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My Cousin, the Cowboy Poet

17 March 2016

From The New Yorker:

Without a P.A. system, it was difficult to hear anything while sitting behind the podium, and so, as the cowboy poet R. P. Smith waited for his turn at the mike, arms akimbo and boots on the ground, he thought about the keynote address he’d endured the previous morning. The environmental historian Dan Flores had spoken about the market forces that drove white settlers to obliterate the bison and other big grazers in the Great Plains, the opulent safaris that reduced thundering herds to sun-bleached bones, and about the importance of rekindling that “American Serengeti” of old. Smith would have liked to argue a few points with the man, but he knew that the lexicon of the ranch didn’t always fare well against footnotes and Ph.D.s. He couldn’t quite articulate it, even to himself, but he believed there was something to be said for the industry that supplanted the herds of buffalo and pronghorn, something to be said for the here and now.

He was thinking of the bones he knew best when the host called his name and waved him forward. Smith is short and thin and moves quickly, directly, as if hitting invisible stage marks. His jeans were tight and stiff as cardboard; his boots were scuffed and his belt buckle shone, with the floodlight throwing a crisp shadow on the Western mural behind him. The room was at capacity, roughly two hundred people, with every seat filled and overflow skirting the walls for the 11:30 A.M. show at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, in Elko, Nevada.

“The keynote speaker yesterday was talking about the fossil trail. I’ve got some training that way,” Smith said. “Of course they were all my cattle.” Unsmiling, he paused just long enough to let people catch on. “I’ve got a series of really short poems that I want to run by you,” he continued. “They are all set in the tradition of Greek theatre. No matter how beat up the characters in Greek theatre got, if they were still alive at the end, it was a comedy. These are tragedies. The first one is called ‘Bone Pile Near the Creek.’ ”

Learn a lesson now from this poor old cow
Whose bones are scattered here
You stretched your luck when you shorted my chuck
then kept me one more year.

He recited two more before returning to his seat, one called “Skull on the Post,” the other “Pelvic Bone in the Canyon,” each of them eliciting laughs and applause from a crowd less interested in iambs and trochees than in a sense of place and a story they could relate to. Later on, when the lights had dimmed, Smith would wonder just what it takes to earn a higher billing here at the Gathering, an event he’d been performing at for years. What could he have done better? But he wouldn’t dwell on it for long; back in Nebraska, he had a ranch to attend to, a family, two hundred head of cattle. He had never intended to be a poet, anyway. “It just sort of got away from me,” he said.

. . . .

In the early nineteen-eighties, a group of western folklorists, armed with a small grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, set out to preserve America’s cowboy culture. They visited working ranches all over the West, fearing that the old traditions were quickly disappearing in the age of the urban cowboy. “There was such a disconnect between what they were saying and what was coming out of Nashville and Hollywood with a cowboy hat on,” Hal Cannon, the founding director of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and its host organization, the Western Folklife Center, told me. At the same time, rural depopulation continued to escalate, and young men and women, even out West, no longer pined for agricultural work. But in the process of interviewing these cowboys, Cannon said, “we also found these highly articulate people who were poets, or who recited these old poems, and we just said, ‘What is this about?’ ”

Cowboy poetry was spawned on the trail drives north from Texas after the Civil War, as cowhands killed time around the campfire, telling stories to the rhythm of traditional ballads and the popular poetry of the time: Byron, Tennyson, Longfellow. Today, it is evidently impossible to attend the Gathering without hearing the classic Robert Service poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee” at least three times. “Did cowboy poets read Edgar Allan Poe? Sure,” the folklorist David Stanley, a former staff member of the Gathering, writes in his essay “On the Trail of Cowboy Poetry.” “How about Walt Whitman? Maybe. T. S. Eliot? Ezra Pound? Probably not—but they devoured (and digested) the poets who had powerful rhythms and exacting rhymes and who wrote about outdoor life, human bravery and endurance, and companionship.”

In 1985, after a modest campaign to identify America’s cowboy poets, Cannon and several others established the inaugural Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Heeding the concerns of their several dozen weary participants, the founders avoided major cities and flashy resort towns and instead chose Elko, a town of about ten thousand people, at the time, and with a century’s worth of cowboy culture. Among the first group of cowboy poets to attend the Gathering was a Montana rancher named Wallace McRae. If you have heard one cowboy poem, it is likely McRae’s “Reincarnation,” which R. P. Smith compares to “Genesis, in the Bible.” It begins:

“What does Reincarnation mean?”
A cowpoke asked his friend.
His pal replied, “It happens when
Yer life has reached its end.
They comb yer hair, and warsh yer neck,
And clean yer fingernails,
And lay you in a padded box
Away from life’s travails.”

Describing that first Gathering, McRae, now a headlining act, noted that the cowboys who attended realized that they had all written the same poem about their favorite horse. In other words, they’d found their community.

. . . .

You won’t find many cowboy poets in your favorite literary journal—for starters, they rarely submit. Their books tend to be self-published or released through tiny, niche publishers for the sake of events like the Gathering. I spent an hour surveying their written work at the Gathering’s gift shop, and, in truth, a small circulation is probably for the best. Cowboy poetry is a performance art. The heart and soul that the best of the poets radiate before an audience rarely transfer well to the page. McRae’s voice is deep and rough, his rhythm slow yet somehow surprising. R. P. is the opposite, usually, delivering his lines in galloping succession, enunciating every word, limbs stampeding, pushing his audience right up to the edge before hitting the climax and slowing to a trot.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

The following video may require a bit of explanation for some visitors to TPV.  The term, “purt near” is what happens when a Western drawl meets up with “pretty near,” meaning almost.


Books in General, Video

3 Comments to “My Cousin, the Cowboy Poet”

  1. I ain’t no poet
    and I dam well know it …

  2. 🙂 I’ve been reading Cowboy Poetry and following the scene for over a decade. Baxter Black and Waddie Mitchell are probably the most famous modern cowboy poets, but there’s a lot of humor, and sorrow, and thought there, some in very traditional ballad forms, and some very modern free verse.

  3. I clicked and watched the video. Now YouTube recommends a spate of other cowboy poet videos.

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