Featured at the Bar-D Ranch

 

Reviewed by Linda M. Hasselstrom

 

Cowboy Poetry: Classic Poems & Prose by Badger Clark
Edited by Greg Scott.
Phoenix, AZ:
Cowboy Miner Productions, 2005. 6x9 inches, 432 pages, hardcover; ISBN 1-931725-09-8. $29.95


Badger Clark was one of the first and best cowboy poets, and his work is still popular nearly fifty years after his death.

Greg Scott, editor of this dandy new collection of Clark's writings, notes that the poet was "one of the first to be called a cowboy poet."

Like many writers, Badger sent his first poem to his stepmother. Many a potential career has ended right there: posted on the refrigerator, or tucked in a drawer.

Badger's mom, proud of her boy, submitted it to Pacific Monthly. In August, 1906, Badger was astonished to get a check for $10, and declared that if publishers would pay for "such stuff as that," he'd found his calling. The poem was "
Ridin'," still one of the best of the breed.

From then on, Clark's writing appeared regularly in magazines such as Ladies Home Journal, Sunset, Scribner's, Century, The Rotarian, Collier's--cosmopolitan publications with broad readerships. Today, some cowboy poets and singers promote themselves with fanfare that would have made the modest Badger blush. Cowboy poetry gatherings are popping up practically everywhere, like prairie dogs in a national park. Most cowboy poetry audiences have heard some of Badger's poems, because even mediocre poets recognize the star quality of his work.

Still, many serious readers, particularly those with academic connections, don't consider cowboy poetry to be worthy of notice. This book might go a long way toward proving that notion is a misfire.

Performers, raise your hands if you've "done" a Badger Clark poem.

See those hands waving? "
High-Chin Bob,"--Badger called it "The Glory Trail"-- and "The Legend of Boastful Bill" are among the most popular, and singers regularly warble "A Border Affair," also known as "Spanish is the Lovin' Tongue."

 

The most popular of his poems, "A Cowboy's Prayer," is respected even by folks who wouldn't go near a cowboy poetry reading if you handed out free steak. (Or cowboy hats for vegetarians.) Sadly, it's still sometimes printed - on post cards, greeting cards, funeral programs, web sites, and in books - as the work of that old faker, "Anonymous, or as "Author Unknown."

According to one of Clark's biographers, Helen F. Morganti, Badger once wrote of "A Cowboy's Prayer" that, "Half the people who know it think it anonymous and that doesn't bother me, so long as it keeps in circulation." Modestly, he hoped it might outlive him, and it must be one of the best-known American poems of all time.

Though Badger only spent a year in college, he read constantly, and learned from his reading. His poems are a pleasure to read and recite because they are not only lively, but logical. The rhythm and rhyme are smooth as the lope of a good saddle horse. Sadly, many of his modern imitators haven't bothered to study the form they pretend to write, and technical matters of iambic rhythm and straightforward rhyme are still mysteries to many. Reading this book might offer cowboy poets a lesson in remedial rhyme, as well as a dab of wisdom: "It is a dull man who can look a star in the eye and still be stuck on himself."

So we all agree that Badger Clark was a great cowboy poet. Now raise your hand if you've read Badger Clark's short stories or essays.

If your hand isn't up, reach for your checkbook and buy this book. You'll learn how much of Clark's achievement we've missed.

I am ashamed to admit that, though I grew up within spitting distance of Badger's home, and he encouraged me to write, I had never read his prose. My excuse is probably like yours: the poems are so absorbing, you think the stories can't possibly be as satisfying. We were wrong.

If no one had ever heard of Badger Clark, I'd happily recommend this book for the stories alone. They're funny, and so authentic you may get saddle sores. And you could read every one of them aloud to your five-year-old daughter or your mother without a blush. The stories are accompanied by their original illustrations.

 

This collection opens with twenty of Clark's classic poems, but it also includes twenty-five lesser-known verses, including some that may have been unpublished. (It's hard for anyone to be sure since Clark, in true cowboy fashion, didn't keep accurate files.) And it contains all of his published short fiction, several short essays, and a photo album with pictures of Badger at his writing table and strumming his guitar romantically. Other pictures show his home while he recovered from tuberculosis in Arizona, and the cabins he built in South Dakota, where he lived most of his life.

