Having sat in the audience at more cowboy poetry performances than I can (or want to) remember, I’ll stick my neck out here and claim some level of experience, if not expertise, concerning what works and what doesn’t. Recitation skill is a big part of it, of course, but that’s a subject for another day.
Equally important, if not more so, is the poetry presented—in show biz lingo, the “material.” Selecting quality material is an art in itself, and plays a big role in the success of a poetry performance. And that’s true whether you’re working with your own material or reciting poetry penned by others. What follows are some observations from the audience—the peanut gallery, if you prefer—about why, where, and how to select poems that will help you engage, intrigue, involve, and entertain each time you step onto a stage and point a microphone at your mouth.
Part of the process is practical, but that practicality ought to be guided by philosophy. All artists—poets, performers, or otherwise—should have a well-thought-out notion of why they pursue their art, how they want to be perceived, and where they intend their art to take them in the future. Satisfying this personal artistic philosophy must share the stage with, and be balanced against, the practical aspect of satisfying your audience.
Finding that balance is paramount. There’s an old saying on the subject that goes something like this: You can try to please yourself and lose your audience, or you can try to please your audience and lose yourself.
Or, if you find the proper balance, you can satisfy yourself as well as your audience. Keep that in mind as you consider the following advice.
Where to look for performance poems.
The first step in choosing a performance piece is finding it. Where to look?
There’s no better or easier place to start than CowboyPoetry.com. Accessible anytime, from anywhere you can conjure up an Internet connection, you’ll find thousands of poems from our day as well as days gone by. You’ll find well-known poems by well-known poets and wonderful works by poets you don’t know yet. There’s also biographical information about most of the poets, and, often, details surrounding the origin of the poems.
And it’s there all the time—even in the wee hours should you awake with a hankering to discover a new poem.
Should you find yourself in Logan, Utah, during office hours, plan a visit to the Fife Folklore Archives in the Utah State University library. The archive has been collecting material, including cowboy poetry, since the 1970s and has a big collection of books, manuscripts, magazines, and other publications. Detailed catalogs and archivists are on hand to aid in your search. If you’ve ever attended the Western Folklife Center's National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, you may have caught a glimpse of the Fife collections tucked away in a little room behind the ticket counter at the convention center, where they have visited for many years.
Speaking of Elko, the archives at the Western Folklife Center contain a mother lode of poetry in print and audio and video recordings collected from National Cowboy Poetry Gathering performances since inception. Access is somewhat limited owing to staffing limitations, so contact the Western Folklife Center for information.
Then, of course, there’s the obvious—books. There are all kinds of cowboy poetry collections available, from anthologies featuring numerous poets to the collected works of individual poets. Dig deep. Don’t be satisfied, on all occasions, with popular poems by the expected poets. All the greats—Bruce Kiskaddon, Badger Clark, S. Omar Barker, Banjo Paterson, and all the other popular old poets wrote a bunch of poems, many of them remarkable, so there’s no reason for you to recite the same works by these poets that everyone else does.
Magazines are a similar resource, but cowboy poetry in periodicals is not a regular thing anymore, so it requires keeping your eyes open for current offerings or digging through dusty piles of back issues of American Cowboy, Range, Western Horseman, and the smaller magazines that include (or used to include) poems on their pages.
Keep your ears open. If you hear other poets recite poems that speak to you, ask them about them. This is in keeping with the oral tradition associated with cowboy poetry and song and is a legitimate way to spread poetry. But it can also encourage sameness and monotony, so be careful, and seek out the unusual rather than the familiar.
And, of course, you have all those poems you have created. We all have a tendency to fall in love with our own children, so be objective and critical in evaluating your work. Don’t bother memorizing and reciting poems you’ve written if they aren’t spectacular from beginning to end. Reciting mediocre (or downright bad) poems shows disrespect for your audience, and won’t do you any good either.
It goes without saying, but since so many performers can’t seem to remember it I’ll say it anyway: if you want to perform a poem by a living poet get permission. It not only keeps things all legal-like and proper, it’s simple courtesy. And don’t forget to credit the author, living or dead, on stage. That, too, is simple honesty and good manners.
What to avoid when picking a poem.
The ability to memorize and recite poems is a skill to be admired. But there are too many poets who seem inclined to show off this ability by committing to memory seemingly endless poems; poems that go on and on with the tedium of a slowly ticking clock. The audience, initially impressed, soon tires of such displays.
Some poems are simply too long for some reciters. It takes remarkable talent to hold an audience through even the most engaging poems by the best writers. And most poems by average writers like me want to be shorter—they are often loaded down with unnecessary words and lines and stanzas that beg to be eliminated. Cut away the deadwood; get rid of anything that doesn’t advance the story or add atmosphere. If a word (or words) or a line (or lines) serves no purpose beyond filling the meter or reaching a rhyme, get rid of it.
