Cowboy Poets Gather to Share Works

March 14, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: Poetry might not be the first thing you think of when you conjure up the image of the cowboy, but the range has been a home to verse for a long time. And in recent years, the words are reaching a wider audience.

They’d no need for ease of comfort.
They took life as it came.
They worked with livestock using skills that every Scot knows best.
First as rovers.
Then as owners.
They played the cattle game.

JEFFREY BROWN: More than 20 years ago, a bunch of cowboys came together and realized they had all written the same poem about their favorite horse. that at least is the lighthearted description by one who was there. in fact that event and others have led to a renaissance of verse, by and about people who still live a western life of ranching and rodeo. and the center of it all is the annual cowboy poetry gathering, here in Elko, Nevada.

Part of this, says Wallace McRae, Montana rancher, poet and veteran of the gatherings, is about preserving a way of life that’s become more difficult to maintain.

WALLACE MCRAE: When you realize that your culture is threatened, you become much stronger and much more involved in being an advocate for that culture that is so very important.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the poetry then becomes part of that?

WALLACE MCRAE: Becomes part of that because it’s a way of telling who we are and what our story is and that we have a culture that is worth, that has value, that is worth something.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another reason for the poetry is to give these famously taciturn men and women a way to talk about difficult things.

WALLACE MCRAE: I don’t think that I would be comfortable outside the confines of poetry to talk about love. You know. I mean that’s very private. That’s a very private thing and, but I think I can put that in a poem. And it’s safe.

JEFFREY BROWN: The gatherings, put on by the Western Folklife Center, have been held since 1984. For a week at the beginning of February — a time when ranch life is quiet — Elko’s population of 18-thousand swells by 5,000 lovers of western poetry and folkways.

VIRGINIA BENNETT: He wondered how it happens that he tends another man’s cows. Is the one who owns the outfit somehow brighter Or somehow better that he should be the lofty one Who should pay the hired hand?

JEFFREY BROWN: Virginia Bennett has herself been a hired hand on ranches throughout the West. An experienced horse trainer, she knows how hard this life can be. Two years ago, she was thrown from her horse and broke her neck. We asked her, then, why so much of the poetry we heard was played for laughs.

VIRGINIA BENNETT: People that get up in the cold and go feed hay and they’re freezing and there’s a dead calf out there, or there’s calf out there that you have to bring in and bring back to life, or there’s irrigating or some ranchers have to raise the hay to feed the cattle which is a very rugged life. And I have found that the way everyone seems to deal with it for the most part is with humor.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cowboy music was also featured at Elko. Listening to Don Edwards sing traditional songs, you could hear the Irish and English ballad style that’s one source– Along with Spanish words and rhythms– for both cowboy music and poetry. Poetry, in fact, has long been a part of cowboy life, according to folklorist and English professor Dave Stanley.

DAVE STANLEY: There was a time when a tobacco manufacturer placed little coupons in the sacks of tobacco they sold and the cowboys could send the coupons in and get a little miniature abridged volume of Shakespeare for example or of Swindburne or Tennyson or other poets who were popular at that time. And those little books were passed from hand to hand and left in bunkhouses all over the West. And so though the average cowboy was certainly not formally educated beyond possibly beyond elementary school, they were great readers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Today Cowboy poets come from a variety of backgrounds.

PAUL ZARZYSKI: I pinch myself every year I’m here and we’re celebrating words. Because I grew up without books, but I didn’t grow up without language.

JEFFREY BROWN: Paul Zarzyski grew up in northern Wisconsin, the son of an iron-ore miner, before finding his two callings in Montana.

PAUL ZARZYSKI: I studied with the world renowned poet Richard Hugo, who professed again and again in the classroom and kept it real simple: ‘If you want to become a poet, it’s real simple. I suggest the only thing you do is fall in love with the sounds of words.’ And I had already done that as a young man and I moved to Montana and discovered rodeo. Two lucrative passions: poetry and rodeo and I started writing about riding bucking…

JEFFREY BROWN: And they both hurt you in different ways.

PAUL ZARZYSKI: Yeah, they hurt in different ways. They break you in different ways.

JEFFREY BROWN: Zarzyski is an Elko star and a master performer.

PAUL ZARZYSKI: The real cowboy is as rare as hen’s teeth, As watermelons vine-ripened in Alaska. Extinct as brontosaurus on the plains or in the forest.

JEFFREY BROWN: his love for words is infectious. He told [us] how he once connected with a group of non-English-speaking Mongolian horsemen who’d been brought to Elko to share and compare traditions with the cowboys.

PAUL ZARZYSKI: I tell their interpreter, can you have them come out on stage behind me. I’m going to do a poem called “Why I like Butte.” Butte, Montana. And I turn around and every time I turn around I’m going to draw my imaginary six guns and when I do that we’re all going to ‘BUTTE!” together. And so I turned around to draw my to draw my imaginary six guns and they had already, all outdrawn me and we went ‘Butte’ together and we did this poem about 6 or 7 times and for the rest of the night you see them across the casino or across the Folklife Center and they’re, they’re not real tall people and they’re up on their tiptoes and they’re going ‘Butte! Butte!’ And they know one little word but that one little word in this one little stage in this little Western microcosm locks people together. And I suggest to you that it could have been a synonym for love or peace or hope. ‘Butte.’

JEFFREY BROWN: Today’s cowboy poets, of course, are used to being mocked. They’ve all heard the “get along, little doggeral” jokes. But, as you might expect, they’re a tough lot.

WALLACE MCRAE: I think a lot of academic poets resent the popularity of cowboy poetry. Because a lot of our stuff really isn’t very good. Of course, a lot of their stuff is awful!

JEFFREY BROWN: For now, with ‘gatherings’ taking place throughout the West, Wally McRae’s biggest worry seems to be that cowboy poetry may be too popular: every “bunkhouse bard”, he said, wants to write a funny poem, go to Elko and be a star.