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TO SOME, "COWBOY POETRY" might be considered an oxymoron. Singing cowboys such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry may be familiar, but men on horseback reciting verse? These days, a renaissance of cowboy poetry is under way. For the past ten years ranchers and others have been coming together to share their love of words in Valentine, Nebraska. This year's gathering, October 11 through 14, will feature three working cowboys--poet/photographer Mike Logan, and guitar pickin' poets Howard Parker and Bob Loper.
It's been said that a place is not a place until a poet has been there. Those who first came west in the late nineteenth century were tested by the harsh climate and arid land of the Great Basin area, learning early to rely on themselves and their animals. After long days of driving cattle, buckaroos would gather around the campfire, swapping stories and songs, and reciting poetry about friendship, hardship, freedom, and respect for the land and open skies.
"The poems were parables for shared values and emotions: the reluctant man in the modern world," says folklorist Hal Cannon, director of the Western Folklife Center in Nevada. The delivery was sometimes raucous and brash, sometimes wistful; many poems spoke of the changing nature of the West and a way of life that was fast disappearing.
The old cowboy poetry always rhymed, and was marked by a heavy metrical pattern that matched the cadence of riding horseback. Cowboy poems were meant to be read aloud, says Cannon. "Cowboy poetry is a folk art in every sense of the word. The voice is the essential part of the poem--it's the music." Poems by Bret Harte, Bruce Kiskaddon, and Badger Clark were savored, memorized, and repeated. "They are plain simple tales, of the roundups and trails," writes Kiskaddon in his introductory poem to "Rhymes of the Ranges": "When he worked on the range with the cattle;/Not of wild woolly nights, nor of gambling hall fights, / But the days and the nights in the saddle."
"Beyond the written word is the creak of saddle leather, the deafening roar of the Yellowstone River, the sound of the most profound silence of the day--desert at midday," says Cannon. Cowboy poetry's oral tradition dates from the Civil War, but research by the Western Folklife Center has shown that its roots can be traced back to the verbal virtuosity of cattle-driving cultures in England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland during the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. In his essay "Can Poetry Matter?" Dana Gioia says that new popular poetry, including cowboy poetry, "hearkens back to poetry's origin as an oral art form in preliterate cultures."
In addition to its British Isle roots, American cowboy poetry draws from the West's multicultural heritage: Nevada ranch wives, Indian cowboys, and Mexican rodeo riders. In a piece about the Elko, Nevada Poetry Gathering for the New York Times Magazine, Sara Davidson writes that cowboy poetry is exploding at the same time as the audience for academic poetry is shrinking. She says this is due to cowboy poetry's accessibility and celebration of what she calls "a way of life that has a mythic hold on the national imagination." Barney Nelson, one of the founders of a poetry gathering in Alpine, Texas, agrees, citing the large crowds that cowboy poetry draws. She believes academics have been slow to recognize cowboy poetry "because it was masked in rebel grammar and metaphors that they didn't understand." As one of the few cowboy poets who straddles both worlds, Paul Zarzyski wonders why there must be a squaring off between the "literati and the lariati." Zarzyski, a bareback bronco rider for twelve years and a teacher at the University of Montana, has veered away from the stock-in-trade, four-line ballad form of rhyming couplets to experiment with free verse. In poems that alternate between bravura and whimsy, Zarzyski offers up a slice of what he calls the "real west, the sunset into which-- / imagine why, if you will--the cowboy rides off." [bold emphasis added]
Today, cowboy poets find full-time work riding the range by airplane or car rather than on horseback; yet even as the number of working cowboys dwindles, most of the genre's new writing is coming out of ranching communities. Public interest following the first Poetry Gathering in Elko in 1985 started a cowboy stampede on the festival circuit. Headliners around the country include Zarzyski, Baxter Black, Red Steagall, Wallace McRae, and Waddle Mitchell. The granddaddy of all cowboy poetry events, the Elko gathering, was designated "The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering" by the U.S. Senate last October. The success of the yearly event has inspired others to start poetry gatherings in their own states.
