From "Five Ways Cowboy Poetry Fades in the Footlights"
Five Ways Cowboy Poetry Fades in the Footlights
by Rod Miller
Cowboy poets are a dime a dozen nowadays.
It's altogether likely that today there's more tipping back of cowboy hats, more dragging the lead of whittled-down pencils across tongues, and more putting words to paper in the hope that a poem will result, than ever before in history.
It's also likely that these thousands (and thousands?) of cowboy poets will voice an equal number of reasons for taking up the craft. Some will claim it's an addiction. Others, merely a compulsion. There are those who think their view of the world unique and important and worthy of note. Other folks want to record family history, traditions, or lore and find that verse expresses it best. Some people simply love language and like to play with it. And so on.
There's nothing unique about such a list of reasons for writing poems—it applies to writers of every kind.
But there is another class of cowboy poets who write for a different reason: those who fancy themselves entertainers. They see the public stage currently popular in cowboy poetry as an end, and the writing of poems merely as the means to that end. They're in show business. They have an "act." Not that there's anything wrong with entertainment and stage shows and acts, it's just that the demands of the footlights have changed the very nature of the poetry that gets written.
A prominent cowboy poet has been heard to say that he wished that all “gatherings” would take a ten-year hiatus just to see how many people were still writing poetry at the end of the decade.
Not many, I suspect.
Again, there's nothing wrong with cowboy poetry as show business. I sit in the audience at more cowboy poetry gatherings than is healthy, and I travel far and wide and long to listen to cowboy poetry. On rare occasions I even stand behind a microphone myself and watch helplessly as syllables spill down my shirtfront. All that aside, I believe that the emphasis on cowboy poetry as showbiz has come at the expense of cowboy poetry as literature.
But What About the Oral Tradition?
To avoid getting sidetracked at this point into a long discussion about cowboy poetry (and poetry in general) being an oral tradition, let's just say that for as long as there has been written language, poetry has also been a literary art. And, with the advent of printing, poetry's place as written literature was cemented in place and the need (if not the desire) for recitation eroded.
For centuries now, more poetry has reached more people through the written word than the spoken word.
One result of that shift was the development, over time, of styles and forms of poetry that abandoned simple patterns of rhyme and meter and rhythm devised primarily for mnemonic purposes in favor of more complex arrangements and, with the advent of free verse, no formal arrangement at all. So, while spoken poetry never has, never will, and never should go away, it has, for centuries, been overwhelmed by written poetry.
In recent years, however, that trend has been reversed when it comes to cowboy poetry—and, as intimated earlier, not necessarily for the best. Be that as it may, since the first gathering in Elko in 1985, cowboy poetry has, to a large extent, evolved from written literature to performance art.
Simply put, poetry for the stage has overwhelmed poetry for the page.
This is, I believe, a wholly modern-day phenomenon so far as cowboy poetry is concerned. For instance, I have yet to hear (or read) an account of Bruce Kiskaddon stepping onto a public stage to recite his remarkable verse. And if Curley Fletcher, Henry Herbert Knibbs, James Barton Adams, Arthur Chapman, or other composers of "classic" cowboy poetry did, history seems silent on the subject.
Charles Badger Clark, on the other hand, was in demand in his day as a public speaker and lecturer, and it is known that he often recited poetry. More recently, S. Omar Barker was an admired raconteur and likely spiced up his stories and speeches with his poems. But outside of those two tenuous exceptions, if cowboy poetry had any association with show business prior to the current age it has been hushed up.
Not that public recitation of cowboy poetry did not occur. We all know about songs and stories and poems shared around the campfire on roundups and trail drives, and how the practice later drifted into bunkhouses and barrooms on the tides of changing times. Still, it is difficult to equate such impromptu and spontaneous entertainments with today's highly rehearsed, strictly scheduled, tightly scripted stage shows.
So, what's the effect on the poems themselves?
Five Things to Think About
First, many poems suffer from short-term thinking on the part of the poet. The goal is to elicit the quick laugh, the suddenly moist eye, the instant swell of pride or recognition. Gone is the subtle thought to be pondered, the understated idea that sticks like a burr to a horse's tail. Lost is symbolism, metaphor, allusion, and the like—all sacrificed on the altar of immediacy.
Second, craft is often neglected. Words on a page have a permanence that encourages effort. When the audience is allowed to study the words at length and leisure, the writer is more likely to work at making them as purt-near perfect as possible. But when the words zip past at the speed of sound, so do mistakes in meter, missteps in syntax, and other errors upon which the audience may stumble. But, like bumps in the road, they are soon forgotten in the ever-oncoming stream of word traffic.
