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Cowboy Poetry (why it should be written and written well)
6/22/2011 : Arts & Culture

Supposedly, the worlds shortest cowboy poem goes like this:

            Miniature Horses---Why ??


So far, no one has come up with much of an answer beyond, “They are fun and cute!”  Now using that same tongue-in-cheek rhetoric, let me suggest a similar title that may require a more detailed answer:

            Cowboy Poetry---Why ??


Although cowboy poetry can also be fun for the writer/reciter, then cute (entertaining) for the reader and audience, let’s first look beyond that to see what other reasons there might be for keeping this fascinating narrative craft alive.

            First thing comes to mind is the potential historical importance some of it might contain.  Each generation has its own unique experiences to be recorded, then passed along, some good,, some bad, but all should be documented and remembered for their own value.  We have history books and other documents in which major events are recorded, but they can’t devote the space required to tell personal stories of our every-day lives.  Many of us keep diaries and journals, but they are private documents not meant to be shared outside the family.  So in many cases Cowboy Poetry can fill the gap.  One thing to keep in mind; no matter the importance of the event that happens in our lives, if it isn’t documented today---it will be forgotten tomorrow!”

            Why must it be written well?  Because it is fast becoming a true American art form and for anything to become popular, then remain so, it must have quality. To many folks, cowboy poetry has a basic personal appeal because it is honest, straightforward and understandable.  Cowboy poets are noble (can also be spelled No-Bull) for when they have something to say—they usually say it! Perhaps no one has put it into words better than cowgirl poet Barney Nelson:


“American literature has been searching for the voice of the land and its people for three hundred years.  Academia has been slow to recognize that voice because it was masked in rebel grammar and metaphors it didn’t understand. But today, rural culture and grassroots American literature is gaining respect. Rural people have brought poetry out of the classroom and back into the mainstream.”


Furthermore; “The ways of the Old West” seem to be fast disappearing and some, perhaps the majority of, Americans living outside of the West are thinking: “The sooner-the-better”, for they dislike domestic animals intruding upon their “Playgrounds.”  Perhaps stories told through the medium of cowboy poetry can help them better understand the West’s people and culture and even convince some that as we try to earn our living here, we are by far the most proficient environmental caretakers of the land and at the same time reminding them that the food they eat doesn’t necessarily grow on the supermarket shelves.


Ok, with the more obvious reasons for writing cowboy poetry out of the way, let’s discuss the “fun” part and other less dramatic, but still important reasons, for keeping it around.  How about the comradery that an event brings?  What is more enjoyable than shaking off your cabin fever by climbing in the pick-up and getting out of town for a few days to exchange and listen to poetic yarns with old and new friends and at the same time, be presented with a great opportunity to watch, listen and learn different techniques of improving you own poetic skills. We’ve discussed reasons why cowboy poetry should be written, now let’s talk briefly about why it should be written well, for like any other entertainment it must either improve or disappear.


I’ve attended many cowboy poetry gatherings through-out the United States and Canada, experiencing both the “good” and the “not so good”. The “good” were those that presented talented entertainers worth the price of a ticket.  Those placing themselves in the “not so good” category did so by allowing people on stage who should have still been out behind the barn practicing to an audience of Herefords.  I would suppose that some were on stage solely as “friends of the boss”, other because they were just “good ol boys” and deserved a chance.  A noble gesture to be sure but not good business.  Here’s the rub—mediocre poets can drive more people away from cowboy poetry in five minutes than a dozen good ones can gather up in a month of Sundays.  People usually come to a show to be entertained, they do not want to go away bored, or even worse, embarrassed, and you can bet your bottom dollar that if they leave with either of those emotions, they won’t make the same mistake twice and will sure as shootin’ share their opinions with friends.


One final point on the subject of keeping an audience happy---If serious poetry is written and presented well, the public will accept a certain amount, however serious poetry is better enjoyed being read, or listened to at home.  When folks go out on the town they want to be entertained-- and the best way to do that is “make’em laugh”, or at least “smile”—if you do, they will leave happy asking for more and telling anyone who will listen “how great cowboy poetry is”.  A word of caution here, remember there is a fine line between “funny” and “silly”, recognize the difference.



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