And so goes the story called Cowboy Poetry.
It’s a touching story, the stuff of legends. Which it is, mostly. While seasoned with truth, as legends often are, the real story of our folk art is more complex and less romantic, but equally intriguing.
No doubt poetry played a part in the leisure time activities of trail drivers way back when and, later, in roundup camps and ranch bunkhouses. As Will James wrote in Cow Country (in an observation made some 50 years after the end of the trail drive era), “Then in the evenings there’d be songs, old trailherd songs that some used to sing. There was even poetry at times, made right there at the cow camp.” (James, 228)
Poetry, on such occasions, to hear James tell it, played second fiddle to singing. Jack Thorp and John Lomax, often credited as the earliest collectors of cowboy verse, first and most often gathered songs. It can be argued, of course, that poems were often set to music as songs and song lyrics recited as poetry. Likely so. As David Stanley writes in “Cowboy Poetry Then and Now” in the book he edited with Elaine Clark, Cowboy Poets & Cowboy Poetry, “The distinction between poem and song…has never been of much moment to working cowboys….” (Stanley, 3)
Illiterate, or Literati?
Stanley makes another important point that “the widespread Victorian affection for parlor and public—often schoolhouse—recitations” was equally loved around cowboy campfires and chuckwagons, and included “a mass of popular poetry from Shakespeare to Stephen Vincent Benét…Rudyard Kipling and Robert W. Service….” (Stanley, 3)
The use of these poets—and, likely, others popular at the time such as Poe and Longfellow, Emerson and Burns—gives lie to the popular notion of the illiterate cowboy. Stanley, again, tells us that “Many cowboys of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been well read, sometimes astonishingly so,” and that “Cowboy poetry has been primarily the province of literate people since the first publication of poems in western newspapers in the 1870s.” (Stanley, 4)
So, while always something of an oral tradition, born in an era when memorization and recitation were valued, cowboy poetry is, and always was, a literary or written tradition as well—probably more so.
And it’s a good thing. The few cowboy poems that survive from the nineteenth century, particularly those, as Will James described it, “made right there at the cow camp,” would have disappeared (especially those composed by the great poet Anonymous) without collectors like the aforementioned Jack Thorp and John Lomax who put them in print.
Thorp, in 1908, published a 50-page collection of verses embracing, he said, “most of the songs as sung by the old-time cowpunchers,” gathered “from the cow camps of the different states and territories.” He wrote, “I plead ignorant of the authorship of them.” (Thorp, i) Lomax published two similar but more ambitious works: Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads in 1910 and Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp in 1919. A Texas native and Harvard-educated folklorist, he spent several months horseback riding hundreds of miles gathering material for his anthologies. Some entries are not attributed, but Lomax credits authors—sometimes erroneously—of most of the verses in his anthologies.
Important and enduring though they are, these books are actually latecomers to the publication of cowboy poetry. Guy Logsdon, writing in Cowboy Poets & Cowboy Poetry, lists a number of newspapers published in trail towns in the 1880s and says “all of them printed cowboy poems and songs.” According to Logsdon, Western Travels and Other Rhymes, written by Texas cowboy Lysius Gough and published in Dallas in 1886, is the earliest known book of cowboy poetry. “The first major collection of cowboy poetry,” Logsdon says, is William Lawrence “Larry” Chittenden’s 1893 publication Ranch Verses. (Logsdon, 54-6)
Some of Chittenden’s work, and poems from the Thorp and Lomax anthologies are still recited today, as are a few other nineteenth century poets, including D. J. O’Malley. But much, probably most, of the old-time cowboy poetry recited at today’s gatherings and collected in recent anthologies is from a later era, long after the legendary trail drive days. And, again giving lie to the legend, much of this favored verse was written by men with tenuous connections to the workaday cowboy world.
Cowboy Poetry's Classic Era
The “Golden Age” or “Classic Era” of cowboy poetry occupied, roughly, the first half of the twentieth century, with many of its most popular practitioners surviving well past that. Here’s a partial roll call of names familiar in cowboy poetry circles, accompanied by a brief description of their cowboy credentials. (By no means definitive, the list does include enough names to allow those who memorize it to fake their way through an otherwise intelligent conversation on cowboy poetry.)
