It’s something that’s been around probably as long as people have been riding horses and chasing (or dodging) domesticated cattle. But it wasn’t discovered until about thirty years ago, maybe twenty five. For a while cowboy poetry was trendy on the coasts, but it seems to have returned to where it started. Which is fine. It’s not really written for people outside the farming and ranching world, although if we on the outside like it, that’s great.
Cowboy poetry is poetry by and about cowboys. It can be free verse, but more often is rhymed and strongly metrical. However, some of the most famous contemporary cowboy poets, like the late Buck Ramsay, wrote loosely and strikingly well. His “As I Rode Out of a Morning,” and “Cowboy Christmas Waltz” bring me to tears. Part of it is because cowboy poetry found me (and vice versa) at a time when I really needed it. Part is because he was just so good at evoking place and time. He’s not the only one, not by a long-shot.
Baxter Black, Waddie Mitchell, and Red Stegall are three very well known cowboy poets. Baxter Black is probably the only poet to have a regular slot on NPR and on the ag-news network at the same time. Waddie Mitchell is a working cowboy, a Great Basin buckaroo or waddie, who managed a ranch. Red Stegall set his poems to songs, very successfully, and has radio and TV programs.
They draw on an old tradition, one that goes to the corridas of Mexico and the ballads of the Anglo-Irish. Reciting poetry and verse was a prized skill in the 1800s, and a number of cowboys could declaim long passages of Shakespere and others. From there it was not a long step to writing one’s own, or making up song lyrics. Badger Clark and S. Omar Barker are two of the better known early cowboy poets, along with the anonymous individuals who created ‘Good-by Old Paint” and other droving songs. (If you are interested in that side of the tradition, David Wilkie’s “Cowboy Celtic” recordings are highly recommended.)
But in the early 1980s, some folks in Elko, Nevada invited people to come declaim poetry in February (because calving hasn’t started and Christmas is over). And lo and behold, people discovered that they weren’t the only ones doing this, and it blossomed in popularity. Folks swapped poems and ideas, and it became an annual event. Several collections of poems have come out of that original meeting, and I have a few of them.
Modern poets of the academic type sniffed at cowboy poetry. It is often in ballad form, it rhymes and has meter (most of the time, but not always), and doesn’t use a lot of complicated imagery and allusions. It can be very, very funny in an earthy way (see: Baxter Black), pointed and political, romantic, sad, complicated, or simple. Fans appreciate everything and everyone, so long as you don’t try to claim someone else’s work and you make an honest effort to do your best.