“It’s just what I do,” Ken Cook says. “I rope horses and punch cows and write poetry.”
Cook recognizes this isn’t exactly normal behavior for either a cowboy or a poet, but Cook also knows he isn’t the only one who sees ropes, horses, cows, and poems as all of a piece. In fact, he’s just one member of the popular (and growing) cowboy poetry movement that has, over the past decade, proven itself adept at gathering up one thing most more “mainstream” poetry has not: an expanding audience of devoted fans.
If you don’t live in a state with a sizable amount of desert, or a livestock-to-human ratio that gives the animal kingdom a fighting chance, then this may come as a surprise. Bookstores in temperate coastal climates aren’t very likely to stock more than one cowboy poetry title at any given moment, and that solitary book, if they even carry it, will be shelved in either the poetry section or the humor section, depending on the whims of the store’s staff. Based on the evidence on display in any of these bookstores, you’d never realize that cowboy poetry so popular, drawing thousands of fans to events and festivals across the U.S.
Cowboy poetry festivals take place in dozens of towns across America—virtually every state west of the Mississippi—from Alpine, Texas, to Monterey, California, to Green Forest, Arkansas. Every year in January, thousands of people gather in Elko, a small town in northern Nevada, for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The gathering—now in its 26th year—was founded primarily thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Cowboy poets record best-selling CDs and podcasts and have been nominated for Grammys (and even won one). By any standard, cowboy poetry has been a hit. By poetry standards, it’s a smash. But if you ask its practitioners, the real success of cowboy poetry is that on the page it attracts normal people—people who would otherwise never pick up a book of poetry—and on the stage it’s a performance that most non-slam poets don’t bother to grasp.
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Like most modern cowboy poetry, many of Ken Cook’s poems look to the past, or use the past as a lens through which to remark on the future. Over the phone, Cook—a rancher out of Martin, South Dakota—is polite and plain-spoken, and very forthcoming about the sources of his love for cowboy poetry. He was involved in theater in high school, and while he liked some of the poets he had to read back in the day—“Robert Frost and all that”—he really fell in love with cowboy poetry when he attended a reading by NPR commentator Baxter Black in the mid-’80s. These days, as the current cowboypoetry.com Lariat Laureate, Cook writes biographical poems about his grandfather and about the pride he feels when his son announces that he wants to be a cowboy himself. His work isn’t over-serious, but it’s no joke.
Brenda “Sam” DeLeeuw, a previous laureate, represents the other half of modern cowboy poetry: the jester. Her poems are funny and rich with exaggeration; one poem, “Cowboy Jumpstart,” involves angering a bull to get a truck going again; another, “Spreadin’ Sunshine,” is about an erudite woman from “back East” who visits a ranch and mistakes an old, beat-up manure spreader for modern art. And a poem titled “Boolie Shoppin’” (“boolie” is western slang for underwear) is a response to an earlier poem by a rancher named Bill Hirschi. Hirschi’s poem “Buying a Bra” is a modern cowboy classic—much-replicated across the Internet—in which a quiet cowboy is sent to buy a bra for his wife. The cowboy stammers and wonders at all the different types of lingerie available, and doesn’t know what cup size his wife is. DeLeeuw’s “Boolie Shoppin’” explores the world of men’s undergarments and finds that things aren’t as simple for dudes as they used to be: “Whoa!! Just which of you wears a G-string? / Thongs wedgin’ in the darndest places!” The poem ends with DeLeeuw taunting the men in the audience to drop their pants and show off just what they’re hiding, in a boolie “fashion show.”
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To put it lightly, there’s a bit of a gap between mainstream poetry and cowboy poetry. It’s easy to see how poetry connoisseurs could completely disregard cowboy poetry as a genre; the poems all more or less stick to ballads, with stanzas constructed of strict ABAB or AABB rhyming patterns. And the subject matter, to someone on the outside, can feel constrained; when all you’re discussing is cattle punching—slang for tending cattle, usually while on horseback—and life on the range, you can understand why urban or suburban readers would think that’s a small canvas on which to paint.