Third, subject matter sometimes suffers. Insightful commentaries on unique aspects of cowboy culture lose out to stories drawn from the larger society, applicable to everyone generally, hence no one specifically. It's easier to spoon-feed an audience a thin soup of widely palatable societal generalities than to serve up a thick, rich stew spiced with legitimate cowboy customs. And rather than carefully drawn characterization based on knowledge of real cowboys, poets sometimes resort to quickly sketched stereotypes.
Fourth, poems often lack depth. True emotion is rare, but shallow sentimentality is rampant. Honestly humorous stories drawn from real life are seldom heard, while the latest joke making the rounds on the internet is soon set to rhyme. And why not? Horse laughs sound a lot better in a concert hall than knowing smiles. And what entertainer can resist a cheap appeal to superficial patriotism, an easy shot at an obvious political mark, or a verbal barrage aimed at an unpopular target when the pre-programmed audience response is practically guaranteed? Cowboy poetry, like the larger society, has come to rely on bumper stickers rather than broadsides.
Fifth, and finally (finally!), a poet and a performer seldom reside in the same body. Writing and entertaining require different talents and abilities. One is pursued in private, the other in public. One is born and raised in loneliness, the other flourishes in a crowd. One is solitary inactivity, the other social activity. One is meant to please one's self, the other primarily to please others. These qualities and characteristics aren't usually compatible and are frequently contradictory.
Some Exceptional Exceptions
All that is not always true, of course. There are notable exceptions. Take Baxter Black. Few would argue that the man is a natural-born entertainer of the highest order. He is so funny, in fact, and it is so easy to be overwhelmed with laughter when he is on stage, that it is altogether possible to overlook the quality of his writing. Study his poems on the page and you'll see how well constructed they are, how remarkable his use of language, how hard he works to build to a well-timed climax, how seldom he takes the easy way out.
No one would confuse Joel Nelson with Baxter Black. The two are as different on stage as opposite sides of a coin. Yet Nelson, too, is a poet and performer who excels as both a writer and a reciter. As low key as Baxter Black is high energy, Joel Nelson's sincerity washes over an audience on the waves of his deeply soft, softly accented voice. His interpretations of classic poems are not always the obvious or expected, but always spot-on, honest, and genuine. His original poems are as sophisticated and subtle, as deep and rich as his voice, whether you're hearing them read or reading them yourself.
There are others: Paul Zarzyski, Linda Hasselstrom, Wallace McRae, Laurie Wagner Buyer, Pat Richardson come immediately to mind as other exceptions who prove the rule by demonstrating remarkable talent as both writers and performers. That said, the best poets aren't always the best entertainers, and vice-versa. But what does it matter, and how does it apply to the subject at hand?
Well, unfortunately, inferior poetry sometimes becomes popular owing solely to superior performance. There are highly skilled performers who are at home in front of an audience who can weave words with such expertise that the words themselves become almost meaningless. There's an old story that says a great actor can elicit tears or laughter by reading the telephone book.
On the other hand, some of the best poems written today do not get the exposure they deserve because the poet lacks the skills to present them well to the listening public. Manners forbid naming names, but likely we've all seen excellent poets stumble painfully through a poor performance on stage.
Then there are fine poets who have no interest whatever in being performers. While a few of the poems penned by these recluses may get wide exposure on CowboyPoetry.com or in the few periodicals that feature cowboy poetry—exponentially wider exposure, in fact, than can be found on stage—neither these poets nor their poems achieve the recognition or fame that performance poets do.
What does it all mean at the end of the day? Simply that our most popular, most famous poems may not represent the best of our art. Further, a particular poet's most-requested poems might not even represent the best work of that poet. And, sooner or later, the goal of stage-struck poets irresistibly shifts from writing honest, effective poetry to penning performance pieces that play to an audience's pre-conceived expectations.
In other words, art eventually loses out to commerce.
The Poets Will Survive
Can the quality of cowboy poetry survive the footlights?
Closing down gatherings for a decade is an extreme suggestion made mostly in
jest. But, as the poet suggested, it would certainly cull the poets who aren't committed to writing poetry for the sheer joy of arranging carefully chosen words in the proper order to achieve the highest level of art possible.
Those whose foremost goal is earning the adoration of audiences would probably leave poetry to the poets, and work their stage magic in more rewarding pursuits—pulling rabbits out of hats, perhaps.
But what is more realistic, and more likely, than ten years of self-imposed silence is that the whims of the public will impose a different kind of cut—for if adoring audiences are anything, they are fickle. It is probably inevitable, then, that the flame of cowboy performance poetry that burns brightly today will eventually burn down—but not out—and the laws of supply and demand will cull the herd.
The result will be the same: only the poets will survive.
© 2005, Rod Miller, All rights reserved
This article may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.
See our separate feature about Rod Miller here, which includes some of his poetry.
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