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,.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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
Images from: National Geographic: Horse
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