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The Pleasant Truth About Cowboy Poetry

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Learning the Pleasant Truth About Cowboy Poetry

By Tom Mayo


As National Poetry Month gets under way, it would be easy to write a column about cowboy poetry that was mildly ironic, if not downright sarcastic, and ultimately dismissive of the genre. It would be easy - but it would also be wrong. Here are some of the misconceptions I've been carrying about cowboy poetry, and - by way of expiation - some of the truths I have lately learned.

1. Cowboy poetry is all about heavy metrical patterns and simple (and often forced) rhymes - in short, unsophisticated and simplistic poetry for people who don't like "real poetry." Even if this were true, which it isn't, what would be the problem? As the massive attendance at cowboy poetry festivals attests, this is just as much "people's poetry" as what you would hear at any urban poetry slam, where strong meter and in-your-face rhymes win prizes, not criticisms. The success of cowboy poetry is dependent upon its oral tradition, and that tradition depends on attention to precisely these poetic devices. If this is the kind of cowboy poetry you like, you will love Baxter Black's A Cowful of Cowboy Poetry (Coyote Cowboy Co., $24.95), which features the sardonic poetry and prose of National Public Radio's poet, columnist, philosopher and former large-animal veterinarian.

Universal themes

2. "Cowboy poetry is to poetry as cowboy cuisine is to cuisine." Or, slightly restated: Cowboy poetry is serviceable, no-frills stuff that more or less resembles the real thing but isn't anything you would serve if you were trying to impress the boss. This myth is related to the first but goes further. It asserts that cowboy poetry succeeds only because its aim is not particularly high. The opposite is true. The themes are universal, with a heavy emphasis on nature, history, folklore, family, friends and work (especially danger and tedium), as well as delight in the language itself. Happily, this lesson has not been lost on the academic community, which last year produced a thoroughly engaging collection of essays titled Cowboy Poets & Cowboy Poetry, edited by David Stanley and Elaine Thatcher (University of Illinois Press, $49.95 hardback, $21.95 paperback). This book demonstrates that even though cowboy poetry tends not to take itself too seriously, it is worthy of serious study.

3. Cowboy poetry lacks diversity. I will assume, for the sake of argument, that most cowboys have been white males and that "cowboy" usually denotes "American West." As a number of essays from the Stanley and Thatcher volume illustrate, however, the cowboy poetry tradition includes Mexican-American cowboys, gauchos, cowboys and loggers of the Pacific Northwest, and the poetry of the Australian bush. The notion that cowboy poetry is exclusionary almost certainly starts with the word "cowboy," which does not on its face allow for the possibility of "cowgirl." Wrong again! A good place to start refuting that myth is this year's Cowgirl Poetry: One Hundred Years of Ridin' and Rhymin', edited by Virginia Bennett (Gibbs Smith, $10.95 paperback). My other strong recommendation in this vein is Graining the Mare: The Poetry of Ranch Women, edited by Teresa Jordan (Gibbs Smith, $14.95 paperback). These are spectacular poems by 35 women ranging in age from their 20s to their 90s; this 1994 book is, unfortunately, already out of stock. Happily, some of the writers featured in Graining the Mare are included in Cowgirl Poetry as well.

Modern as today

4. Cowboy poetry is musty stuff about the Old West that lacks any connection to modern life. This is probably not the place to wrestle with my generation's college battle cry, "Make it relevant." Suffice to say that if the poetry of Chaucer or of an anonymous Tombstone madam are not "relevant," the problem probably stems more from the reader's lack of imagination than from any limitations of the writer. Cowboy poetry is not merely a nostalgic stroll down Memory Cowpath, and two anthologies from the past year prove this point nicely. The first is Cowboy Poetry Matters: From Abilene to the Mainstream: Contemporary Cowboy Writing (Story Line Press, $17.95 paperback). The first 200 pages consist mostly of poems by real cowboy (and cowgirl) poets, as well as a few by New Hampshire-ites Donald Hall and Maxine Kumin. The collection concludes with a handful of thought-provoking essays about the genre, most of them (as the book's title suggests) offered as responses to Dana Gioia's classic, "Can Poetry Matter?," which is also included.

The genre gets busted wide open in Poetry of the American West ($18.95 paperback), edited by Alison Hawthorne Deming and published (with 40 stunning photographs) by Columbia University Press. Starting with Nahuatl flower songs of the 15th century Aztecs, this anthology ranges from Walt
Whitman to American Indian songs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from William Cullen Bryant to D.H. Lawrence and Philip Levine, and from Robinson Jeffers to Allen Ginsberg, Lucille Clifton, Czeslaw Milosz and Juan Felipe Herrera. Cowboy poetry is well represented here, but this collection offers a vast array of poetic responses to the West and the lives that were made and lost there.

2001, Thomas Wm. Mayo

Tom Mayo, an associate professor of law at Southern Methodist University, teaches "Law, Literature & Medicine" at the law school and at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School at Dallas.  

This article first appeared in the Dallas Morning News, April 1, 2001.  It is reprinted with the author's kind permission 

Professor Mayo wrote the foreword to our anthology, The Big Roundup, and included the above topics.

Books mentioned in this article:


Click for Amazon  Baxter Black's Cowful of Cowboy Poetry



Click for Amazon  Cowboy Poets and Cowboy Poetry 
by David Stanley and, Elaine Thatcher (Editors) 


Ckick for Amazon  Cowgirl Poetry : One Hundred Years of Ridin' and Rhymin'
                                      by Virginia Bennett

You can also get Cowgirl Poetry direct from the publisher:


Click for Amazon  Cowboy Poetry Matters : From Abilene to the Mainstream: Contemporary Cowboy Writing
                       by Robert McDowell (Editor)

  Poetry of the American West 
                                                            by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Editor)





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