the open range. Many real rangehands seem to figure the more cowboy poets, the better.)
You won’t find these writers fretting about today’s scarcity of markets for verse, either. They sell their poetry themselves, out of pickup trucks and at rodeos, county fairs, Western shops and flea markets.
Just ask the ones featured below.
TRADITION ON TAPE
“Yes, I write ‘cowboy’ poetry. Not ‘cowgirl’ poetry, whatever that is,” says Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns, who has lived her entire life on a Wyoming ranch. She began writing verse in the 1980s and has performed at cowboy poetry gatherings and symposiums in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, New Mexico and Texas.
Cowboy poetry is probably performed more often than it’s read. This is the result of a number of factors, says Dr. Leonard F. Bischel of Tempe, Arizona — an authority on cowboy poetry and an ex-North Dakota ranch hand.
“Cowboys aren’t used to mixing with a lot of people, so they get out of the habit of speaking,” Bischel says. “Therefore, they get the reputation of being strong silent types. However, cowboys — along with their families — do have a lot to say and feelings to express. Since they have an oral tradition, like all herding people, most of their poems are narrated instead of read. They enjoy narrating poems to each other. They take pride in their profession and how they view life.”
In her lyric “Givin’ Thanks,” Stearns starts by expressing her gratitude for her parents, ancestors and land. Then she concludes:
Thank Him for hearing, to enjoy the
sound of thunderstorms, coy-
otes, an’ cows;
Thank Him for makin’ this land so dry
That it, mostly, escaped the plow.
But most of all what I’m thankful for
Is the gift of God’s own Son,
Who’s branded me for Heaven’s
When my work in Wyoming is done.
As you can see, she fuses themes of two traditional genres — nature and religion — and uses a ballad (or hymn-like) structure, alternating four- and three-beat lines, with the rhyme occurring on the second and fourth lines of each stanza.
And to continue the form’s long-standing oral tradition, Stearns sells tapes of her poems in addition to books. “I find they sell best at poetry gatherings, cowboy symposiums and other Western happenings,” she says. “But they also go well through book, gift and souvenir shops here in the West.”
PEDDLING PUNS FROM PICKUPS
Chip O’Brien moved to Vacaville, California, 20 years ago from a small town “back East.” He’s been writing cowboy poetry for more than 25 years — and has three collections of poetry and stories to his credit.
“If I can write cowboy poems, I’d expect just about anyone else can do the same,” he says. “What prospective writers need is exposure to livestock, sunsets, wide open spaces and an honest day’s work.”
It matters little whether a cowboy poet is actually a cowboy, O’Brien adds, noting that he has spent much of his life farming and ranching. “Cowboys argue amongst themselves as to who is or is not a cowboy,” he says. “One does, however, have to understand the humor….
“The cowboy is an enigma. Who else puts a $2,000 saddle on a $50 horse and wears a $400 belt buckle the size of a Packard hubcap?”
And who else would capture that enigma with a poem like this:
I Got class
Them city folks say I ain’t got no class
A social outcast they shun like a
From the green stuff I smell
On my boots, I can tell
I got class. I call it my agri-culture.
O’Brien’s pun may be a groaner, but there’s social commentary in that lyric. In fact, a few of his poems are quite political, including “Custer’s Last Stand”:
So many works have been written
His tactics are analyzed to this day
If Reno had held his battle line
Or Benteen had rushed to the fray.
There’s two things I’d like to share,
Custer’s Battlefield’s name isn’t right.
It’s the only place that I know of
Named for the loser of the fight.
One more point that you should know
Before my paltry poem is done.
The reason Custer lost the battle
Is because the Indians won. (Incidentally, O’Brien composed this poem before Congress changed the name of the Custer National Battlefield to the Little Bighorn Naitonal Monument, to mark the Native American victory.)
O’Brien sells his books from the back of a pickup truck. “I had 2,000 copies of my first book printed and figured, at $10 each, I would make $20,000 bucks,” he says. “But it don’t work that way. I reckoned book distributors would flock to buy them. But out of the dozens of distributors I contacted, only one agreed to market the collection. So I sold some of my books to that one distributor and peddled the rest myself at bars, conventions, livestock auctions, rodeos, Western shops, and anywhere folks would listen or buy a book.”
