Cowpokes and New York Cabbies Are Poetry Dandies

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IF YOU want to learn something about New York, go to Boston. Is that an old folk phrase? If not, maybe it should be. I have lived in Manhattan for many years, and I had to travel to Boston to learn that New York has such a thing as taxi-driver poetry.

That is not even the most embarrassing part of this. By far the most embarrassing part is that I was in Boston to talk about poetry - poetry is what I sometimes call my own versifying, if I'm pretty sure that no grown-up poets are within earshot - and one of the things I kept saying about it was that cowpoking is the only trade in the United States with its own poets.

No other calling, I said, has its daily routines celebrated in rhyme by its practitioners. There is no such thing as insurance-adjustor poetry or professor-of-comparative-literature poetry. Nobody gets up on a stage anywhere and introduces himself as a washing-machine-serviceman poet. In fact, there is not even a school of poetry poetry - people who compose couplets about finding a rhyme for "orange" and that sort of thing.

Yet there are enough cowboy poets to people dozens of cowboy poetry read-offs, the largest being, if I'm not mistaken, in Elko, Nev. And cowboy poems must number in the tens of thousands by now, partly because they are the most easily inspired of poets. A lame heifer will set one of them off for 50 or 60 lines.

After I finished handing out this information to some Bostonians, in authoritative tones, I returned to my hotel room and picked up a copy of the Boston Globe. There I found an Associated Press piece by Verena Dobnik that was headlined "Not-so-mean streets: Poetry amid Gotham gridlock." It included an interview with a man named Terry Gelber, the founder of the Hack Poets Society.

It's true that the Hack Poets Society was described as having only a handful of members. It's true that the samples of Gelber's poetry included lines like "silently dealing with uncharted wrath," an indication that his work is considerably higher on the poetry chain than the average rhyme about a lame heifer.

Still, I had to face the fact that cabby poetry exists, and that I had been misleading people by telling them that cowboys were the only American workers celebrated in verse by their peers. …