E. A. Brininstool wrote thousands of cowboy poems, some collected in a 1914 book, Trail Dust of a Maverick. Born in New York in 1870, he spent most of his life in Los Angeles as journalist, freelance writer, and Western historian.
Another transplant, Arthur Chapman, wrote the renowned “Out Where the West Begins”:
Out where the handclasp’s a little stronger,
Out where the smile dwells a little longer,
That’s where the West begins;
Out where the sun is a little brighter,
Where the snows that fall are trifle whiter,
Where the bonds of home are a wee bit tighter,
That’s where the West begins.
Out where the skies are a trifle bluer,
Out where friendship’s a little truer,
That’s where the West begins;
Out where a fresher breeze is blowing,
Where there’s laughter in every streamlet flowing,
Where there’s more of reaping and less of sowing,
That’s where the West begins.
Out where the world is in the making,
Where fewer hearts in despair are aching,
That’s where the West begins;
Where there’s more of singing and less of sighing,
Where there’s more of giving and less of buying,
And a man makes friends without half trying—
That’s where the West begins.
Chapman’s observations were not made from horseback—born in Illinois in 1873, he learned the Western ways he loved and praised during his many years working as a newspaperman in Denver.
Henry Herbert Knibbs, born in 1874, might have witnessed the trail herds had he grown up somewhere other than Ontario, Canada. Nonetheless, he is author of numerous acclaimed cowboy poems including the reverential “Where the Ponies Come to Drink” as well as “Boomer Johnson,” which takes a decidedly irreverent tone as demonstrated in this stanza:
Now Mr. Boomer Johnson was a gettin’ old in spots,
But you don’t expect a bad man to go wrastlin’ pans and pots;
But he’d done his share of killin’ and his draw was gettin’ slow,
So he quits a-punchin’ cattle and he takes to punchin’ dough.
Knibbs eventually made it to the West in 1910, lived in California, and spent a good deal of time wandering the Southwest soaking up, as a talented observer, the cowboy life. By the time he died in 1945, Knibbs had written widely about the West, including poetry, and has enjoyed respect and admiration in cowboy poetry circles despite being an outsider.
Robert V. Carr is another cowboy poet of the Golden Age who came by his knowledge of cowboy life through observation. Born in South Dakota in 1877, he lived for a time among the Sioux Indians and worked as a prospector, soldier, and reporter.
Born in 1878 in Pennsylvania, Bruce Kiskaddon moved west and by 1898 was a working cowboy. He rode for various ranches throughout the Southwest and, for a time, in Australia. Most of his poetry was penned after Kiskaddon moved to California seeking riches in the movie business. Instead, he spent most of his time working as a hotel elevator operator and writing poems, which, for years, appeared monthly in Western Livestock Journal. An always popular, and always emotional, recitation is Kiskaddon’s “When They’ve Finished Shipping Cattle in the Fall.” Here’s an excerpt:
Then you watch the stars a shinin’
Up there in the soft blue linin’
And you sniff the frosty night air clear and cool.
You can hear the night hoss shiftin’
And your memory starts a driftin’
To the little village where you went to school.
With its narrow gravel streets
And the kids you used to meet,
And the common where you used to play baseball.
Now you’re far away and draggin’
To the home ranch with the wagon—
For they’ve finished shippin’ cattle in the fall.
Nearly as popular with Western audiences is the knowing open-range poem, “The Little Blue Roan.” The climactic stanzas are:
The hoss he was usin’ his eyes and his ears
And I figgered right now there was somebody near.
He seemed to be watchin’ a bunch of pinon,
And I shore took a hint from that little blue roan.
Instead of my brand, well, I run on another.
I used the same brand that was on the calf ’s mother.
I branded her right pulled her up by the tail
With a kick in the rump for to make the brute sail.
I had branded her proper and marked both her ears,
When out of the pinons two cow men appears.
Other oft-recited Kiskaddon favorites include “Alone,” “It Might Have Been Me or It Might Have Been You,” and “The Old Night Hawk”; space forbids listing more of this popular poet’s works.
