You might call me smitten by the whole affair. By the cowboys, of course: their hats, their vests, their boots. Their wry smiles and fat handshakes. By the elderly couples lining up to thank the poets for their verse, to whisper you’re our favorite, to request a John Hancock from a man virtually unheard of outside the room. By the sun punching through ashen clouds above the snow-packed Ruby Mountains. By the crunch of rock salt underfoot. By the volunteer shuttle driver, retired from the gold mines, reclining behind the wheel and waiting for the next show to end. By the casino meals and the spilt whiskey and the faces red with laughter. By singer-songwriter Don Edwards yodeling “And they go hoo yip hoo yip hoo hoo di hoo di yip … ” By calloused hands worn smooth through nostalgia. By the cries of winter at the barroom doors. By the glowing tip of a cigarette in the crystal night sky. By the deluge of doggerel and the fat golden nuggets of a poem that shine long after I’ve left the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada.
I had dipped my toe in the waters of cowboy poetry for a New Yorker story in 2016. And then I fell in. My friends wonder what happened. Sometimes I do, too. I earned a graduate degree in creative writing. I like good books—I pretend to, anyway. Erin Belieu and John Berendt currently grace my nightstand. Though I dress from the Target clearance rack, Gay Talese is my style icon. I subscribe to Poem-a-Day. I’m not sure about God. I’m a Democrat.
Cowboy poetry doesn’t fit. I’m not a hundred years old. I don’t covet fine leatherwork. I’ve never ranched and I’ve never farmed. Country music gives me chronic inertia. I don’t follow the market price for cattle or corn or soybeans. I drive a 2000 Pontiac Vibe. I don’t especially romanticize the West. I wasn’t reared on spaghetti Westerns. I didn’t know the name Louis L’Amour until college. I sometimes confuse John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. I was bucked off a donkey as a kid and I’m now marginally afraid of horses.
But I do love cowboy poetry—the notion of it, anyway. I love the origin story. I love the picture of grizzled cowpunchers—freed slaves, Mexican vaqueros, white pioneers—all of them pushing north on the Chisholm Trail and trading verse around a fire. Can you imagine? Tobacco juice and English ballads? Grown men singing their cattle to sleep? Horse shit and poetry side by side. Go ahead and make the joke. They did. They do. Surely I’m romanticizing a bit, but that’s the gist of it, and I find it astonishing when juxtaposed with the popular culture today, in which poetry has retreated to the catacombs of academia, viewed colloquially as the domain of the effete, the feminine, and the mystic.
I love cowboy poetry—the best of it, anyway. I love the poem “He Talked About Montana,” by nonagenarian Elizabeth Ebert, a South Dakota ranch wife who wrote her poetry in secret until she was nearly seventy. I love the story she tells, well worn but somehow never old, of a transient hired hand who worked hard, drank harder, and dreamed of returning to Montana.
And he’d talk about Montana.
And you’d get a glimmer then
Of the cowboy that he used to be
And the man he might have been …
I love the poem “Old Cowboys Passing Time,” by Vess Quinlan, a retired rancher from Alamosa, Colorado, who contracted polio as a kid and walks with a teeter-totter limp.
One of the men
Nods me into a chair
Deals everyone three cards
And then another three
No one asks, but I know
They wonder where I’m from
Who taught me to play
And why I’m here
Forty years early.
I will read anything by the rodeo poet Paul Zarzyski, whose work has graced the pages of Poetry and Prairie Schooner and other heavy-hitting literary journals. I will listen to Wally McRae perform anything but especially his searing indictments of corporate greed. I yearn for the day a New York glossy accepts a pitch about one of the classics: Bruce Kiskaddon, Badger Clark, S. Omar Barker, or Henry Herbert Knibbs.
