More about Sam Jackson
(an essay by Sam Jackson)
"Occidental poetry" is "The expression of thoughts which awaken the higher and nobler emotions, or their opposites, in words whose rhythm tends toward uniformity or regularity, rather than toward variety."
Most cowboy poetry can be classified as "Occidental" (however, changing the "O" to an "A" might also describe
some of it!) In other words, most cowboy poetry is meant to have rhyme and meter. (whether it receives it or
not will be discussed later).
It's been said that "One can achieve poetic greatness, either in his own sight alone or in the opinion of others, without knowledge of the craft." Unfortunately, to the dismay of many audiences, some poets have a tendency to confuse those two measures of greatness. This is not to suggest that a "BS" in English literature is required to write cowboy poetry (although some BS is a definite attribute) however, there are certain basic rules which should be followed:
I once wrote a poem about "writing poems" that perhaps would be relevant here.
I've been asked many times about rhymin',
how does one compose lines of verse?
Some folks might surmise, that poets are wise,
could be that it's just the reverse!
A poem is quite similar to sculpture,
it first must be formed in your mind.
Determine the aim, you'd like to proclaim,
which fans you are trying to find.
Use caution when choosing the subject
on which your new lyric will dwell.
Be sure to pick one, 'bout things you have done,
if not, you should research it well.
I'm alluding to my methods only,
we each have a different forte'.
For example; some write in seclusion,
while others prefer the café.
So, get out your pencil and paper.
Note how it will start and then end.
Next jot down enough, for in-between stuff,
now you have an outline, my friend.
Start chippin' and filin' and grindin',
and don't be afraid to be bold.
Just add words an' change'em, erase'em, arrange'em
until what you mean, has been told.
Don't worry too long at one setting,
fatigue doesn't help us reflect,
and sure ain't conducive, to writin' exclusive,
those stanzas demandin' respect.
An item of utmost importance
is; keepin' the theme sharp and clear.
Pay little attention, to mundane convention.
pen just what you want'em to hear.
One thing that will give more enjoyment,
as novice scans poetic line;
is; cadence, some folks call it meter.
Enhances the rhythm design.
You might add a bit of clean humor.
If subject is 'lite,' add in more.
Be careful you don't make it foolish,
that isn't what good verse is for.
Use caution how you set the words in,
as 'sequence' can change the result.
If writing an ode to a "House Cat" -
'transposing' could mean some insult!
In ending I'll pass on this adage,
(a favorite one of my Pa's)
"A poem's like a good lookin' woman-
The best of them have a few flaws!"
Taking the above points about writing Cowboy Poetry one at a time:
Choose a subject that you know something about or are willing to seriously research.
Obviously, the first thing you must do before writing a cowboy poem is pick a subject. How to do that? To quote the famous English poet, William Wordsworth, "The wish is father of the thought." So there must be a wish, a desire to express yourself on a subject. I seldom have any trouble finding subjects to write about as they literally pop-into-my-head -- sometimes an entire poem, sometimes the ending, the beginning line, or sometimes just a subject. When this happens I quickly make myself a written note (notice I did not say "mental"-- when I want to remember something longer than a nanosecond, I write it down.)
This next statement may sound a little to romantic for budding cowboy poets but "mood" is very important when writing, and perhaps "inspiration" is a better word, for I must be inspired before writing anything worth sculpting into a readable, sensical (new word) poem. So depending on how your psyche is rigged up, put yourself in surroundings that tend to inspire you. For some this might mean doing something as spectacular as going to the mountains by yourself for a day and watching the clouds roll by-- for others, spending an afternoon out in the corral, letting the sounds and smells act as poetic stimuli. Whatever it takes--do it!
Be original, trust your own vision of how something should be said.
The next point is: originality. Although you can get new ideas from listening to, and reading poems, by others, an original thinker has a much better chance of becoming a successful poet. Second rate poets distrust their own vision and often resort to-if not actually plagiarism, then borrowing from others. This is a dangerous way to go for it can quickly cause the poet to loose sight of stating their own desires. Even using some of the overworked, but seemingly popular phrases such as "riding for the brand" and "working for short pay," as poetic and macho as they might sound, are poison to the mind of the budding poet and could lead to a mental quagmire that is difficult to emerge from. When you have something to say, Say it in your own words! This often requires resorting to deep thought and diligent search of the Roget's Thesaurus but believe me, it will eventually be worth the effort. "Ye shall reap what ye shall sow" would be relevant here, however as cowboy poets, we don't use those old, overworked phrases.