When choosing and learning a poem with strict rhyme and meter, particularly one with a lot of end stops, work to avoid the tedium of a sing-songy delivery. Vary the pace, the cadence, the inflection, and the volume according the meaning of the poem to help the audience understand what you’re saying rather than getting lulled into metronomic monotony.
Beware, also, of a structure or story that is too complex for absorption or understanding by the audience. Some poems have too many twists and turns in the plot, too many characters, too many shifts in scenery for effective recitation. While they may be fine, even brilliant, poems, they are more suitable for reading and rereading and contemplating than for listening.
On the other side of the complexity coin are poems that are too simplistic to engage the audience. Poems that inevitably lead to a foregone conclusion, follow a predictable chronology, or lack depth of meaning or plot or imagery aren’t worth your effort in memorization, for they require no effort on the part of your audience. Remember that poetry is a participatory event, not a spectator sport, and the audience wants, needs, to be drawn into the poem and play a part in its interpretation and meaning.
Directly related to overly simple poems are joke poems, and those that rely on a cheap gimmick to elicit a response from the listener. Too many cowboy poets attempt to construct “poems” from the latest punch-line joke. While such recitations may get a laugh—once—they almost always lack the depth and meaning of true poetry and will not stand up to repeated hearing. Joke poems offer, all too often, an easy way out for the reciter but do nothing to advance the art of poetry and they sell the audience and the reciter short. That’s not to say you should avoid humor. Humor enjoys a long history in the cowboy poetry tradition, and humor will continue to entertain audiences far into the future. But a humorous poem isn’t the same as a joke poem, so know the difference and get serious about being funny.
While you’re at it, avoid tired, trite topics. There have been too many poems about old hats, old horses, old boots, the old home place and the like. So many, that even if you offer a fresh approach the audience will probably drift away, believing they’ve already heard it a hundred times. It’s a tragedy, in a sense, as an outstanding poem on such subjects won’t stand a chance, victim of too many corny, hackneyed verses that came before.
What to look for in a performance poem.
It is important to remember that what you are performing is poetry. So, seek out material that employs the tools and literary devices that elevate language and meaning to a higher plane. In other words, choose poetry that is poetic. Beyond the stories they tell, look for quality poems with unusual turns of phrase, pleasing combinations of sound, effective imagery, interesting structure, and depth of meaning.
Techniques such as alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, and rhythm make words and phrases bounce off one another with sonic qualities that tickle the ear. Tools like metaphor, allusion, euphemism, metonymy, synecdoche, and symbolism make poems attention getting, thought provoking, and involving. As you look for literary technique, look for meaning in the poem. Understanding the surface meaning as well as the deeper, underlying meaning always makes for a more effective recitation.
Poems that “read” well don’t always “say” well—what looks good on paper doesn’t always sound good. Make sure the natural pauses, the meter, the lines, of a poem fit with your style of speaking.
Short-term gratification vs. long-term effect.
Have you ever heard a song, watched a movie, or read a book you enjoyed at the time, but, when asked later couldn’t say what it was about? On the other hand, think about those songs, movies, or books you were unimpressed with or ambivalent about at the time, but can’t forget. That’s the difference between short-term gratification and long-term effect.
Another way of looking at it is this: it’s the difference between cotton candy and a rich salsa—the first is intense and sweet but soon disappears, while the other starts slow but intensifies and lingers.
The temptation for most performers is to go for the predictable easy laugh or foreseeable sentimental response. Certain topics, certain targets, are easy and invariably elicit an expected reaction. Don’t succumb to that temptation—instead, strive to create a lasting impression. Rather than settling for sentiment, reach deeper for real emotion. Challenge your audience, involve them, and you’ll create long-term memories rather than flash-in-the-pan indulgence.
As you assemble your poems into a program, think in terms of a pack string. Every poem should carry its own load and contribute its share toward reaching your destination. Speaking of destination, make sure your poetry program is going somewhere, not just wandering aimlessly.
Plan to arrive at the end of your program’s trail on a high note—or a low note. Leave the audience laughing or leave them crying. But, by all means, leave them thinking and leave them wanting more.
That said, don’t pander. Present poems that resonate with the audience but make sure they also support your artistic integrity. Which brings us back where we started—don’t lose yourself in an attempt to please your audience, and don’t lose your audience in an attempt to please yourself. Choose poems wisely and well, and you can step off the stage pleased with your performance, leaving the audience sorry to see you go.