With the echo of his boots hitting the wooden stage at Marshall Auditorium at Sul Ross State University, he steps into the spotlight. The light falls on his worn Levis and plaid khaki work shirt. The gray cowboy hat shadows his face. These are the everyday clothes of Joel Nelson, a working cowboy who lives outside Alpine. A black eyepatch covers his left eye—a war wound from a battle with a spirited pony. His face is wrinkled and rough, worn by the sun and the weather, but his voice sounds soft like silk: “This is the greatest cowboy poem ever written.” After a pause he visualizes the familiar path surrounded by the familiar golden wood and feels the familiar ground crunch underneath his boots as he approaches the familiar fork. He has been here many times before. “‘The Road Not Taken.’ By Robert Frost. ‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood’ . . .”
But wait, Frost wasn’t a cowboy. He didn’t lasso cattle or drive them to Abilene. But try telling that to Nelson, who also recites Stephen Vincent Benét. He responds with conviction: “‘The Road Not Taken’ is a poem about choices, making decisions, and that’s what a lot of cowboys have to do. They have to make a choice to probably settle or live a lower standard of living in order to have the kind of life that they want.” Nelson says that’s why he introduced the poem that way at the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
Welcome to the world of cowboy poetry, where men and women who spend hours in the saddle quote famous poets like Shakespeare and Walt Whitman as often as they recite their own poetry. Men and women who work the land around them put together stanzas and verses in the same way they build fences and brand beeves.
The tradition of cowboy verse was born on the Texas prairies as settlers moved west, bringing with them the ballads of the Old Country during the mid-nineteenth century. On wagon trains and horseback the wanderers composed folk poems and songs to keep their minds active and to tell the stories of their travels. As the parties separated to stake out their own claims, the folk creations spread and were altered to fit life on the range. This pattern continued after the Civil War when the cowboy adopted the art of poetry to fit his occupation. During the 1870’s and 1880’s, the American cowpuncher spread cowboy poetry along the trails from Texas and New Mexico throughout the West. As the cattle industry buckled in the 1900’s, the first collections of cowboy poetry and songs were published by N. Howard “Jack” Thorp and John Lomax, canonizing the cowboy as an American icon. In turn more poets also began publishing their own works to combat the popularization of the American West, ushering in the golden age of cowboy poetry from 1905 to 1935. Their poems injected a grit and reality into the romanticized cowboy way of life that Hollywood and dude ranches embraced. These verses documented life in the West permanently, in their own words, not through the memories of others. S. Omar Barker, Bruce Kiskaddon, and Badger Clark, as well as Texas poets Allen McCandless, Larry Chittenden, and Carlos Ashley crafted the classics that modern cowboy bards perform alongside their own poems at poetry gatherings. The modern men follow the path of poetry these men laid, and the mission hasn’t changed in 140 years. “Maybe we write about a lot of these things, these horses that we used to have, because it’s our way of getting to ride them again,” rancher-poet Larry McWhorter says. “Basically it’s our way of keeping a hold of something that we love very much even if the realities of life have taken away that lifestyle from us, and we can’t live it the way we used to.”
This form of regional and occupational poetry is about the cowboy soul expressed in what most people would find the least-likely form of rhyme, meter, and balladry, but in reality, the poem is as cowboy as boots, jeans, and saddle. The art form is about what it means to be a cowboy and love the hard, rough work that beats down the body and wears on the soul. It is a celebration of sweat, laughter, tears, and blood. Cowboys live a life they love; they are determined to maintain its teachings and ways. The poem is more than a way to pass the time; it is a lesson, a memory, and a gift to future generations. “It’s not about being able to get up in front of an audience and entertain them and make them laugh,” says Bette Ramsey, cowboy poet Buck Ramsey’s widow. “It’s about passing on the ethics and the values—what the cowboy actually stands for, the integrity, and that’s what Buck is all about . . . It’s all about the way of life. They are not in it for the glory.”