Second only, perhaps, to Bruce Kiskaddon in the hearts of cowboy poets is Charles Badger Clark, born in Iowa in 1883. His preacher father moved the family to South Dakota during Badger’s first year, and there he lived most of his life. He lived for a time as caretaker on an Arizona ranch while seeking relief from tuberculosis, but was not a cowboy although he admired the cowboy life and loved the men who lived it. He wrote numerous popular poems including “Ridin’,” “From Town,” “A Border Affair,” “The Glory Trail,” “The Legend of Boastful Bill” and many others. Clark earned much of his living as an adult as a lecturer and speaker, and often included poetry in his presentations.
Carmen William “Curley” Fletcher, author of the timeless poem-turned-song “The Strawberry Roan,” was born in San Francisco in 1892. He was an authentic cowboy, with experience on both ranches and in the rodeo arena, and worked, as well, as a miner and musician.
Especially prolific was S. Omar Barker, who authored some 1,200 articles, 1,500 short stories, and 2,000 poems. Although of limited, if any, working cowboy experience, the school teacher, college professor, then full-time freelance writer said he was “raised among the cowfolks of New Mexico,” where he was born in 1894. Many of his poems are still popular, including “A Cowboy’s Christmas Prayer” and the hilarious “Jack Potter’s Courtin’” which includes this stanza:
“I’m just a humble cowhand,
Miss Cordie if you please,
That hereby asks your heart and hand,
upon my bended knees!”
It sounded mighty simple
thus rehearsed upon the trail,
But when he come to Cordie’s house,
his words all seemed to fail.
Two other names bear mention, although not cowboy poets in the strictest sense of the word. Residents of Australia and practitioners of a similar tradition called “Bush Poetry,” A. B. “Banjo” Paterson and Will Ogilvie wrote poems that speak to cowboys still today. Paterson, born in 1864, wrote the classic poem “The Man From Snowy River” as well as American favorite “Clancy of the Overflow” and others. In his native land the lawyer, journalist, and farmer is best remembered for writing “Waltzing Matilda.” Ogilvie, a Scotsman born in 1869, spent a decade working in Australia breaking horses and as “station hand” and “drover”—the Australian equivalents of a ranch cowboy. “The Hoofs of the Horses” and “The Pearl of Them All” are often recited at cowboy poetry gatherings.
The so-called Golden Age of cowboy poetry to which those gentlemen, and others, lent their talents kept its glitter—evidenced by the appearance of cowboy and western poems in numerous magazines and newspapers, along with the publication of several popular collections in book form—until World War II or thereabouts. The art never disappeared, but it may as well have. During the ensuing drought, cowboys who wrote poems worked largely in isolation, many of them claiming they never realized there were others doing what they did. Public performance was rare, publication infrequent.
The Rediscovery of a Forgotten Art
Until 1985, when everything changed.
That’s the year a few folklorists, led by Hal Cannon and Jim Griffith, put together the first cowboy poetry “gathering” in Elko, Nevada. Folklorists throughout the West scoured cattle ranches and rodeo arenas, bunkhouses and bars in search of cowboys who recited and wrote poems about the life they lived. A handful were invited to the high-desert cowtown to recite their own compositions and classic poems for a few hundred onlookers.
The idea took hold like a lariat dallied hard around a saddle horn. The event—officially designated by Congress as the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering but known in cowboy poetry circles simply as “Elko”—celebrates its 25th anniversary in January, 2009. Nowadays, the audiences number in the thousands. Concurrent sessions on several stages go on for days, with cowboy lingo rolling over enthusiastic crowds like a tumbleweed stampede. Poets by the hundreds apply for the privilege of performing in Elko, with aspiring poets lining up to appear in open-mic sessions where supply far outpaces demand.
But poets not given the opportunity to stand on cowboy poetry’s biggest stage in Elko don’t have to look far for an alternative. Hundreds of “gatherings” and similar events are scattered across the West like so many cattle. Some are small-town Grange Hall affairs, others occupy big-city auditoriums. Audiences range from a few friends and family members to crowds that rival those in Elko. From Pincher Creek to Pigeon Forge, Santa Clarita to San Angelo, Medora to Moab, aficionados of the art can feed the habit practically any weekend of the year at any one of a number of cowboy poetry troughs.