O’Brien earned barely enough to self-publish his second book, and his second, he says, is paying for his third.
PRESERVING A ‘DIRTY, UNCERTAIN’ WAY OF LIFE
Frank Morris is a Riverside, California, cowboy poet who bills himself as “a self-proclaimed liar,” so we might take these credits with a grain of salt: Southern California’s Cowboy Poet Laureate, 1990 Cowboy Poet of the Year for San Diego County, and Grand Champion in Tall Tales at the 42nd Annual Death Valley Encampment Days.
Credits aside, Morris is often considered as much a cowboy philosopher as a poet.
“Well, it’s real nice to be put on a par with those old graybeards like Plato, Aristotle and Will Rogers,” he says in an epigraph from his prose piece “Cowboy Philosophy 101,” which also includes:
“Horses are bigger than you, stronger than you, and scared of everything.”
“Wear your best boots, and you’ll step in it. Wear your old boots, and it’ll get inside.”
“Horsemanship improves when nobody’s looking.”
“The worst beer is superior to the best water.”
Morris believes there are two types of cowboy poets: “Young Chip [O’Brien], for instance, is of the kind who writes mostly to publish and to be read. I, on the other hand, write to have something to perform, the live show being my strong suit.
“In fact, if it weren’t for my editor, I’d never get nothing in print, as my spelling is dismal and my typing worse.”
Morris says cowboy poetry stems from the “Scot-Irish tradition of the tall tale. Couple that with a little of the Indian oratory tradition, throw in men who loved a good story but who were mostly illiterate and could only pass on a story through rote, and poof! You got cowboy poetry.”
Unlike many cowboy poets, Morris is a purist: He believes you must be a cowboy to compose cowboy verse. “It is not stories written by men in town wearing a cowboy hat and some boots, thinking they are cowboys. Since this art form is specific to its audience, counterfeits can be picked up on in a hurry, and they generally go slinking to their holes.”
Cowboy poetry, Morris reasons, should preserve in verse the cowboy’s true way of life — a way of life that’s fast diminishing.
In the final stanzas of his poem “Pay Your Debts,” he proclaims:
Our time is not past. We ain’t
breathed our last.
Vaquero take to your reigns.
Cowboy speak of the pains and the
glories of this life.
The children to tell, of a life that’s
Neath the stars, round the fire with
Buckeroos all. Ride on. Sit tall.
Don’t waste your time on lament.
Ride. Be bold, and live to the code.
Though it be tough meat, tasting
It is owed to those men who wrote it
and who bore all hardship with song,
Long life to the cowboy.
Morris offers these tips:
“Don’t begin! Go to school, get educated, and take up something besides agriculture. It’s dirty, dangerous, low paying, uncertain, and can be ugly as hell! Failing that, write about what you know. From this do not deviate. Writing about unknown stuff will show you to be a phony, and you will surely fail.
“Also, gender don’t count for much in this cowboy poetry game. My wife is not a poet, but she can handle any horse good as me or any other man, can muck out as fast, can doctor on the same level, and still keep a house and raise the kids. Conversely, I’m a damn fine hand in the kitchen, and, if I do say so myself, look rather fetching in an apron.”
Morris sells his books wherever he performs and through local stores with cowboy clientele. He also sells them through mail order and word of mouth, increasing the audience for cowboy poetry at every opportunity.
All of these cowboy poets have something to teach about the form. Rhonda Sedgwick Stearns proves that cowboy poetry isn’t a male-only club. Chip O’Brien proves that you don’t have to be a cowboy or even a born Westerner to participate in the genre, as long as you understand the lifestyle. Although Frank Morris would challenge that statement, his real criteria is honesty. Like poetry mentors everywhere, he wants cowboy poets to write what they know and so is wary when non-cowboys write about the West without experiencing it firsthand.
If you’d like to experience more of this type of verse, check out the selections featured in the sidebar on page 14.
Cowboy poetry captures the beauty of the Western landscape — and the work ethic, beliefs and frankness of the Western mind-set.