The amazing scholarship of Clark's prose is another reminder that those Eastern editors and readers who still think cowboys are crude and uneducated are being shortsighted. Here's Clark writing in 1924 on the future of Western writing:

The West has produced wheat and gold and cattle copiously enough, but it
is a dream of mine that, as it grows older, it will produce things of more
permanent value than these-- literature, for instance

If, says Clark, "little England could bring forth a Shakespeare-!" surely the big West is capable of similar feats. He remarks on the promise shown by John Neihardt and suggests that, "From now on the literary center of the United States should move west much faster than the center of population." As Clark prophesied, plenty of literature has been created in the West, but the literary center of the nation still seems to be on one or the other coast. Perhaps this is, at least in part, because its even harder now than in his day for Western writers to get the attention they deserve from editors and publishers.

 

As Clark prophesied, plenty of literature has been created in the West, but the literary center of the nation still seems to be on one or the other coast. Perhaps it's even harder now than in his day for Western writers to get the attention they deserve from editors and publishers. 

Editor Greg Scott, with other commentators, has said that Badger "was serious about his writing but could not be said to have been prolific." I'll quibble with this a bit. Many modern writers seem intent only on being famous, and that wasn't Clark's primary ambition. Some folks--you've met them--will do anything to attract any kind of attention. Clark enjoyed writing, and particularly the thoughts and experiences that led to poetry and stories, but he didn't need a spotlight to be satisfied with his work. He supported himself in part with speeches and recitations, but once he had observed the frantic pace of the lecture circuit, he "escaped to The Badger Hole and gave up the idea of fame," says biographer Jessie Y. Sundstrom, and lived frugally so he wouldn't have to work at a job he hated just to live. One year in the Thirties, he lived on $120 from eight speaking engagements.

He wanted to enjoy his life as well as comment on it, and he probably spent more time noticing 

    those priceless incidental things-
    Flower fragrance and bird flutterings,

than writing. A deeply personal essay in this volume, "The Hermitry," explains why he never married, and chose to live alone in a cabin he built in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He said, "I loved my fellow man the best/ When he was scattered some." ("The Old Cow Man")

This is a solid and worthwhile book, and any criticisms I make of it may be primarily a matter of personal taste, or the economic necessities of publishing. Like all publishers, Cowboy Miner has to calculate the cost of producing a book against its probable sales, and make decisions accordingly.

As a native Dakotan who cut my poetic teeth on Badger's work, I want to see him recognized for the quality of his writing both in poetry and prose, so I wish Scott had included more documentation for the benefit of scholars who should accord Clark more respect as a writer. I'd like a complete bibliography of his publications, including the different editions of his books--since some appear to be out of print.

On the other hand, the editorial decision to keep the text free of footnotes, putting notes on composition and publication at the end of each section, makes the book more readable for the non-scholar.

I wish the reader of this volume had more details about Clark's life. Helen Morganti's chapbook, The Badger Clark Story, was published in 1960. A 2004 book, Badger Clark: Cowboy Poet with Universal Appeal, written and published by Jessie Y. Sundstrom, secretary of the The Badger Clark Memorial Society, provides more biographical details and some additional photographs. As Scott mentions, the Society tries to keep Clark's books in print, along with other materials written about him, selling them with proceeds going to help keep Clark's home, The Badger Hole, open to visitors in Custer State Park in his beloved Black Hills. Write the Society at P.O. Box 351, Custer, SD 57730; also www.badgerclark.org. Proceeds help keep Clark's home, The Badger Hole, open to visitors in Custer State Park in his beloved Black Hills.

A bibliography, or at least a list of Clark's published books, would be useful. Since Clark himself didn't keep good records, Scott has done heroic service by discovering and printing scattered materials.

Also, I kept flipping to the back, searching for the index, considered necessary to most scholarly works. The book can't seem to make up its mind whether it's intended for a scholarly audience (as the hard cover and price suggest) or popular, but either way, an index would have been useful. Finally, my sympathies to Greg Scott for the typos that slipped through the copyediting process. It happens to all of us, but I once did as he did: transformed Jessie Sundstrom into a man -- "Jesse"-- and the blisters on my ears were some time in healing.

Most important, however, Greg Scott and Cowboy Miner have brought us a batch of fine writing by one of the masters. Readers and aspiring writers both will savor it, as we appreciate the fine mind from which it came. And we can learn from it too. As Badger wrote, in mockery of his own first poem,

  Just a-writin', a-writin',
  Nothin' I like half so well
  As a-slingin' ink and English-
  If the stuff will only sell
  When I'm writin'.

2005, Linda Hasselstrom

 

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
PO Box 169
Hermosa, SD 57744-0169
www.windbreakhouse.com
info@windbreakhouse.com

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