Performance, Publishing, and Patterns
But enough, already, about where it came from and where it is. What, exactly, is this cowboy poetry?
The simplest answer is probably to say it’s poetry that springs from the workaday world of the cowboy. (More on that later.) But that’s too simplistic an answer to encompass what cowboy poetry was, let alone what it is, never mind where it’s going.
Today, it’s best known and most appreciated in oral recitation, even as performance art. And while recitation has always been part of the tradition, in modern times it has overwhelmed the printed word. Where Curley Fletcher and Badger Clark produced books, today’s poets are more likely to cut a CD. Where Bruce Kiskaddon had Western Livestock Journal to disseminate his verses to a mass audience, we now have Clear Out West (C.O.W.) Radio and Red Steagall’s Cowboy Corner spewing poetry over the airwaves.
Not that the written word doesn’t play a role. Slick magazines edited for Western-enthusiast audiences—such as American Cowboy, Western Horseman, and Range—treat readers to cowboy poetry on occasion. Many poets still publish books, often to hawk during public performances. And CowboyPoetry.com caters to millions of online readers with an ever-growing offering of thousands of poems accompanied by numerous related features of interest.
But back to the poetry itself. Given the preferences of the day, virtually all cowboy poetry from the early days and the classic period conformed to conventional patterns of rhyme and meter. Owing, perhaps, to its association with song and to facilitate memorization, most poems use the ballad form or variations thereof. Four-line stanzas with an a-b-c-b, a-a-b-b, or a-b-a-b rhyme scheme are common, and end stops are the norm.
The list of cowboy poets who write and rhyme beautifully in the “traditional” style is too extensive to include here. Standouts—at least in my mind— include Baxter Black, Red Steagall, Doris Daley, Wallace McRae, Virginia Bennett, Pat Richardson, and Joel Nelson. A particular favorite rhymer of mine is Bob Schild, who demonstrates his chops in these stanzas from “The Maverick Bull”:
The old bull’s speed defied his age.
I tracked him on, through rocks and sage.
But when I thought him ripe to cage,
He’d up and write another page.
Who wins success, failure defies.
The sprint through life, one lives or dies.
Enduring all this tale implies,
I roped him deep below the eyes.
Afraid to miss. . .jerked in the slack,
Then laid it neatly o’er his back,
Spun safe three dallies on my kack,
An’ dropped him like a rifle’s crack.
While the typical form can, and often does, produce beautiful results, in hands of lesser skill the outcome is often sing-songy and monotonous, with syntax twisted and rhymes shoehorned uncomfortably into the pattern. And while skilled writers pay careful attention to meter, many cowboy poets—too many—wouldn’t know a trochee if it was crawling around inside their bedroll. Which means that meter is often inconsistent and sometimes mangled beyond recognition.
Careful writing is, I believe, a casualty of the emphasis on recitation. Mistakes in rhyme and meter are detectable to the listening ear, but they pass by at the speed of sound, soon forgotten in the stream of words. Lapses on the printed page, however, will stare back at both writer and reader in unforgiving permanence, thereby encouraging greater care in composition.
More adventurous, more talented poets soon tire of the limitations of the “traditional” form and venture into more complexity. Badger Clark is, for my money, the best “writer” among poets of the Golden Age. Many of his poems depart from the ballad style to encompass more inventive patterns of rhyme, more intricate metrical designs, often employing a different rhyme and meter scheme in alternating stanzas to emphasize changes in thought, voice, setting, or other abrupt shifts. Demonstrative of his artful ways is “Ridin’”:
There is some that like the city—
Grass that’s curried smooth and green,
Theaytres and stranglin’ collars,
Wagons run by gasoline—
But for me it’s hawse and saddle
Every day without a change,
And a desert sun a-blazin’
On a hundred miles of range.
Just a-ridin’, a-ridin’ —
Desert ripplin’ in the sun,
Mountains blue along the skyline—
I don’t envy anyone
When I’m ridin’.
When my feet is in the stirrups
And my hawse is on the bust,
With his hoofs a-flashin’ lightnin’
From a cloud of golden dust,
And the bawlin’ of the cattle
Is a-comin’ down the wind
Then a finer life than ridin’
Would be mighty hard to find.