Ranchers Yvonne Hollenbeck and Willard Hollopeten both poets, founded the gathering in Valentine. With major funding from the Nebraska Humanities Council, the event honors the expressive traditions of the working cowboy with poetry readings, Western heritage cultural workshops, and old-time music recitals.
[Please note: The following is only part of the full database publication information.]
Range Writer by John Morthland
For years, no one took cowboy poetry seriously. But Buck Ramsey's epic verse has taken the genre to new heights.
ONSTAGE AT THE NINTH COWBOY POETRY Gathering, Buck Ramsey of Amarillo sits erect in his wheelchair and listens with a faraway look in his large liquid eyes as a friend and fellow cowboy poet reads aloud. The crowd here in the little town of Elko, Nevada, is a surprisingly seamless mix of cowboys and ranchers, locals and tourists, academicians and Americana buffs--and the reader draws avid applause. But a moment later, the audience breaks into outright whistles and cheers as Ramsey is introduced. And he has not yet uttered a word.
Ramsey responds with a luminous smile that bears traces of melancholy around the edges. Wheeling forward, he gazes out at the packed hall and begins "Anthem," the prologue to And As I Rode Out on the Morning, the ambitious 63-page story-poem that he wrote in 1989. As Ramsey recites, the house hushes to hear his tale of noble men and the land that they steward. "And in the morning I was riding/Out through the breaks of that long plain,/And leather creaking in the quieting/Would sound with trot and trot again." He doesn't speak in the smooth measured tones of a practiced poetry reader but in a pinched monochromatic voice that effortlessly evokes the Texas Panhandle. "I lived in time with horse hoof falling;/I listened well and heard the calling/The earth, my mother, bade to me,/Though I would still ride wild and free."
The first time that Ramsey read "Anthem" at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering, in 1989, he won a rare standing ovation. This year he is a star, arguably the performer most in demand at the meeting, with appearances and interviews lined up from early to late. "First year I came to Elko," he chuckled during a break, "somebody told me the only thing they don't do here is sleep."
Buck Ramsey is something of a phenomenon. He is a real poet, with an imagination and technique that far transcend the genre he has chosen. He is also a real cowboy--or was, before he was paralyzed from the waist down three decades ago when he was thrown from a horse, breaking his back. Ramsey performs both poetry and music (which he also writes) with an ease and simple joy that make for a laid-back kind of charisma; his poetry is as rich in offbeat ideas as in time-honored imagery and takes unusual turns in rhythm and rhyme. It is simultaneously universal, deeply personal, and faithful to its crude origins. Compared with the usual cowboy verse, his work is daring--and yet still such a compatible extension of the traditional--that he remains as popular with the cowboy mainstream as with its small avantgarde. Ramsey is the cowboy poet most likely to win a bigger audience without alienating his core following.
Cowboy poetry, which has been largely underground for most of this century, has gone public in the last decade, spurred by the Western Folklife Center's annual gathering in Elko, a town of 25,000 nestled at the base of Nevada's snowcapped Ruby Mountains. The genre began in the nineteenth century as stories that working cowboys recited to each other around the campfire at night, stanzas that were often also turned into songs. The original verse was full of Victorian sentimentality and singsong rhythms, much like the popular poetry of its day, and it mostly concerned the loneliness of the cowboy life, the hardship and danger of cattle drives, and range skills such as roping and riding.
After the barbed-wiring of the West into private ranches in the 1880's, the first generation of cowboy poets dispersed. Their work became obscure because it had rarely been written down and was never performed in public. Even so, it did not disappear entirely, and some of the cowboy poets adapted fairly well to urban life. One of the better known of the bunch was Bruce Kiskaddon, who lived and wrote in Hollywood into the 1920's after leaving the range. His poem "When They're Finished Shippin' Cattle in the Fall" is typical of the tone and level of the craft: "Then you watch the stars a shinin'/Up there in the soft blue linin'/And you sniff the frosty night air clean and cool./You can hear the night hoss shiftin'/And your memory starts a driftin'/To the little village where you went to school."