Most cowmen are respected within their artistry but remain unknown to the outside world. Academicians label cowboy odes “verse,” not literary poetry like John Keats and Lord Byron, says Ab Abernethy, the executive secretary of the Texas Folklore Society. “It’s a popular type of poetry,” explains Abernethy, who admires cowboy poems. “People read it a hell of a lot more than T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, or A. E. Housman. . . . But it has not reached really the realm of what we call ‘poetry,’ that top ten or fifteen percent of poetry that is written.” The distinction is enough to rankle most cowboy poets because they approach each poem the way they build a fence or round up steer—with a determination for perfection. Acclaim and critiques come from within the group as Weatherford ranch manager McWhorter discovered after debuting his first poem, “Waitin’ on the Drive.” There was a small mistake in it, and he knew it. But the poem was good, so he thought no one would care. He walked onstage at a public performance of folk art in Ruidoso, New Mexico, and recited it word for word. As he walked off, fellow poet J. B. Allen introduced himself by chastising the mistake directly and asking McWhorter to change it. He did. “I mean nailed me hard, and he was right to have done that because if we are going to portray this life then we obligate ourselves to portray it truthfully,” McWhorter says. “When we write to each other and for ourselves, we put it out there [at the poetry gatherings], and the public is taking home with them a piece of who we at least hope to be.”
Their art bears a heavy responsibility of passing down a way of life through precise craftsmanship. Baxter Black, the best-selling cowboy poet, holds himself to three tenets of cowboy verse that other cowpunchers on the poetry circuit also consider gospel. The first requirement is perfect meter and perfect rhyme, which most traditional cowboy ballads conform to in order to give them the oral quality of a song. Add to the form an original thought. That thought can come from a story someone tells Black or an observation from when he worked as a livestock veterinarian in the West. Finally, he concludes it with a strong ending, and he has the recipe for a perfect cowboy poem. When writing, Black takes time to select the words and create the rhythm his story needs. He “welds” the words into place, so that a reader will hear the way the poem sounds as they follow the lines. Cowboys craft their creations for paper and the ear—unlike most traditional poetry—because the verses, like folk songs, are intended to be performed.
The oral tradition of cowboy poems led to unknown hands adding music to them. D. J. O’Malley’s “After the Roundup” and Gail Gardner’s “Tying a Knot in the Devil’s Tail” inherited a tune on the trail. Guy Logsdon, the director of the Oklahoma Folklife Center, observes that cowboys quoted poetry as often as they sang—a fact that is usually ignored by historians because of the prevalent “singing cowboy” image. Red Steagall, like the original trail-riding cowpunchers and some of his contemporaries, straddles the two worlds as a successful cowboy musician and poet. Because of the emotion both expressive forms can invoke in the listener, the official Cowboy Poet of Texas strives to move his audience in both spoken word and song. Steagall fell into poetry after he realized how he wasted many fine ideas because they wouldn’t make good songs. “One night I realized that I was throwing away all of these wonderful ideas that I would never get back, and I made a promise that I would never do that again,” Steagall says. “So I kept all of those ideas, and then when the first cowboy poetry gathering came along, in Elko [Nevada], I went out there, and all of sudden I realized that that’s where my thoughts belonged. Really I had been writing poems forever, but I just put music to them.”
At the root of cowboy songs and poetry is oral transmission and folk memory, Logsdon says. On the trail, cowboys recited their poems and songs and passed them along orally. Performers and other cowboys changed and developed them along the way to the point that the most famous cowboy poems have as many different versions as there are performers. Even in the times of tape recorders and computers, the gossip chain is how Black discovered the power of poetry. While he made his rounds as a livestock veterinarian in the eighties, he observed how the funny stories retold around the corrals altered with each recounting; but when he recited it as an ode, it anchored in the cowboys’ brains. “. . . when I told the cowboys, they realized the difference between being the butt of a joke and being enshrined in a poem. That poem was not going to change. It was not just going to be a joke. They were immortalized,” Black explains.
