Rousing Reads: The Wild and Poetic Life of Westerns

Article excerpt

When a Western is done well, its images can strike deep--and often subconsciously--into our maginations, and the reverberations have the power of myth.

I'm hooked on Westerns. Not the genre-blends that are popular today--the cowboy romances and the zombie Westerns--but the real thing: novels set in the Old West, featuring hard-drinking, rugged individualists who are good at doing the things that must be done and doing them with grace under pressure. Except for the setting, that definition also works for hard-boiled crime novels, which is why anyone who enjoys crime fiction should also be reading Westerns. One genre's high-plains drifter is another's private eye walking the mean streets.


Many decades ago I took a class in English Romantic poetry from a professor who made the peculiar claim that anyone who wants to understand poetry should read or watch Westerns, Huh? What could High Noon possibly have to do with Coleridge? And yet, over the years, I've come to appreciate the poetry of Westerns. In the same way that a poem distills an idea or an emotion into an image (or a series of images), so a Western translates a welter of conflicting notions about the frontier, and the place of the people in it, into an iconic tableau that tells the story in a moment: a homesteader's house on an empty plain, and a man on a horse riding slowly into the frame; a gunfight on a dusty, empty street; the swinging doors of a saloon. Such tableaux can descend quickly into cliche, of course, which is why there are so many bad Westerns (and bad poems, for that matter), but when they work, when the image strikes deep (and often subconsciously) into our imaginations, the reverberations have the power of myth. …


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