#WritingWednesday Cowboy Poetry and the National Gathering

Photograph: K. Usayed

Photograph: K. Usayed

Cowboy poetry emerged from the tradition whereby workers on ranches and cattle drives would gather together at the end of a day, sit around a fire and decompress by extemporaneously composing and sharing songs, stories, and poems.

It is important to recognise that this is a contemporary, evolving poetic form as cowboy culture is still alive and well. It is not a historical form such as Victorian, Renaissance, or Romantic poetry.

Romantic in style, cowboy poetry retains its realism. Thematically, cowboy poetry may describe funny events, the work of cowboys, tales of people and events from the past, expressions of cowboy values, criticisms of new technologies and culture and Western landscapes, livestock, and lifestyles,.

Photographer: Maria Itina

Photographer: Maria Itina

Structure: Traditionally a cowboy poem is: 

  • Written by cowboys, ranchers or those familiar with the lifestyle  
  • Rhymed, metered verse often in couplets  (free verse is uncommon)
  • Written to be recited aloud

Keep in mind, these aren't hard rules, poetry isn't formulaic and cowboy poetry is evolving. Once you understand the form, you will appreciate exceptions to it. 


Photographer: Lena Ivashinka

Photographer: Lena Ivashinka

No Rest for the Horse - Anonymous

There's a union for teamster and waiter,

     There's a union for cabman and cook,

There's a union for hobo and preacher,

     And one for detective and crook.

There's a union for blacksmith and painter,

     There is one for the printer, of course;

But where would you go in this realm of woe,

     To discover a guild for the horse?


He can't make a murmur in protest,

     Though they strain him both up and down hill,

Or force him to work twenty hours

     At the whim of some drunken brute's will.


Photographer: Brett L. Erickson

Photographer: Brett L. Erickson

Look back at our struggle for freedom—

     Trace our present day's strength to its source,

And you'll find that man's pathway to glory,

     Is strewn with the bones of the horse.


The mule is a fool under fire;

     The horse, although frightened, stands true,

And he'd charge into hell without flinching

     'Twixt the knees of the trooper he knew.


Photographer: Alessandro Passerini

Photographer: Alessandro Passerini

When the troopers grow old they are pensioned,

     Or a berth or a home for them found;

When a horse is worn out they condemn him,

     And sell him for nothing a pound.


Just think, the old pet of some trooper

     Once curried and rubbed twice a day,

Now drags some damned ragpicker's wagon, 

     With curses and blows for his pay.


I once knew a grand king of racers,

     The best of a cup-wining strain;

They ruined his knees on a hurdle,

     For his rider's hat covered no brain.


Photographer: Andrej Sevkovskij

Photographer: Andrej Sevkovskij

I met him again, four years later,

     On his side at the foot of a hill,

With two savages kicking his ribs,

     And doing their work with a will.


I stroked the once velvety muzzle,

     I murmured the old name again,

He once filled my purse with gold dollars;

     And this day I bought him for ten.


Photographer: Anneke Paterson

Photographer: Anneke Paterson

His present address is "Sweet Pastures,"

     He has nothing to do but eat,

Or loaf in the shade on the green, velvet grass,

     And dream of the horses he beat.


Now, a dog—well, a dog has a limit; 

     After standing for all that's his due,

He'll pack up his duds some dark evening, 

     And shine out for scenes which are new.


But a horse, once he's used to his leather,

Photographer: Samantha Whitelaw

Photographer: Samantha Whitelaw

     Is much like the old-fashioned wife;

He may not be proud of his bargain,

     But still he'll be faithful through life.


And I envy the merciful teamster

     Who can stand at the bar and say:

"Kind Lord, with the justice I dealt my horse,

     Judge Thou my soul today."

 from Songs of Horses, 1920


The Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering (Elko, Nevada) started 33 years ago as a place for cowboys and ranchers to gather and a love of poetry. It was later renamed by Congress as the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. This annual event has become a destination for thousands of folks to gather and share in a love of the West and cowboy culture over six days of poetry, music, dancing, workshops, exhibits, discussions, food and friendship. The event blends tradition and history with contemporary rural culture.  

Photographer: Marklin Ang

Photographer: Marklin Ang

This year's event will take place January 29-February 3, 2018, with the theme "Basques & Buckaroos: Herding Cultures of Basin, Range and Beyond.”

Also, mark you calendars as the 17th annual Cowboy Poetry Week falls on April 15-21, 2018 (April is poetry month)!


Sources and Further Reading


National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Cowboy Poetry

Images from: National Geographic: Horse


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#WritingWednesday - Fall Celebrations, Writing About Complex Topics with Specificity

This time of year is an interesting one for me. As this is the first November that I have spent in Georgia, I am seeing how similar things are - but different. Canada is where I am from and Thanksgiving already happened on October 8, and now Americans are gearing up for Thanksgiving on November 23.


