"I pull up and rest in the
Feeling the others draw near;
See the smoke of their ghostly
With drumbeats filling my
AT least as far back as 1885, American cowboys have been publishing their poetry, telling in dramatic or sentimental ways (and in predictable rhyme and meter) about the dangers and glories of a way of life spent mostly on horseback.
Today, things cowboy have become fashionable, and some of the most popular buckaroo poets have published their collected works and produced commercial audio and videotapes of their performances. Hardly a weekend goes by in the West without some sort of poetry gathering. "The ring and ricochete of cowboy lingo off the stirrup bone of your inner ear" (as Montana poet Paul Zarzyski colorfully puts it) is more popular than ever.
But in an age when the cowboy life is fast disappearing, cowboy poets now have more to offer than stereotypical verse. As the recent annual "Cowboy Poetry Gathering" in northern Nevada demonstrated, poetry serves both readers and writers who want to hold onto this cultural heritage.
In response to this desire, the literary forces in the ranching world are breaking down stereotypes. A lot of serious and sophisticated poetry is emerging. Poets are tackling more challlenging subject matter and using more complicated structures.
As the writing progresses, poets begin to see connections between their situation and that of other people, both historical and present day. One of the highlights of the recent five-day gathering in Elko was a presentation by Mr. Zarzyski, a veteran rodeo bronc rider who now conducts writing workshops. He explained to an auditorium full of big-hatted people that as many as 30 percent of the post-Civil War cowboys in this country were freed slaves. Then he delivered a searing free-verse poem on apartheid in South Africa, where blacks today do much of the rough ranch work.
Rod McQueary, who runs a family ranching operation in the Ruby Valley of Nevada that goes back more than a century, has the poise and wit to be a stand-up comic with the best of them. But he also has published a book of poems that came out of his experience as a marine in Vietnam. His images of burned villages are as haunting and powerful as any writing about the Vietnam era.
Another major literary development is the increasing role of ranch women, who are producing very thought-provoking, and in many cases heart-breaking, verse about the beauty and rigors of ranch life, especially as they relate to family relationships. Among these poets are Canadian Thelma Poirier, Marie Smith, and Mela Mlekush from Montana, South Dakotan Linda Hasselstrom, and Virginia Bennett and Peggy Godfrey of Colorado.
"At first," says Kim Stafford, director of the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., "not many women were reciting poems, and those who did tended to describe cowboys they admired or things they did that a man could do, like fixing a fence. Now they're telling tough adventures out of their own experience - experiences of grief, of parenting, of solitude.
"Being the emotional mainstay against tough economic times requires a kind of sensitivity and heroism equal to anything a man has to endure," says Mr. Stafford. "Early on, the poems tended to be funny. Now there's more `bringing in the bones,' and it's the women bringing them in."
Some of the best cowmen poets are breaking through the stolid, tough-guy image to do the same thing - leaving the safer subjects for more vulnerable territory. "The cowboys I've worked with have become my family," said Randy Rieman, one of whose poems is filled with love for a close friend killed in a fall from a horse.
"I don't think I've ever been around a group of people as emotional as a bunch of roughstock riders," said Mr. Zarzyski, whose poem about an injured rodeo partner includes the lines, "It's bad and good some cowboys don't know tears from sweat."
Both of these developments relate to the fact that the ranching industry - and its culture - are facing serious challenges in an age of increasing environmentalism, concerns about animal rights, and diet fetishes. "A culture under seige," Kim Stafford calls it.
Hal Cannon, artistic director of the Western Folklife Center and founder of the poetry gathering, calls it "survival literature," and says "it's like a steam valve for pressure in a modern world that doesn't accomodate the old style of living."
The cowboy poetry gatherings started out simply as an opportunity to swap poems and stories as part of the oral tradition. At first, a wealthy sponsor wanted to award a fancy saddle for the best poem. But the cowboys - who ride all out to win a silver buckle on the rodeo circuit - would have none of it. They wanted to share and be mutually supportive rather than compete in this venue.
More recently, the gatherings have developed into a forum for probing the culture, its values, and its future, the reality behind the Western myth that has defined so much of what America represents. And perhaps a way of finding common ground with those perceived as adversaries.
While many environmentalists condemn cattle ranching because of its ecological impact on public land, those who work and live with ranch families often are more supportive.
"Some of the best conservationists in the world are in the ranching industry," Dave Livermore of the Nature Conservancy said during a panel discussion in Elko. "We believe livestock grazing is a proper management tool in many cases."
"I'm an environmental activist," said Gibbs Smith, who was the Utah state chairman of the Sierra Club and now owns a publishing company. "But I'm also a big proponent of cultural diversity, which is almost as important as biological diversity. The family ranch is something we should hold on to."
"We have extremists on both sides, but most of us are working for the same thing," said Waddie Mitchell, who spent years as a cowboy and now is a full-time writer and performer of poetry with a Nashville contract in his jeans. When he suggested to an audience of several hundred ranchers that "your typical dues-paying, granola-crunching, tree-hugging environmentalist is really a very good person ... typically a family person," there was some boot shuffling, but no one moved to string him up.
"The question is, how do we adapt, how do we survive?" said rancher John Dofflemyer from the Central Valley of California, who writes poetry and publishes a quarterly of poems and essays called "Dry Crik Review."
Mr. Dofflemyer wasn't the only one at the poetry gathering who spoke critically of the national and state cattle industry organizations - powerful groups which generally refuse to acknowledge any problems on the range or the need to change long-standing practices. The most recent issue of Dry Crik Review is a volume of works dealing with the environment, a subject one heard hardly anything about here a few years ago.
Real ranch folk (men and women who live on the land as opposed to absentee ranch owners or hired-gun lobbyists working for big cattle companies) know better than anyone else that "the cowboy culture is no good surviving in a museum.... It has to survive in families on the land," as range specialist Allan Savory told the group.
The cowboy poetry gathering is like a large family reunion where much affection and good humor is expressed, but also one at which profound and fundamental issues are discussed. What they're searching for - and in many cases expressing in their poetry - is what Kim Stafford calls "a wisdom out of the old life that is somehow going to serve us in the new difficulties."
One certainly hopes they succeed. And, after a few days' total immersion in the poetic side of Western ranch life, one is left feeling that much could be gained if other professions - mill workers, accountants, politicians, even jaded journalists - got together now and then to tell their stories in verse. Hats and boots optional.