To make a point on the avoidance of "borrowing," I will use the poem "Baby" by Harry Graham and rework it into cowboy verse. See how you feel about the accomplishment.
Baby in the caldron fell—
See the grief on mother’s brow!
Mother loved her darling well.
Darling’s quite hard-boiled now.
plagiarized, it might look like this—
Dogie in the quick sand fell
see the grief on mother cow!
Mother loved her darling well.
calf is swallowed up by now.
Choose a rhythm pattern and stick with it throughout the poem.
"Rhythm" is the successive rise and fall of sounds, in pitch, stress, and/or speed depending heavily on word accents and pauses by the speaker. "Meter is the comparatively regular rhythm in poetry. Once the writer has determined these two modes they should be maintained throughout the poem. Changing rhythm patterns in the middle of a poem would be no less disruptive than changing the melody in the middle of a song.
Both rhythm and meter, are in part, determined by the syllable count in each line, and a critical attribute to cowboy poetry if the poem is ever intended for a reading audience. Not quite so important if it is written primarily to be recited by the author, for as previously stated; an experienced entertainer can usually put enough vocal emphasis in the right places to make even a poorly written poem entertaining and pleasing to the ear.
This verse is written with the correct rhythm:
The frightened little Hereford calf
lay trembling in the thicket.
The Wolf had snatched him even though
his mama tried to kick it!
and this verse is not:
The very frightened little ol' Hereford calf
lay trembling in the thicket,
The Wolf had snatched him, even though,
his mama had tried hard to kick-it!
It's quite apparent which sounds best and reads easiest. Just as a constant rhythm and syllable count makes a poem sound better and read smoother, so does a formal stanza arrangement make it read easier. One accepted way of doing this is indentation (or the lack there-of) of the rhyming lines (as a note of interest, this formal line organization helps me a great deal while composing a poem as I can more readily see the words that I must rhyme, too) If we were to write example #1 (above) in a standard letter format it would look like this:
The frightened little Hereford calf lay trembling in the thicket. The Wolf had snatched him even though his mama tried to kick it.
which, to me, is much more difficult to work with.
For those of you who might be inclined toward “technicalities,” a single line of poetry is called a “verse.” A series of lines, formally arranged as part of a poem, is called a “stanza.” Oh yes, and a two-line “stanza” is a “couplet.” But enough of that, on with the lesson.
For example, stanza patterns might be arranged in this manner: 1,1,2-1,1,2
Joe and Curley's spendin' time
twistin' stories into rhyme,
an' Jim has found a taxidermy book.
Just so happens that ol' Newt
shot a bobcat on the butte.
a crafty scheme is shortly undertook.
or a 1,1,1,2---1,1,1,2 triple rhyme might be set down this way;
O'er the cedar flecked horizon
comes a full moon slowly risin'
as ol' Jake starts balladizin'
'bout a lad who drifted West.
Seems he growed up in the city,
lived a life of ease, but pretty-
soon was longin' for more gritty-
things to give his life some zest!
Use only correct rhymes, leave "near rhymes" for the song writers.
Many types of poetry, in fact the majority of it written today, is not written to rhyme at all.
I have no problem with that. My quarrel is with those who compose works that are meant to rhyme, but do not! I recently came across an excellent example of "how not to compose rhyming poetry". The story line was acceptable, however any qualities that afforded were quickly diminished as the author proceeded to break every rhyming rule in the book using such rhyme mates as-- steep/feet; soogan's/wagon; hot/knots; swells/hell; flared/stares; control/go; down/pond; last/crash; side/alive; peek/trees; snow/snow; side/alive (again); trails/tail; side/side; ranch/chance (close, but no cigar); and finally; fast/grass.
Just as some folks have the misfortune of being "color blind," so too are some among us "rhyme deaf." However, even that handicap should not keep a good poet from putting out acceptable work as a simple way around the problem would be to asking a peer for a critique prior to publishing. It would certainly make things easier on the ear of the average cowboy poetry fan.