Just a-ridin’, a-ridin’—
Splittin’ long cracks through the air,
Stirrin’ up a baby cyclone,
Rippin’ up the prickly pear
As I’m ridin’.
I don’t need no art exhibits
When the sunset does her best,
Paintin’ everlastin’ glory
On the mountains to the west
And your opery looks foolish
When the night bird starts his tune
And the desert’s sliver-mounted
By the touches of the moon.
Just a-ridin’, a-ridin’,
Who kin envy kings and czars
When the coyotes down the valley
Are a-singin’ to the stars,
If he’s ridin’?
When my earthly trail is ended
And my final bacon curled
And the last great roundup’s finished
At the Home Ranch of the world
I don’t want no harps or haloes,
Robes nor other dressed up things—
Let me ride the starry ranges
On a pinto hawse with wings!
Just a-ridin’, a-ridin’—
Nothin’ I’d like half so well
As a-roundin’ up the sinners
That have wandered out of Hell,
A modern classic, perhaps the finest cowboy poem ever, is the late Buck Ramsey’s epic “Grass” or “And As I Rode Out on the Morning.” The book-length poem not only retells familiar cowboy stories with a fresh voice and intensity, it does so in a form unique in cowboy poetry—a “stanza scheme,” Ramsey says in the book’s original edition, “from Pushkin.” (Ramsey, 64) This is a stanza from the segment of the poem called “Anthem”:
It was the old ones with me riding
Out through the fog fall of the dawn,
And they would press me to deciding
If we were right or we were wrong.
For time came we were punching cattle
For men who knew not spur nor saddle,
Who came with locusts in their purse
To scatter loose upon the earth.
The savage had not found this prairie
Till some who hired us came this way
To make the grasses pay and pay
For some raw greed no wise or wary
Regard for grass could satisfy.
The old ones wept, and so did I.
Many, many other poets today experiment with meter, often importing forms from outside the genre and emulating or imitating them in composing a cowboy poem. I have heard and seen limericks (who hasn’t?), rap-style, sonnets, haiku, and other forms attempted by buckaroo bards.
Cowboy poets and cowboy poetry audiences, it seems, tend to accept metrical patterns that depart from the norm (if for no other reason than they haven’t the inclination or lack the ability to scan for meter) so long as they can sense the rhythm and hear the rhyme.
The Rights and Wrongs of Rhymes
Rhyme, you see, is a sticky issue in cowboy poetry circles.
Many writers insist that every rhyme must—must—be a strict rhyme, with exactly corresponding vowel and consonant sounds in the final syllable of the rhyming words. No exceptions. Slant rhyme, they say, is a sign of laziness or sloppy writing. Never mind the fact that it is easily demonstrated that the best poets of the classic era of cowboy poetry used slant rhyme effectively, even in poems these strict-rhyme exclusivists revere, even recite.
Which brings us to the related, if larger, problem of free verse.
(Let me pause here for a moment to mention that I am fully aware that free verse is defined by lack of meter, and that rhyme is sometimes employed in free verse. But, I’m sure you will agree, most free verse does not use rhyme, and that most anyone you ask—poet or otherwise—will say that free verse is poetry that doesn’t rhyme.)
There is considerable controversy concerning free verse cowboy poetry. A goodly number of folks will not even admit such a thing exists. Plain and simple, poetry that doesn’t rhyme isn’t poetry. Some events won’t allow free verse poets to recite on their stages and exclude them without apology, even with braggadocio.
Yet free verse plays an important roles in today’s cowboy poetry, like it or not. And it’s not likely to go away anytime soon, nor are the poets who produce it. Rancher, poet, editor, and publisher John Dofflemyer was an early proponent, promoter, and practitioner. Red Shuttleworth has enjoyed critical success and literary acclaim with free verse poetry, as has Laurie Wagner Buyer, as have others, and their work has inspired more cowboy poets to attempt free verse.
But, in a larger sense, Elko may be the biggest reason for the continuing, if not universal, acceptance of free verse cowboy poetry. Unlike most gatherings, the National Cowboy Gathering staff at the Western Folklife Center makes an effort to ensure that performers come with at least a semblance of legitimate cowboy credentials. Each must demonstrate some experience at ranch work, rodeo, horse training, or other cowboy-related occupations to satisfy an expectation that it lends authenticity to the reciters and the event. (Interestingly, some of the classic cowboy poets whose work is regularly recited at Elko would not qualify!)
