Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Ever since cattle first trod the Chisholm Trail to Abilene in 1867, cowboys have been composing verse, some of it sung as song lyrics, some of it published in livestock journals, and some of it recited as poetry around campfires or in bunkhouses. In fact, according to cowboy folk song authority Guy Logsdon, no other occupational folk group in this country has produced as much verse, partly because of subject matter (the cowboy's exciting and sometimes dangerous work occurs amidst beautiful natural surroundings) and partly because of opportunity (the cowboy has sufficient leisure, whether on the back of a horse or behind the steering wheel of a pickup, in which to reflect and compose). The cowboy, in essence, puts into practice Wordsworth's theoretical definition of poetry as emotion recollected in tranquility.

In form, traditional cowboy poetry is rhymed and metrically regular, usually cast in ballad stanzas or tetrameter stanzas with second and fourth lines rhyming and with narrative a predominant element. While in earlier years cowboy poetry tended to reflect the episodes and duties of actual ranch work, recently innovative cowboy poets have written in free verse and have expanded their subject matter to include themes such as the environment and economic or governmental threats to the cowboy way of life. In contrast to much mainstream academic poetry, cowboy poetry is marked by accessibility to a general audience and emphasizes public oral performance.

Unlike the more visible aspects of cowboy culture that were earlier adapted into our popular culture, however, authentic cowboy verse remained essentially unknown beyond range country until the first Cowboy Poetry Gathering, held at Elko, Nevada, in 1985. Since then cowboy poetry has enjoyed a renaissance, with scores of gatherings being held throughout the West and performers such as Baxter Black and Waddie Mitchell gaining national prominence. Although this recent surge of popularity has attracted a host of less-than-skilled practitioners, the work of cowboy poets such as J. B. Allen, Wallace McRae, Vess Quinlan, Buck Ramsey, Andy Wilkinson, and Paul Zarzyski, among many others, has the technical skill, intellectual rigor, and universality of emotion that are the hallmarks of lasting poetry.

See also IMAGES AND ICONS: Cowboy Culture / MUSIC: Cowboy Music.

James Hoy Emporia State University

Cannon, Hal, ed. Cowboy Poetry: A Gathering. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 1985.

Lomax, John. Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads. New York: Macmillan Company, 1910.

Thorp, N. Howard (Jack). Songs of the Cowboys. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1921.

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