Then, gradually, cowboy poetry began a comeback. Though critics rejected the verse as doggerel--and reactionary doggerel at that--folklorists and oral historians found it an invaluable resource. Since the poets began resurfacing, some have acquired a bit of a national following: Former veterinarian Baxter Black of Colorado has a regular slot on National Public Radio, and Nevada's Waddie Mitchell has been an occasional guest on the Tonight show.
In some ways, cowboy poetry isn't much different today, which is where its dismissal as doggerel misses the point; cowboy poetry isn't meant to be literature. Granted, it can get mighty corny, but the most clever and entertaining pieces are full of egalitarian spirit, irresistible humor, ingenious rhymes, and sudden surprise endings. In other ways, the new poets reflect a twentieth-century bias. Their poetry conveys a more personal kind of sentimentality--the loneliness of the trail may be romanticized as solitude, for example--and it often deals with man's relationship to the land as well as socially conscious themes, such as government encroachment. The one thing that hasn't really changed at all is the presentation. Like their forefathers, contemporary cowboy poets don't read, they recite from memory, and working without a net gives their performances both a loose, folksy feel and an agreeable tension.
Much as Ramsey loves and respects the tradition, his approach can be idiosyncratic in both form and content. He sometimes works in the time-tested four-line ballad form, but he is also one of the few cowboy poets to tackle free verse. His opus And As I Rode Out on the Morning is patterned after the work of nineteenth-century Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin. Like most cowboy poets, Ramsey writes about the real workaday cowboy life, but unlike most, who state their piece and let it speak for itself, Ramsey declares that his work is "like a crusade--it's almost political." He not only scorns the macho depiction of cowboys in Hollywood and dimestore novels, he also defiantly asserts that true cowboys embrace such supposedly feminine traits as nurturance and symbiosis.
If this image is not what you think of when you think of cowboys, that, according to Buck Ramsey, is because you--like cowboys themselves--have been duped by mainstream culture's erroneous portrayal of the cowman. Ramsey sees him in an entirely distinct light. He says, "My favorite saying about cowboys is, `I don't care if he has got purple hair and orange breasts, as long as he's in the right place at the right time, his heart and head is right.' That was the cowboy attitude--and it was unusual for its time--but the whole cowboy code has been corrupted by the larger society." [bold emphasis added]
"Buck sees things in societal terms," notes Hal Cannon, the founder of the Cowboy Poetry Gathering and the editor of six books on cowboy and Western folk arts. "He takes the cowboy experience and interprets it differently; he sees the cowboy in the larger world, and he sees larger issues."
Take And As I Rode Out on the Morning, which adapts the stanza scheme of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin to tell the story of fifteen-year-old Billy Deaver, who leaves home to embrace the cowboy life. Billy learns hard lessons about the closing of the West when one ranch is sold to a foreign syndicate to make room for a town, and he must undergo a cruel initiation before he is accepted by another group of cowboys. In this work, Ramsey incorporates ideas ("I more or less plagiarize," he deadpans) from Joseph Campbell, Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, the Bible (especially Ecclesiastes), Tibetan Book of the Dead, Albert Camus' The Rebel (which was in his saddlebag that day in 1963 when his horse threw him), and other classics.
After all young Billy's adversity, he is committed to a life of harmony on and with Mother Earth, as Ramsey allegorically calls for a new millennium governed not by dominance and one-upmanship but rather by tolerance, harmony, and creativity. As he concludes in the poem's epilogue, titled "A Ponder," "When thought is clear, things fall in place/We'll grasp the mood of Nature's face/We'll know the texture of real grace."
"It sounds outrageous that I would use a cowboy myth to return the universe to a hierarchy of goddesses," Ramsey says, chuckling, late one afternoon in his hotel room in Elko. "I wouldn't want to state it as `women taking over,' but I do see creation as being more important than destruction and harmony being more important than a predatory instinct."
Ramsey sees cowboys as the caretakers of the land, not as its exploiters: "My political outlook is that basically every issue comes down to two things, either money or people and the land, and I can't understand why anyone would come down on the side of money against the people and the land they live on."