I love cowboy poetry, but cowboy poetry is far more than poetry alone. Cowboy poetry is performance art, adorned by all the accouterments of cowboy fashion, authentic or not, better on the stage than on the page. And cowboy poetry is community. Cowboy poetry is a few hundred or a few thousand people gathering to reaffirm their vows to the culture, despite the fact that—if pressed—they’d find as many contrasting definitions as attendees. When critics ignore the community aspect of cowboy poetry, they’re missing the point altogether. As the folklorist Guy Logsdon once said, “Cowboys write for cowboys, not for critics.” So when one goes panning for literature at a cowboy-poetry gathering and leaves with a nugget or two, it’s a bonus, not the goal. Cowboy poetry is a Basque meal at the Star Hotel in Elko, Nevada, the table ten-friends deep. Cowboy poetry is saying thank you too many times. Cowboy poetry is saying yes to what Paul Zarzyski calls “the glorious commotion of it all.” Is that schmaltzy? A bit jejune? Of course it is. But it’s also true.
I could list all of the so-called highbrow poets and writers who at one point or another have contributed to or crossed paths with the world of cowboy poetry. The intellectuals and the elite. I could tell you how Yevgeny Yevtushenko adored the vitality of the genre. I could tell you how Donald Hall wrote Wally McRae’s favorite horse poem, how Zarzyski performed it for him on stage. I could explain how Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Emmylou Harris and countless others recorded a song called “Spanish Is the Loving Tongue,” penned by South Dakota’s Charles Badger Clark, arguably the patron saint of cowboy poetry. I could tell you about the dozen times I’ve heard cowboy poets quoting Leonard Cohen or Kenneth Rexroth or praising the merits of critic Dana Gioia’s seminal essay “Can Poetry Matter?” I could tell you about the songwriter Andy Wilkinson’s stunning keynote address at last year’s national gathering, how he intertwined cowboy poetry and metaphysics and filled an auditorium with applause.
But those anecdotes are only half the truth. The other half is what you may have assumed: that many cowboy poets have never read a book of contemporary poetry in their life, have never heard the names Charles Simic or Adrienne Rich or Eileen Myles, have never engaged with literature outside the cowboy context and have no plans to. They believe Baxter Black is the Mark Twain of our time. Their poetry is fully occupational, informed not by scholarship or creative movements but the literal range and the bruising work it takes to sustain it. Whether or not it’s art is, to many of them, frankly irrelevant. Further still, some of these poets and performers believe in ideals that make me uncomfortable, not that they often evangelize. They’re antiabortion no matter the circumstances. Or they believe gay marriage is an abomination or that feminism is a joke or that liberals are looking for handouts and leeching off the system. They swing right. They swing left. Some don’t swing at all.
And yet, despite all their differences, these various camps gather to read and recite poetry. Popular media once slobbered over the novelty of cowboys expressing themselves on stage. But truthfully, can you imagine any group of people outside of the arts gathering for days to listen to poetry, let alone recite their own? Those insulated by the literary or academic state too often forget just how rare it is to attract the working stiff, having long ago given up the effort. And yet the seats in Elko, Nevada, and Alpine, Texas, and Durango, Colorado, are filled not by poets and writers, not by M.F.A. candidates, but ranchers and farmers and hired hands and small business owners and their wives and their kids and their parents and their friends. If there is any desire to reestablish poetry within the American zeitgeist, cowboy poetry—despite the climbing median age of its audience—may very well be in the lead.
In 2017, I returned to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering without the cover of a writing assignment. All the feelings flooded back, all the spine-tingling, heady performances I’d experienced the first time. The late Jim Harrison once told me, “Well, your emotions are invariably cheesy, but who cares?” Whenever my skepticism threatened to interrupt, I’d remember Harrison’s words and push it aside. Why shouldn’t I let a rhyming cowboy poem choke me up? Why shouldn’t I be transported by Martha Scanlan’s stripped down rendition of Iris DeMent’s “Let the Mystery Be?” I recorded the latter and listened to it on repeat on my way back to the airport in Salt Lake City, staring out the window like a downtrodden teen in a bad music video, the mountains and the wide open salt flats rushing past. You might call me smitten by the whole affair. By the farm boys shoveling snow outside the convention center doors. By the city slickers returning year after year. By the reporters gradually shedding their bias and losing themselves in rhyme. By our poetries laid bare across the stage.
Carson Vaughan is a freelance writer in Omaha, Nebraska. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Smithsonian, and more. He is currently at work on a book about the small town of Royal, Nebraska.