Here’s a poem to put the spurs to this journey:
diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be
telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
While I have not heard him say so myself, I have it on good authority that the great cowboy poet and reciter Joel Nelson says that short verse is the best cowboy poem ever written. Many of you will recognize it as “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost.
Now, Robert Frost is not known to have punched cattle. Although much of his poetry concerned rural life, he was, according to all sources, a city boy. There isn’t a cow in the poem, or a horse, or a ranch, or anything else one expects in what we generally accept as cowboy poetry. So, why would Joel Nelson say such a thing? Maybe it has something to do with another opinion I’ve heard about the subject. I don’t know who said it, and it may be apocryphal for all that. But the gist of it is that a cowboy poem is any damn poem a cowboy likes.
The thing is, I don’t think enough cowboy poets “like” enough poetry. I am of the opinion, based on years of observation, that most of us with a kinship to cowboy poetry devote little time or attention or interest to poetry of any other sort. There’s so much indifference and disregard, it seems, that we string a tight barbwire fence and strait gate to keep “cowboy” poems on our home range and fence out the rest, consigning them to other pastures we seldom, if ever, ride. Some of us nowadays have so little regard for poetry outside what we consider the cowboy tradition that we are dismissive, even hostile.
The reverse is also true. I was, not long ago, asked to judge a category for cowboy poems newly added to a statewide poetry society’s competition. But the rules for cowboy poetry were so far removed from other categories in the contest that I declined the offer. It seemed to me the organization viewed cowboy poetry unworthy of consideration on the same terms as the rest of the poems in the competition.
Why is this?
I have heard many cowboy poetry types dismiss “academic” or “literary” poetry as meaningless, as having nothing to say, of being impossible to understand, and similar complaints. I’ve heard other poets turn up their noses at cowboy poetry, deeming it shallow, meaningless, and mere doggerel. In a 2006 interview on PBS Newshour, Wallace McRae voiced an opinion on the subject: “I think a lot of academic poets resent the popularity of cowboy poetry, because a lot of our stuff really isn’t very good,” he said. “Of course,” he added, “a lot of their stuff is awful!” On a similar note, Edgar Allen Poe, in reviewing a book of literary poetry many years ago, called one of the poems “an illimitable gilded swill trough,” then went on to say that most “who hold high places in our poetical literature are absolute nincompoops.”
For sake of argument, let’s accept the arguments of Messrs. McRae and Poe that there is a good deal of awful poetry out there, written by nincompoops, whether it’s “cowboy” poetry or “academic” poetry. Much of it, by any objective measure, can be dismissed owing to want of literary technique, pedestrian use of language, cheap sentimentality, low humor, lack of depth, poor form, or any number of other reasons.
And there is much poetry that simply will not appeal to us on an individual basis. There’s no accounting for taste, so it should not surprise anyone that there are poems that will blow the heels off my boots but not affect you at all. Likewise, there will be poems that sweeten your tea but seem insipid to me. Art is, after all, subjective to some extent.
All that aside, there are vast amounts of poetry generally regarded as worthwhile. To disregard any of it, to dismiss any of it out of hand because it is—or is not—“cowboy” or is—or is not—“academic” is downright silly. It all deserves a chance. You may not like much of what you read, and that’s all right. But if you don’t find anything to like, my guess is you’re not reading enough poetry. There’s enough good stuff out there that you can’t help but stumble onto something remarkable from time to time. But you’ll never find it if you don’t look.
If cowboy poetry is where you’re coming from, it’s probably a good idea, for openers, to re-think your notions of what is and isn’t “cowboy” poetry. Remember where we started—with the idea that a poem by Robert Frost just might be the best cowboy poem ever written, and that a cowboy poem is any poem a cowboy likes. Forget that tight barbwire fence you’ve stretched to separate cowboy poetry from the other kinds. If you can’t bring yourself—yet—to cut the wire and pull the posts, at least open the gate. All the bad stuff aside, assume there are only two kinds of poetry in all the world: poems you like, and poems you don’t. Let all the breeds and brands mix and mingle on your poetic rangeland and rope one out from time to time to see if you like it. You’ll likely be surprised.
