Elsewhere at CowboyPoetry.com:
Call THAT a Poem?
You All Talk and No Trochaic Tetrameter?
Ways Cowboy Poetry Fades in the Footlights
Excuse for Lazy Poets
Slant Rhyme with Cant?
An' When to Break 'Em
on "Get Off!"
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is Cowboy Poetry? Who is a Cowboy Poet?
Favorite Western Poem Project
and more, listed with our Features...
Amen, But ...
Poet Andy Nelson comments on Rod Miller's "Five Ways Cowboy Poetry Fades in the Footlights"
"If you stay on top, you won't get hurt!" This wise cowboy advice, offered to me by my Dad many years ago, still reverberates through the wide open spaces of my cerebrum. Although it was mostly directed to me as a parting comment when the horse I was riding turned inside out, I can still hear the mixture of concern and laughter in his voice to this very day. After reading Rod Miller's well written essay, "Five Ways Cowboy Poetry Fades in the Footlights," I wondered if Dad's statement would still be with me after all these years, had I read it instead of heard it?
Rod's essay is tremendous! It made me ponder my own writing, it pricked my conscience and irritated my psyche like a gnat that keeps flying up your nose until you finally inhale it. I resolved many times while reading it to pay more attention to the detail and content of the poetry I write, to reach deeper for the meter, to search harder for the rhyme and be more honest... well... maybe not the "honest" part. I wish to impart with an "Amen Brother Miller" as I head into a different section of this grazing allotment.
I'd like to visit the "performing art" side of cowboy poetry for a bit. I enjoy performing in public, I like sharing my stupid stories and self-imposed wrecks with those who may not have experienced them for themselves, I'm thrilled to explain my heritage to them and most of all, I revel in hearing of others' misfortunes. I know, I'm in need of some serious psychotherapy but nonetheless, it entertains me. When performers are truly gifted in writing and performing, their facial expressions bring peace to the moment, their voices transport me to the high desert mesa, their body language sits me atop a good solid horse, and then with all of them combined, it can throw a sage chicken under the horse and turn the whole scene into an NFR bronc ride!
Rod is correct in his statement that shallow sentimentality, the latest joke and superficial patriotism have crept onto the cowboy poetry stage. I might add to that list "canvas crotched britches," "mule-ear flapped boots," and "holstein patterned chaps" (I apologize to those I may have offended with that). I too was guilty in the beginning (of the writing part, not the fashion part) while I was trying to figure out how to write good cowboy poetry. But I do not believe that those things are a product of public presentation. It is our responsibility to mentor aspiring poets, teach by example and every chance we get to build up the confidence of our peers through gentle and constructive criticism. The poetry I write today is heads and shoulders above the poetry I wrote five years ago because of poets such as Don Kennington, Yvonne Hollenbeck, Doris Daley and Baxter Black. I study them as they perform. I watch and I listen. I do not copy them, but I learn how to write and perform as I enjoy their productions. If there is anything I have learned from watching these and many other talented poets, it's this: sincerity cannot be faked, humor is either funny or it isn't, and patriotism is a learned behavior that starts at home.
Back to Dad. Jim Nelson was the biggest cowboy character a person can imagine. He spun yarns and fabricated non-truths with the best of them. The problem was, you could never tell when he was pulling your leg or telling the truth until he broke into a wide-mouthed, closed-eyes, voiceless laugh! His command of the English language was phenomenal, not because he knew all the five dollar words, but because of the manner in which he presented it. He was an old cowboy who knew good horses, loved the cowboy life and would share it with anyone who would listen. Those attributes make a darn good performing cowboy poet. I go back and read some of Dad's poetry and essays periodically, and in my mind I can hear him reading it. It is incorrect in
meter and at times really stretches for a rhyme, but because I heard him say these things, I can lose myself once again in my youth. This is also what happens to me when listening to good cowboy poetry being performed on stage. I've heard other people read poetry I have written and I remember saying to myself, "That's not how it's suppose to sound!" I write as I talk, good bad or indifferent. I believe many poets do and until you hear a poet recite his or her original works, I don't think we you can sincerely appreciate the scene.
I am a believer that cowboy poetry can and does truly shine in the "footlights." Perhaps instead of doing away with cowboy poetry gatherings for ten years, maybe just doing away with the monetary gain would suffice.
But I suspect if that were the case, like all good things, the quality of cowboy poetry performances would suffer greatly.
Read some of Andy Nelson's poetry here.
Rules; An' When to Break 'Em
(an essay by Alf Bilton)
Two excellent articles at CowboyPoetry.com recently addressed issues that face those wishing to preserve and continue the genre Robert Service and Bruce Kiskaddon began. They take opposite sides of the debate, but I find each too adamant to win my own agreement. I find myself in the uncomfortable position of a man taking a stand with one boot planted firmly on each side of the fence.
