The Cowboy

Someone had spread an elaborate rumor about me, that I was
in possession of an extraterrestrial being, and I thought I knew who
it was. It was Roger Lawson. Roger was a practical joker of the
worst sort, and up till now I had not been one of his victims, so
I kind of knew my time had come. People parked in front of my
house for hours and took pictures. I had to draw all my blinds
and only went out when I had to. Then there was a barrage of
questions. “What does he look like?" “What do you feed him?” “How
did you capture him?” And I simply denied the presence of an
extraterrestrial in my house. And, of course, this excited them
all the more. The press showed up and started creeping around
my yard. It got to be very irritating. More and more came and
parked up and down the street. Roger was really working overtime
on this one. I had to do something. Finally, I made an announcement.
I said, “The little fellow died peacefully in his sleep at 11:02
last night.” “Let us see the body,” they clamored. “He went up
in smoke instantly,” I said. “I don’t believe you,” one of them
said. “There is no body in the house or I would have buried it
myself,” I said. About half of them got in their cars and drove
off. The rest of them kept their vigil, but more solemnly now.
I went out and bought some groceries. When I came back about an
hour later another half of them had gone. When I went into the kitchen
I nearly dropped the groceries. There was a nearly transparent
fellow with large pink eyes standing about three feet tall. “Why
did you tell them I was dead? That was a lie,” he said. “You
speak English,” I said. “I listen to the radio. It wasn’t very
hard to learn. Also we have television. We get all your channels.
I like cowboys, especially John Ford movies. They’re the best,”
he said. “What am I going to do with you?” I said. “Take me
to meet a real cowboy. That would make me happy,” he said. “I
don’t know any real cowboys, but maybe we could find one. But
people will go crazy if they see you. We’d have press following
us everywhere. It would be the story of the century,” I said.
“I can be invisible. It’s not hard for me to do,” he said.
“I’ll think about it. Wyoming or Montana would be our best bet, but
they’re a long way from here,” I said. “Please, I won’t cause
you any trouble,” he said. “It would take some planning,” I said.
I put the groceries down and started putting them away. I tried
not to think of the cosmic meaning of all this. Instead, I
treated him like a smart little kid. “Do you have any sarsaparilla?”
he said. “No, but I have some orange juice. It’s good for you,”
I said. He drank it and made a face. “I’m going to get the maps
out,” I said. “We’ll see how we could get there.” When I came
back he was dancing on the kitchen table, a sort of ballet, but
very sad. “I have the maps,” I said. “We won’t need them. I just
received word. I’m going to die tonight. It’s really a joyous
occasion, and I hope you’ll help me celebrate by watching The
Magnificent Seven,” he said. I stood there with the maps in my
hand. I felt an unbearable sadness come over me. “Why must
you die?” I said. “Father decides these things. It is probably
my reward for coming here safely and meeting you,” he said. “But
I was going to take you to meet a real cowboy,” I said. “Let’s
pretend you are my cowboy,” he said.

James Tate, "The Cowboy" from The Ghost Soldiers. Copyright © 2008 by James Tate.  Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
Source: The Ghost Soldiers (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2008)

Writing Ideas

  1. Try writing a response poem from the alien’s point of view. Like Tate, use prose lines, deadpan humor, and dialogue.
  2. What happens if you lineate Tate’s prose poem into conventional lines of dialogue and description? Try it, and then try to turn a passage of dialogue—from a novel, short story or something you’ve written—into a prose poem. What is gained or lost in contracting dialogue in this way?
  3. Continue Tate’s poem from the speaker’s point of view, or develop a new episode: the speaker confronting Roger Lawson, for example. What do you learn about the speaker from Tate’s poem and how do you learn it? How can you likewise use actions, dialogue, and word choice cue and create character?

Discussion Questions

  1. Stuart Krimko notes in his guide to this poem that it starts funny and ends sad. Try to track Tate’s shifting tones in the poem by color-coding passages: which are ironic? Highlight those in red. Absurd? Orange. Melancholy? Light blue. After you’ve color-coded “The Cowboy,” go back and pay close attention to why you chose the colors you did. How do word choices but also syntax and sentence structure create tone or mood?
  2. How is “The Cowboy” a portrait of parents and children? Of friendship? Who parents and who is taken care of in this poem? How do those roles shift over its course?
  3. What role does community play in Tate’s poem? Think about the attitudes and kinds of speech that happen in the public and private spaces of this poem. 

Teaching Tips

  1. Tate’s poem is a good excuse to talk about humor and poetry. Using “The Cowboy” to launch a discussion, get student opinions about the role of humor in poetry. Perhaps have them gather examples of funny poems from the Poetry Foundation website. Contemporary poets known for being funny include Patricia Lockwood, Dorothea Lasky, and Michael Robbins, to name just a few. You might have the read excerpts from this interview with Lockwood, or think about this essay by Michaelanne Petrella. Have them read widely and take notes on what poetry is generally funny about; how it creates humor; what poets themselves think about funny poetry; and whether they as readers are ever moved to laughter by the poems or poets they’re reading. Work can proceed individually or in small groups. After students have had time to read on their own, gather them together and stage a debate: Poetry can/cannot be funny. Have each group prepare opening statements, 2-3 main points, and rebuttals.
  2. Have students remediate Tate’s poem. In small groups, ask them to create an interpretation of “The Cowboy”; this could be a drawing, a skit, a comic, or some other kind of representation. As a class think about what makes Tate’s poem so open to “staging” exercises; how does it differ from other kinds of poems you may have looked at or read together? After students have worked on their remediations and perhaps presented them to the class, ask them to write a poem they think could work well in a similar format. So if they chose to draw a comic, ask them to write a poem they imagine would be particularly suited to comic book form. After the groups—or individuals—have written these poems, have them exchange. Each group should now try to bring their classmates’ poem to life in its new medium.