Born in 1938, Ramsey was raised in a large family in the rural Panhandle and in Amarillo. His given name is Kenneth, but his Primitive Baptist deacon father had wanted to name him Buckskin Tarbox, and the nickname stuck. From early childhood, Ramsey always dreamed of being a cowboy, and he was always a voracious reader and saw no contradiction in that: "I know cowboys who compare translations of Homer, and I honestly believe that the level of reading among cowboys and ranchers is far higher than the average citizen's. But they would never flash their feathers. The reason nobody else knew was they would never show it off; that's against the cowboy nature."
He took a couple of flings at college and a short one at the New York bohemian life before settling into cowboying. That ended with his spill, later described in his free-verse poem "Notes for a Novel," which began as a whimsical piece about a man who couldn't sleep without the comforting sound of a windmill. By the time he was finished, Ramsey had incorporated reflections on his own paralysis and his ensuing bouts with drunkenness and sexual torment (hardly an everyday subject in cowboy poetry). He had been married three months when the horse threw him, and his wife, Bette (today a city college teacher and elementary school counselor), was pregnant; Buck was still in the hospital himself when their daughter, Amanda, was born.
After getting out, he worked desk jobs from bookkeeping to journalism. He also wrote poetry of all kinds, as he had since his college days, though he wasn't showing it around. From the late sixties into the eighties he contributed to the liberal weekly the Texas Observer, becoming friends with Jim Hightower, the publication's editor from 1976 to 1978, who later became head of the Texas Department of Agriculture. In 1980 Ramsey worked on the campaign for Hightower's failed bid for Texas railroad commissioner, and subsequently he went to work for Hightower when he was elected agriculture commissioner. Until last year, Ramsey wrote the liberal half of the Point-Counterpoint column in the Amarillo Globe-Times, describing himself wryly as a utopian anarchist.
Throughout his life, Ramsey has read widely, first literature, then magazines (he describes himself as a periodicals junkie). He turned back to the classics in the early seventies after the Watergate hearings; he was so disgusted about not having Nixon to kick around anymore that he gave up magazines and, he says, "decided to start reading everything I had lied about reading--and that took some serious work, because I had told some serious lies." The classics then became absorbed into his own writing, which was turning increasingly toward cowboy poetry.
Ramsey also had been doing some serious drinking most of his life. As he describes it, "I was happy when I was drunk, but sobering up I was the most remorseful son of a bitch in the whole world." Thirty days in an inpatient rehabilitation program in 1983 failed to dry him out, but a few years later he finally succeeded on his own. The writing of "Anthem" and And As I Rode Out on the Morning soon followed. Then, in 1991, his life took a lucky turn when he appeared on the roots-music radio show of Lubbock deejay Lanny Fiel. The musician became Ramsey's right-hand man, doing the hustling that enabled Ramsey to work up a show incorporating both his music and his poetry. Ramsey was on the road 35 weekends last year, singing and reading. His stirring CD/cassette Rolling Uphill From Texas, the first in a series of recordings documenting traditional cowboy songs, won him this year's Western Heritage Wrangler Award for outstanding traditional Western music, given by the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.
In the small world of cowboy poetry, Ramsey made his mark the day he read "Anthem" in Elko, but he is hoping now for a broader following. "A lot of us have the deluded idea we may be literary figures," he says with a characteristic mixture of pride and self-mockery. "I've had a peculiar mental journey as a result of my getting hurt. I've had an intellectual journey that I probably would not have had as a cowboy, though I would like to think I would have. I'm comfortable with being called a cowboy poet, and I truly do contrive to write so that cowboys will accept me. But I want to also have some appeal to a universal audience. That may be kind of a hard tightrope to walk, but I've really been conscious about doing it."
Reading List "Anthem," anthologized in New Cowboy Poetry: A Contemporary Gathering, Hal Cannon, editor (Peregrine Smith Books, Layton, Utah, 1990).
And As I Rode Out on the Morning (Texas Tech University Press, Lubbock, 1993, book and cassette).
"Notes for a Novel," anthologized in Coolin' Down, Phil Martin, editor (Guy Logsdon Books, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1992).
by John Morthland