Canada's history of Thanksgiving dates back to 1578 when an expedition led by Martin Frobisher in search of the Northwest Passage was beset by storms and disasters, scattering the ships. When the surviving ones collected again at Frobisher Bay in what is now Nunavut, they held a thanksgiving ceremony. In 1604 Samuel de Champlain arrived with his men and they also gave a feast of thanks. When New France was handed over to the English in 1763, the people of Halifax held a Thanksgiving. After the American Revolution, those in the 13 Colonies who were loyal to England moved to Canada and brought with them their Thanksgiving traditions of turkey, pumpkin, and squash. At the time, Canada was comprised of Upper and Lower Canada and both celebrated Thanksgiving on different days. After Confederation, a day of Thanksgiving was held in April 1872 to commemorate the recovery of the Prince of Wales. After the end of World War I, it was decreed that Armistice Day and Thanksgiving would both fall on the Monday in the week in which November 11 occurred. In 1957, Parliament set the date for Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October, giving us the holidays that we use today.  


Whilst the above is accepted as historically accurate, it is not a complete depiction. Context matters and Thanksgiving bears a complex and problematic legacy. These explorers, settlers, trappers, invaders came into a land that was already inhabited by many nations, each with their own languages and traditions. While Thanksgiving seems affirming to some, it serves as a reminder of invasion and colonisation to others. The images of the Europeans and Indigenous Peoples sitting together to share a meal is a comforting fiction that ignores a reality of genocide, of outlawing the traditional practices of the land's inhabitants, and the systematic violation of familial and clan ties.

When we turn our thoughts to November 11, again, it's important to recognise that the version of history that we are often taught is limited in its scope, to the point of being almost dishonest. There is a proud history of Indigenous people of North America serving in the Armed Forces in America and Canada. In fact, American Indians are the "ethnic group" to have served in greater numbers since the revolution

In Canada and Australia, we celebrate November 11th, except we now call it Remembrance Day whilst Americans call it Veterans Day. At 11 am on the eleventh day of the eleventh month 1918, WWI was officially declared over.

In countries such as Canada and Australia (where I lived for almost six years), the poppy is used as a symbol of remembrance. This tradition began in 1921 due to the efforts of the American Moina Michael when she was inspired by the poem In Flander's Fields, written by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.  


For this #WritingWednesday, we're going to focus on the American poet Yusef Komunyakaa, a poet who takes on the complex realities, who isn't afraid to complicate socio-cultural mythologies widely accepted as factual. Komunyakaa was born in Louisiana and grew up during the Civil Rights era, serving during the Vietnam War. Komunyakaa has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Wallace Stevens Award for lifetime achievement from the Academy of American Poets, and he is a Distinguished Senior Poet in New York University’s graduate creative writing program. 

Komunyakaa takes on complicated, difficult truths in American culture as his subject matter, sometimes indirectly in order to extract meaning from seemingly disparate events. His style will often use the syncopated rhythms of jazz and blues, music that created contexts in which to address bigotry and racism, to give voice to pain and heal wounds.

The poem below, "Facing It," was published in his collection Dien Cai Dau (Vietnamese for "crazy in the head"), published in 1988.

I write on scraps of paper, sometimes in a notebook [....] I write everything in longhand first, and then I will go to the computer because I think of the computer as a tool in the same way a typewriter is. I always have written everything in longhand, then go to the instrument to create the illusion of something finished. It isn’t really finished until I draft many versions.
— Yusef Komunyakaa

Facing It - Yusef Komunyakaa

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way—the stone lets me go.
I turn that way—I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

The first poems I ever wrote were all in rhyme. But what I have begun to understand is that sometimes the rhyme becomes anything but natural. It becomes forced and it has something to do with that, I suppose, the possibilities within the context of a language that isn’t a Romance language: In Romance languages the rhymes are just more natural, even when translators translate free verse.
— Yusef Komunyakaa
Vietnam Veterans Memorial .jpg
I’ve realized that as a young boy I was so enthused with the landscape around me because I was discovering something new every day. And maybe that’s why this whole journey with poetry still exists, this discovering of something new every day. Sometimes what we discover out there has to do with reflection that is internal, getting into that interior.
— Yusef Komunyakaa
Language itself is political. But we don’t necessarily have to have politics on the surface of each poem. I think there’s a whole wide range of subject matter in just being a human being. And some of it is staring us in the eyes, and at other moments we have to search. Sometimes that search is out there, but sometimes it’s in here. Each of us as an individual is so different. Each individual is writing as a person. That’s important. We’re talking about free will, right? Because we are formed by so many different things. Frost’s “Acquainted with the Night,” for example. I realized a year or so ago that I was never afraid of the night, growing up in Louisiana. And that realization was so important to me. And I know so many young people—they are definitely afraid of the night. At this point in my life I realize that I can’t just walk out in the middle of the night. And that realization can be a kind of tyranny.
— Yusef Komunyakaa

Your Turn:

Sometimes writing about big things (war, the loss of a loved one, holidays, traditions) leaves us blocked. Pick an object. Observe it. Start by describing your experience with it. How do other people interact with it?

Set the clock for 20 minutes. The only rule is to write nonstop until the timer goes off. We edit later after it has had a chance to sit for a bit.


Yusef Komunyakaa and Ishion Hutchinson: What Is It to Be an American?

Further Reading:

The Code Switch Podcast: A Code Switch Thanksgiving Feast

Canadian Aboriginal Veterans and Serving Members Association

The Code Switch Podcast, Episode 7: You're A Grand Old Flag

Acquainted With The Night, Robert Frost

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