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Write ’Em Cowboy

By Margaret Ford | HUMANITIES, September/October 2001 | Volume 22, Number 5

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 cowboyspoet/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 poemit’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 daydesert 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.”

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 Waddie 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 Hollopeter, 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.