Cowboy Poetry, like any other form of literature, is communication. As such, it requires some agreement between sender and receiver as to just how the message is to be formatted and delivered or it may be distorted and misunderstood even if it arrives. Grammar and punctuation are obvious examples of such rules or agreements, but there are many others. Anyone who has ever tried to decipher a doctor's scribble on a prescription knows how important even penmanship can be to written communication. For those of us writing poetry though, particularly cowboy poetry, different times and places commonly come up with their own variations on the rules in common use. Regional differences and dialects arise to confound a medium that already stretches the language in attempting succinct communication of stronger impressions and feelings than prose can usually address. Worse, Cowboy Poetry is an attempt to reflect upon one of the most independent and innovative lifestyles the human race has yet devised.
We do need rules, but for this application we also need the latitude to break them for specific purposes. Ultimately, it becomes the editor's job to mediate between writer and reader in this important regard. Granted, editors too have their preferences and prejudices to contend with, but without them we would all be wasting a lot more time sifting through material looking for that which we actually appreciate. We've all had the experience of trying to find something with a search engine that coughs up several hundred responses to what we started out thinking was a pretty well defined query.
That which we call Cowboy Poetry is not an art of the Ivory Tower and the academically refined. Recent popularity has forced some recognition even in those circles, but Cowboy Poetry remains a grass roots art of the common people, the continuance of an oral tradition that predates even Western Literature itself. Therein lie its greatest strengths and its greatest weaknesses, for that tradition is long enough to lend validity to
incorporation of all other forms, tools, and formats that have come since, yet narrow enough in appeal to necessitate a goodly number of restrictions. The problem becomes not so much what is valid as either topic or tool for Cowboy Poetry, but what is not. Worse, the working man in general, and the cowboy in particular, is a great innovator, so the genre must, of necessity, maintain flexibility enough to be innovative while yet restraining itself enough to maintain its own identity through rules.
I see the latitude for innovation as a particularly important issue where Cowboy Poetry is concerned, because to me the cowboy was always the ultimate innovator. He was the one refusing to give up just because something was said to be impossible and unafraid to try something needed doing just because he hadn't been taught how to do it "properly." An artifact of that attitude is the expression "cowboy carpentry" when confronted by a serviceable though obviously unskilled or amateurish piece of woodworking. Of course, class distinctions creep into it; the suits use the expression as a condemnation, the blue collars as a tribute.
Robert Service was largely self-taught in both writing and history, but enjoyed popular success as an author, particularly as a poet, far beyond that of his more educated and supposedly more erudite contemporaries.
Personally, I have often wondered if his very lack of formal training in these areas may not have played a major role in his success. As Sam Holloway points out in his brief biography of the bard, "In 1907, especially in
Canada, Robert's ribald verses went against all literary trends." His early work seemed so outlandishly amateurish and sensationalist in the eyes of contemporary "professionals" that the Whitehorse Star, probably the Yukon's oldest continuing newspaper, rejected Robert Service's submission of "The Shooting of Dan McGrew."
Bruce Kiskaddon, like Service, spent little time in Ivory Tower pursuits. Like Service, he enjoyed early popularity as a cowboy poet. Indeed, whereas Service's work is almost always associated first with the Klondike and Yukon so vividly portrayed in his work, Kiskaddon's writing was more focused on the workaday world of the cattle ranch and his title of inventor of Cowboy Poetry therefore hard to dispute. Though I have never heard of these two meeting, I would be very surprised if they were not both aware and appreciative of each other's work. But Kiskaddon, like Service, was swimming upstream against the more commonly acceptable literary trends of his day. And as with Service, I have to wonder if much of his success was not because
he was largely self taught and thus free to write what common folks appreciated as opposed to that which might have been more academically approved and technically polished.
Darrell Arnold's piece, "No Excuse for Lazy Poets," makes a strong case for the application of strict rules for preservation of popularity and the genre, but leaves little room for the innovative aspect I consider important.
Worse, the argument all but ignores the fact that imperfect rhyme may actually be a difference in dialect or a regional pronunciation - local color, if you like. In various areas, for example, the word drought is commonly pronounced as if rhyming perfectly with south, truth, boot, or out. Such variations in pronunciation can even be generation- specific. I once lived in an area where the old-timers rhymed it with truth and the younger
generation with out. In trotting out a dictionary to settle such differences, we surrender the character of the piece to academic approval... and sometimes even the academics have to acknowledge alternate valid pronunciations. If we are to preserve the authenticity of some applications, we have to acknowledge that there really are times and places where aroun' and town rhyme, as do ground and around. Just how the Texans decide when to do that, mind you, I have yet to determine.
"Does Slant Rhyme with Can't?" by Rod Miller, on the other hand, makes an equally impressive case for the validity of all available tools, particularly in rhyme forms. But reading his masterful summary of rhyme
forms so close to the Arnold piece left me determined to consciously try and limit the less perfect rhyme forms to internal applications and seek more perfect ones for line end. Though I fully agree with much of what he says, I believe the overall thrust of his argument tends to leave the genre too open to identity loss by separation from the liberal usage of perfect and near-perfect rhyme and meter that characterizes Cowboy Poetry's link to the oral tradition. Illustrations from the work of the masters here, as in the Arnold piece, may all too easily be interpreted as exceptions proving the rule. And with repetition of that terrible word rule, we are back to the related issues of what is and is not a Cowboy or a Cowboy Poem.