So, when a Great Basin buckaroo like Rod McQueary, an experienced rodeo hand like Paul Zarzyski, a ranch woman like Linda Hasselstrom, or a ranch hand like DW Groethe chooses to describe the cowboy life in words that don’t rhyme (or meter) it’s difficult to argue convincingly that what they’re doing isn’t cowboy poetry. And yet some try. In an essay in the book Cowboy Poetry Matters, Zarzyski describes his skittishness when first presenting free verse poetry at an early Elko gathering: “I understood then, and still understand, how hard-core cowboy poetry audiences pay staunch allegiance to, and take great pride in, the tradition. Which means rhyme and meter.” He goes on to describe “squint-through-rawhide John Wayne clones” who warn, “It don’t rhyme, it ain’t po-tree.” But he was surprised at “the warm, if not sometimes wild, western welcome” his free verse recitations received. (Zarzyski, 245)
What It's About, and Why We Care
Zarzyski’s tale, and his work, lead us to another aspect of cowboy poetry that deserves attention here: subject matter. Earlier, our simplistic definition of the genre described it as poetry about the workaday world of the cowboy. And, for the most part, that shoe (or boot) fits. Poems about horses and cattle, roping and riding, buckoffs and wrecks, are common. The Western landscape, ranch life, bunkhouse lies, tall tales, cowdogs, denigrating stories about sheep and sheepherders can—and will—be heard at any and every gathering. Laments and eulogies about the vanishing way of life in the West have been penned from cowboy poetry’s earliest days and still are. Sappy sentiment is widespread, as is deep and true emotion. Hilarious tales are told as often as the latest lame jokes set to rhyme. Cowboy life is rich with possibilities, and while some subjects get tiresome at times, there’s always the chance that someone will sound off with a fresh way of looking at a familiar subject.
But cowboy poetry doesn’t end with “cowboy” poems. There’s a famous saying—the origin of which, if I ever knew, I don’t recall—that “any poem a cowboy likes is a cowboy poem.” Which explains the popularity of poems and poets that don’t always conform to the norm. Which brings us back to Zarzyski, who has written about racism and the Holocaust. Wallace McRae has made poems about environmentalism and strip mining, Rod McQueary about war, DW Groethe about romantic spiritual connections, Doris Daley about answering machines and acronyms, Pat Richardson about ducks, Red Shuttleworth about outlaw ghosts and running naked through the front yard, and on and on. The “non” cowboy world is often as interesting to cowboys as their own, and they like poems about it.
In summary, while sometimes denigrated as doggerel, dismissed as mere folk art, and decried for sins as varied as using rhyme and meter (or not) and vernacular vocabulary, if you listen closely cowboy poetry can be heard to say, “tell somebody who cares.” Cowboys like to write it. Cowboys like to read it. Cowboys like to recite it. Cowboys like to listen to it. And everyone— everyone—who reads this issue of Rattle wanted to be a cowboy at one time or another. And most likely, deep down, still wants to. So enjoy some cowboy poetry. It may be as close as you’ll get.
Logsdon, Guy. “The Tradition of Cowboy Poetry,” in Cowboy Poets & Cowboy Poetry, edited by David Stanley and Elaine Thatcher (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000).
James, Will. “The Breed of ’Em” in Cow Country (Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Company, Tumbleweed Series edition, 1995).
Ramsey, Buck. “Buck Ramsey has written of himself…” in And As I Rode Out on the Morning (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1993).
Stanley, David. “Cowboy Poetry Then and Now,” in Cowboy Poets & Cowboy Poetry, edited by David Stanley and Elaine Thatcher (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000).
Thorp, Jack. “Preface,” in Songs of the Cowboys (Cambridge: Applewood Books, reprint of the original edition published by the author in 1908).
Zarzyski, Paul. “The Lariati Versus/Verses the Literati: Loping Toward Dana Gioia’s Dream Come Real” in Cowboy Poetry Matters edited by Robert McDowell (Ashland: Storyline Press, 2000).