I’m willing to venture a guess that Joel Nelson approaches it just that way. Here’s what he said in an interview when honored by the National Endowment of the Arts:
Whether it’s written about an experience in New England or whether it’s written from an experience on an Arizona cow outfit, good poetry is good poetry and it crosses boundaries of culture and genre. Cowboys may do a type of work that’s different from what many other people do but we have the same emotions. We have the same feelings. We live life just like everybody else does and we have an ear for something outside of our own environment and hopefully people outside our own environment will have an ear for what we have to say. So, if it’s good poetry, I love it. I love reading Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poetry from Russia. It just touches me. It’s wonderful poetry. And it doesn’t have to be about the kind of life that I’m living or the kind of work that I’m doing to appeal to me.
How’s that for opening the gate?
And don’t think for a moment that such acceptance of a wider range of poetry is a recent innovation. According to the late Buck Ramsey, cowboys have had a hankering for fine poetry since way back when. Here’s how folklorist David Stanley related Ramsey’s tale in the same PBS Newshour program quoted earlier:
There was a time when a tobacco manufacturer placed little coupons in the sacks of tobacco they sold and the cowboys could send the coupons in and get a little miniature abridged volume of Shakespeare for example or of Swinburne or Tennyson or other poets who were popular at that time. And those little books were passed from hand to hand and left in bunkhouses all over the West. And so though the average cowboy was certainly not formally educated beyond possibly elementary school, they were great readers.
No fences there. Here’s another piece of poetry, pulled from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar (Act 3, Scene 1). The passage is Marc Antony’s prediction of things to come in the wake of Caesar’s murder.
destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Atë by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.
I include that verse because it prompted what is perhaps the most colorful quotation I’ve ever read about any poet. The story is told by Philip Ashton Rollins in his 1922 book, The Cowboy: His Characteristics, His Equipment, and His Part in the Development of the West:
At this particular ranch, because its owners were college-bred, were additional books, novels of the day and a battered set of Shakespeare. Only the owners and visiting womenfolk found anything of interest in the novels; but, to the shame of the owners and guests, cowboys alone attacked the Shakespeare….The vast intellectual vitality that came out of Avon arrested attention. It wrung from a top rider, first face to face with the play of Julius Caesar and its “Dogs of war”: “Gosh! That fellow Shakespeare could sure spill the real stuff. He’s the only poet I ever seen what was fed on raw meat.”
It would be a shame to live a life bereft of the pleasure of reading a poet “fed on raw meat.” Maybe Shakespeare will be that poet for you, as he was for this “top rider.” But it may well be someone else—Percy Bysshe Shelley, say, or Carl Sandburg. Maybe Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Langston Hughes, May Swenson or David Lee, Edna St. Vincent Millay or Wendell Berry, Vladimir Pushkin or Khalil Gibran…Somewhere out there, there’s sure to be a poet who put to paper your notion of the perfect “cowboy” poem.
A wide variety of poetry is not hard to find. Right here on CowboyPoetry.com, there’s “American Life in Poetry,” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. Each week, he features a short poem by an American poet. And there’s the online feature, “The Writer’s Almanac,” where Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor posts a poem a day, from contemporary to classic. I heartily recommend both. And that’s just for starters. Read poems wherever you find them. Read them for pleasure. Read them for inspiration. For ideas. For education. For edification. And, read them to improve your own writing. Read a lot of them, and a variety of them—the more the merrier.
Let’s tear down the fences, or at least open the gates. Let a mixed herd of poems and poets populate your pastures—all kinds and colors, the ordinary and the exotic, the old and the new, the easy-to-digest and those requiring rumination. It’s enjoyable. It’s educational. And it’s well worth your time to search for a writer who can, for you, “sure spill the real stuff.”