Is a cowboy still a cowboy while he drives truck to earn enough money to keep ranching, or works as a miner to feed the wife and child that were starving with him on the ranch he has already lost? Is Cowboy a vocation, an experience, or an attitude; perhaps even a mythology, a dream, or an ideal? There's obviously more to it than boots that need scraping and blisters three layers deep or we wouldn't be writing so kindly about it.
Whatever the answer we choose to these questions, our work is that of communicating our opinions and impressions, and the emphasis must be on the word "communicating." We obviously need rules of some sort for consistency or communication breaks down beyond the local level. How and when to know when we should apply them or ignore them is the problem if we are also to maintain the equally important traditions of regional "'color" and literary innovation. I've always found it a BIG problem myself as someone once expected to teach English, yet valuing and wanting to preserve the regional differences.
We need some rules or guidelines acknowledged by both writer and reader or communication will not take place. BUT ... meticulous application of guidelines as if they were commandments can damage a piece of writing as quickly as totally ignoring the "rules." We should try not to let it become simplistic, glib, or boring with overuse of "perfected" rhyme, rhythm, or metric precision. For some applications, preferably short ones, sustained perfection may be appropriate; but it can quickly become boring, like a perfectly played bar of music played over and over in exactly the same way. Consider the dismal repute of limerick, "jingle," and nursery rhyme.
In the final analysis, all of this is subjective, what I write and what my reader thinks of it. I haven't a lot of solutions to the issues that keep it that way. I can, however, share a couple of ideas I have found useful.
In selecting "the perfect word," I try to keep regional, even class, idiom and dialect in mind. Some expressions are far more suitable to any given usage and audience than are others. What might otherwise be the perfect word may well be totally inappropriate in a given context. Working cowboys, for example, may know the meaning of the word equestrian; but few of those I know would take kindly to hearing themselves described as equestrians from over at the Neverwas Ranch. I bruise too easily to be the first to try it.
Confronted with the fact that a word like drought may not be pronounced by the reader as I would pronounce it myself, I try to use such words in places where they are not expected to rhyme with anything. And confronted with what appears to be "slant" rhyme or worse in a work that has any redeeming qualities at all, I consider the possibility of alternate pronunciations; with supposedly "forced" rhyme, I wonder about regional usage of expressions and word patterns perhaps inherited from other languages or dialects.
Robert Louis Stevenson's "Ticonderoga" taught me most of that. The piece seems awkward and hard to get a halter on at first because it makes heavy usage of word patterns or sentence constructions more natural to the Scot narrator than to a contemporary English reader. The English reader who perseveres, however, not only experiences an interesting story, but acquires a linguistic rhythm that should qualify him for an engineering position on the Starship Enterprise. The excerpt below, for example, appears to use forced and imperfect rhyme, but get a Scot to read it to you, or imagine it as recited by that starship's chief engineer, and everything fits.
ON the loch-sides of Appin,
When the mist blew from the sea,
A Stewart stood with a Cameron:
An angry man was he.
The blood beat in his ears,
The blood ran hot to his head,
The mist blew from the sea,
And there was the Cameron dead.
"O, what have I done to my friend,
O, what have I done to mysel',
That he should be cold and dead,
And I in the danger of all?
Nothing but danger about me,
Danger behind and before,
Death at wait in the heather
In Appin and Mamore,
Hate at all of the ferries
And death at each of the fords,
Camerons priming gunlocks
And Camerons sharpening swords."
From "Ticonderoga," by Robert Louis Stevenson
Stevenson was obviously capable of writing the same ballad otherwise, but employed regional character deliberately and the piece is more effective because of it. From that I extrapolate the idea that the poet should always be well aware of the rules of his genre and practice until he is capable of writing just that way. Then, perhaps only then, should he experiment with alternatives that involve breaking the rules.
At that point, it becomes the editor's headache trying to determine two things: did the end justify the means, and did the author have a valid reason for writing it that way? The first alone might seem enough, but sometimes our own horizons are expanded and our opinions, even our answers to the first question, altered by asking the second as well. Just as we are all capable of being lazy poets, we are equally capable of being lazy
readers, particularly of such essentially subjective formats as poetry.
So, how is a cowboy poet to know if he's really ready to try stretching the limits a bit? Well, I'd suggest he approach an editor or some other experienced audience the way he would approach the rough string. [grin]
Having given it a try, he could then check himself over for bruises, contusions, an' a dusty backside while deciding his next move.
© 2005, Alf Bilton
You can email Alf Bilton
Read some of Alf Bilton's poety here.
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