Cowboy Poets and Cowboy Poetry

By Graham, Andrea | Western Folklore, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview
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Cowboy Poets and Cowboy Poetry


Graham, Andrea, Western Folklore


Cowboy Poets and Cowboy Poetry. Edited by David Stanley and Elaine Thatcher. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. Pp. xiii + 392, preface, index. $49.95 cloth, $21.95 paper)

Cowboy Poets and Cowboy Poetry is the first book-length volume to examine this American tradition of occupational verse in all its historical and contemporary complexity and depth. Even better, it does so in a mixed chorus of voices that includes the poets themselves, in addition to folklorists, historians, and creative writers. Naturally, this at times makes for jumpy reading, as a literary analysis invoking iambs and catalexis is followed by a folksy account of picking up cowboy songs in bars and behind the rodeo chutes, but that is the nature of essay collections as well as of cowboy poetry. The overall effect is of a surprisingly unified voice describing the history of the tradition, the values it expresses, and the strong sense of community and commonality among the poets and the ranch people they speak for.

After an introductory overview by David Stanley, the book proceeds with twenty-seven essays organized into six sections. "Backgrounds" provides a historical and analytical introduction to the tradition of cowboy poetry; "Process" describes various aspects of how the poems come to be; "Portraits" includes two third-person and two first-person sketches of individual writers; "Themes" explores the poets' relations with community and nature, and the increasingly vocal role of women in the poetry movement; "Connections" includes essays on the related traditions of Mexican-American versos, Northwest logger poets, South American gaucho oral traditions, and Australian bush poetry; and "Developments" analyzes the impact of organized poetry gatherings, and looks at the future of the tradition.

The introductory essay elucidates the key characteristics of cowboy poetry, its history and long-standing themes, and its most revered practitioners. Many of the points made here are repeated again and again in the essays that follow-the topic of the imminent demise of ranching and cowboying that was present even in the earliest known cowboy poems of the late 1800s, the universal literacy and the tradition of reading and reciting among cowboys and ranch people, the strong bonds of community even in a culture so geographically scattered and isolated, and the sense of a way of life under threat from industrialization, urbanization, environmentalism, tourism and land development. Poet and writer Kim Stafford's opening essay in the "Backgrounds" section adds the all-important information that this is a culture that loves words and language. He draws a continuous line from medieval poetry and oral recitation straight to the horseback reciters of today, explaining that "a poem carries wisdom through time."

In the next chapter, folklorist Jim Griffith points out that both cowboy gear and cowboy poetry are "highly crafted and richly textured," and describes this as a "central aesthetic need" in a culture where a man is judged by his work (an often-repeated tenet among cowboys). Other folklorist contributors to the volume examine the way poems change (both accidentally and deliberately) in oral recitation, how poets play with rhythm and meter in composing and reciting, how poems and songs have interacted over the years in the cowboy tradition, how changing attitudes toward nature have been expressed in verse from the early days of American cattle herding to the present, and how women in the ranching community are gaining a new, more audible voice thanks to the cowboy poetry movement.

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