Cowboy poets, too, frame themselves as outsiders from the mainstream; while they’re welcoming to newcomers, you get the sense that an academic study of cowboy poetry would be frowned upon by most of the poets and fans as unnecessary. But cowboy poetry represents a real American tradition of poetry, with strong ties back to the 1800s—ties so strong that it’s almost as though a contemporary of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s was still alive today.
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To understand the appeal of cowboy poetry, it helps to go back to the beginning. Two classic compendiums of cowboy poetry in the public domain are now readily available for free in e-book form: 1908’s Songs of the Cowboys, edited by Nathan Howard Thorp, and the 1920 classic that basically introduced the genre to the world beyond the American West, Cowboy Songs: and Other Frontier Ballads, edited by John Avery Lomax. Besides the incidental mention of a truck or a thong, there’s not much difference between the poems in these books and the poems of Cook or DeLeeuw. Some of the verse provides useful advice for young men who are just getting started:
Work in Montana
Is six months in the year;
When all your bills are settled
There is nothing left for beer.
Work down in Texas
Is all the year around;
You will never get consumption
By sleeping on the ground.
Some of the poems are very funny, like Austin Corcoran’s “Chuck-Time on the Round-Up,” a backhanded tribute to a ranch chef named Old Doughy, which ends:
And I’ve come to this conclusion, and right here I want to say,
When you eat at “Cafe Doughy’s” you feel all right next day,
For here is “Doughy’s” record, and beat it if you can—
He’s cooked for us twenty years and never lost a man.
The satire here often reaches the level of Twain. Quite a few of the poems mock Mormonism, whose popularity was increasing exponentially in the West at the time. Some of these poems make light of polygamy:
Oh, Brigham, Brigham Young,
It’s a miracle how you survive,
With your roaring rams and your pretty little lambs
And your five and forty wives.
But some of the poems, such as “The Mormon Bishop’s Lament,” are downright vicious. This poem, told from the perspective of a fictional man who was recruited by Brigham Young, concludes:
Oh, my poor old bones are aching and my head is turning gray;
Oh, the scenes were black and awful that I’ve witnessed in my
Let my spirit seek the mansion where old Brigham’s gone to
For there’s no place for Mormons but the lowest pits of hell.
Despite what it might seem like from the above, the morality in most cowboy poetry wasn’t the kind of cut-and-dried conservatism people associate with John Wayne movies or Toby Keith songs. In his 1897 book Jim Marshall’s New Pianner and Other Western Stories, William Devere, the self-described “Tramp Poet of the West,” published an extraordinary poem titled “Jeff and Joe. A True Incident of Creede Camp, Colorado,” which describes a lifelong love affair between cowboys. The sympathetic portrait argues against any shock Brokeback Mountain might have had for cowboy poets.
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Back when civilization was still a tenuous experiment, poetry was the most efficient way to impart information and educate large groups of people at once. As its utility faded and its artistry increased, poetry evolved into something else. But back when America was still figuring itself out, and pushing at its edges to see what else was out there, poetry again regained that spirit of old. Cowboys wanted stories to depict the morality that organized religion, with all its trappings of cushy East Coast life, couldn’t offer them in the West, where a rougher, more natural law was in command. Cowboy poetry reflected that morality; and those poems, and the traditions of those poems, still survive.
When asked if he thinks that cowboy poetry will still be written and performed in 100 years, Cook sounds a little nervous—he’s not comfortable speculating—but he finally says, “As long as there are men and women out on ranches doing what we do, I believe there will always be stories to be passed on and things to be written about.” When I ask what he’d have to say to “mainstream” poetry readers who would like to try reading some cowboy poetry, he’s a lot less shy: With cowboy poetry, he says, “There is a world of poetry out there that they don’t know a lot about but I’m sure that, as artistic people, they would love it. That way, we all get to know each other. We all got a lot of friends out there in the world,” he says. “We just haven’t met ’em yet.”