As a voice of the cowboy—Texas’ folk hero—the state is probably the heart of the tradition because readers continue to write and diffuse the poetry from generation to generation, Abernethy says. The history of cowboy poetry is that it spreads beyond borders and time because people are still reciting and remembering poems that were never published but planted in the minds of those who heard them. “It’s like rap,” says Lubbock playwright and songwriter Andy Wilkinson. “It’s the poetry of a common people. It’s a part of our country, and it’s also something that reflects the meter of the speech of those peoples, and so if you wrote out rap on a sheet of paper, it would look positively stupid, and there is a lot of cowboy poetry that looks the same way. Yet when you hear it, you think, ‘Oh, that’s a nice piece,’ and then you see it on the page, and you think that it’s not so good on the page.”
The poetry really comes alive during the performance. On a small stage or in a tiny classroom, the genre is transformed before the observers’ eyes as the poet recites and relives his life. The words roll off his tongue as the poem moves forward. Stanza after stanza enlivens the poet as he or she is enveloped in the world it creates. She is Laurie Wagner Buyer’s “Madge,” a fiesty old dame in pants and a button-down with chaw in her mouth, who cusses out the hired hands on her land. He is the cowboy flying on Curley Fletcher’s “Strawberry Roan” as it bucks and spins, and the words trip off his tongue to the beat of the pony’s hooves. By the end of the recitation, audiences, dizzy from the action, cling for dear life to their programs or their seats. In performance, the pride of cowboy poetry is revealed—the memorization. A cowboy would rather walk onstage naked without any help than read his poem from a sheet of paper. In 1987 Black realized how ingrained the idea of memorization was in his art. He was asked to recite a poem he had recounted a thousand times on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, but he was scared to death that he would forget it. He paced and mulled over in his mind that he was performing in front of 25 million people when a concerned worker on the show interrupted his panic attack. He explained his angst to which she flatly replied that they could put his poem on a TelePrompTer. He looked at her in pure disdain. “We would not consider putting it on a TelePrompTer. I would rather stand out there, try, and screw up in front of twenty-five million people and know I did it the right way than to sit there and read off a card.”
The eighties and its Urban Cowboy craze brought cowboy poetry the popularity and the attention of the masses. Black says that the appearances on Johnny Carson prove how unique the poetry is in comparison with traditional poetry. “We were on there because of the term ‘cowboy poetry’—just like Jesse Ventura in a dress—that was why we were on there, because it was so odd,” Black explains. “. . . we were not professional entertainers; we were regular people. We just happened to be cowboys. . . . It was real clever stuff to the point that the response was so good that every year they just kept having us back on. That was cowboy poetry. You couldn’t have gone on there with any other kind of poetry and made it work—and you still can’t.” Rural poetry gatherings have grown since the first one in 1985 in Elko, Nevada. The Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Alpine began in 1986, and this June a Texas youth cowboy poetry gathering will teach children how to write and perform their own poetry, spreading the tradition to new generations.
Some purists believe the poetry gatherings and the popularity have hurt cowboy poetry in a lot of ways. The forums that were intended for cowboys to perform their art were infiltrated with poets who claimed to be cowboys. They were drugstore cowboys; they wanted to be in the show and wanted to live the life. Cowboy poet and Texas Cowboy Gathering founder Barbara J. “Barney” Nelson wrote in an e-mail that the influx injected a romanticism into an art that was about and by the rural community. Nelson, a Sul Ross State English professor and the former wife of cowboy poet Joel Nelson, no longer participates in what she created. She wrote: “It became a chamber of commerce event full of stand-up comedy and sentimentality. All the early sincerity, in my humble opinion, is gone.” It is a concern that has spread to other folklorists and poets. “The history of the tradition is passing on the values, and today we have people who are capitalizing on that,” says Logsdon. “The bottom line is that their [the real cowboy poets’] very lives pass it on. I know a lot of cowboy poets who don’t know what end of the cow gets off the ground first, who are professing that they are passing on the values of the West, and really they are no different than drugstore cowboys.”
Logsdon likes to point out that John Wayne wouldn’t have gone very far if he had quoted poetry, which is probably true. But he would have been closer to a cowboy if he had.