Rhyme deals exclusively with sounds and has nothing to do with spelling. Correct rhymes can either be spelled alike: ate/ plate/ mate or differently; ate/ strait/ freight.
Some words, called "eye rhymes, "are spelled alike and look alike, but pronounced differently and are not rhymes at all-earth/ hearth; cow/ blow; finger/ ginger/ singer. Another often-seen but definite no-no is attempting to rhyme words ending in "n" with those ending in "m." Still another failure is trying to rhyme a singular word with a plural. An example: measure/ treasures. Seeing near rhymes used by most song writers does not make them acceptable in poetry as you don't have the music to hide miscues.
To quote from The Poets Craft Book, "Slovenly rhyming is one of the sure signs of mediocrity in versification."
More do's and don'ts:
Never use a rhyme word twice in a poem. Never try to use identical words as rhyme mates, and something worth mentioning again: when using a word difficult to rhyme, go back and change the word, even if it means changing the entire verse.
Many successful poets use "two-word" rhymes such as; satin/flat in; Quentin/went in.
Remember that some words have no rhyme mates, such as: amongst; avenge;
revenge; bulb; film; porch; wasp; breadth; depth; eighth; fifth; forth; ninth; sixth; width; wolf,
One final word for those of you who might still have doubts as to whether "going the extra mile to use the correct rhythm, meter, syllable count and proper rhyming is worth it." Read carefully the works of Andrew Barton (Banjo) Paterson and Robert Service.
Design the first verse to get the readers' attention.
A good title is important and serves a dual purpose. It will give some hint as to what the poem is about and, if "catchy," will entice readers to sample the poem's contents. After attracting the readers, an interesting and thought-provoking first verse can help draw them further in.
"Rough-out" the main body of the poem.
It nearly goes without saying that; if the main body of the poem is not well written, nothing short of an outright bribe (or discovery that the author is the reader's first cousin) can urge a discriminating patron on to the end. So rough-out the body of the poem to the best of your ability. Don't treat your readers like they are from outer space, one verse does not have to explain the next, let them draw some conclusions on their own. Of course, like all things, don't over-do this either way.
End the poem with a verse that "pulls it all together."
Make every effort to see that the last verse summarizes (and ends) your story.
Go back and edit, edit, edit!
As you write, don't attempt to make each verse perfect the first time around, for prior to publishing, the successful poet will have spent far more time editing than writing the poem originally. The rule here is edit, edit, edit--then edit some more!
Read the poem out loud a dozen times then "edit" some more!
Read each verse to your self over and over, then read it out loud, again and again. If you intend to recite the poem, this also helps you recognize areas where words, written in certain combinations, may be acceptable to read, but difficult to speak. Finally; if you have the resources, record the poem, then with a critic (no, not your mother or wife) listen with a critical ear.
Never try to do all of this at one sitting.
Never try to write a poem of any length (or depth) in one sitting. Tired brains are not the poets' best friend. Take your time. If you run into a mental block, put the poem aside and come back to it later. Some writers I know have a dozen poems going at once and skip from one to the other as the mood strikes them. Once again: take your time. Nothing makes me squirm in my seat more than a poet walking on stage, proudly announcing that "I wrote this next one on my way to the gathering yesterday! Guess I'll try it out on you!" Lord forbid! Perhaps someone can successfully do that, but, so far, I have failed to cross his trail.
In closing, I'd ask you to keep this in mind: the suggestions for composing cowboy poetry that have been passed on this article are those that work best for me, and my style certainly isn't for everyone. To those I might have offended in this clumsy attempt in poetic tutoring: If you
gained from it in any way, I'll not apologize, but instead, bid you success in your future writing adventures. And if you learned nothing, I place you in the prestigious and unusual category of the "Exceptionally Gifted" and apologize for taking your time.
So sage bards, step up to the creek-- quench your poetic thirst but--stay outa the quicksand!
© 2002, Sam Jackson, All rights reserved
This essay may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.
Information from this essay was printed in a series of articles, Lyrical Legends, for the Sun News in 2002, to help introduce readers to Cowboy Poetry. Those articles are reprinted here.
See our separate feature about Sam Jackson here, which includes some of his poetry.
We're also pleased to have Sam Jackson's essay, "Competition" here, and a feature about the Cowboy Poetry Rodeo here.
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