Finding the Animals in Cowboy Poetry

31 Mar 2016 |

In the United States,
in Canada and Mexico,
Argentina, and Australia,
out beyond the screaming cities,
beyond electric lights that have stolen your night sky,
there is our other country.

From the people and the land
and the animals,
there comes a clear voice
telling stories of courage and fear,
success and great loss,
the man and the horse,
the cattle and the coyote,
the present and the past.

Gather 'round,
listen in,
and cowboy poetry
will soon begin.

Cowboy poetry is a unique category of poetry which comes from the life and culture of the diverse people who work and live primarily in the environment of the cattle industry of a handful of nations. Theirs is a lifestyle created by that industry and by the land on which they live and work. Much cowboy poetry is about animals—their behavior, their problems, their strength and beauty, and how cowboys and ranching family members interact with them. They tell stories of animals both real and imagined.

Although many cowboy poems may be found in books, the real strength of cowboy poetry is found in the performance of it—the recitations, and the music that sometimes accompanies it. Sometimes the poetry is shared between just a few individuals when the work of the day is done, and sometimes it is shared with the world, in books, on television and online. Cowboy poetry comes from the minds of individuals, not from the urban American entertainment industry. A few poets have become prominent in the cowboy poetry community and have made some relatively small financial benefit from their writing and performance. For the great majority, their participation is done for the love of the art. In that way, cowboy poets and their fans are like the furry community. And like the members of the furry community, cowfolk have their own cons which are known simply as cowboy poetry gatherings.

In 1985 the first cowboy poetry gathering was organized by western American folklore researcher and author Hal Cannon. With the help of many others around the west, he held the gathering in Elko, Nevada, and the first one drew a "few hundred" people. Since then it has increased to attendance numbers around 8,000, with events spread out over several locations in Elko over the span of the entire last week in January every year. Other cowboy poetry gatherings have been organized in many other states, along with smaller events, commonly held during the last week in April, officially designated as Cowboy Poetry Week. The month of April is known in the literary community as National Poetry Month.

Just like furry, there is some history behind today's cowboy poetry.

Craig Miller, in his essay "Nature and Cowboy Poetry" contained in the book Cowboy Poets and Cowboy Poetry, University of Illinois Press, 2000, observes that historically there are three main categories of cowboy poetry. The early days, he names "The Old Paradigm: Nature Equals Chaos, Civilization Equals Order." This beginning of cowboy poetry began after the American Civil War, primarily in the 1870s before the railroads and telegraph came to western America. Miller describes the cowboy poetry of this time thus:

Poems of this period are characterized by enormity of landscape, natural disasters that test individuals and groups, and a correlation between nature and the devil. [...] few collections of cowboy poetry (from that time, ed.) exist without reference to that dreaded occupational hazard, the stampede [...] In these poems, herds of domestic cattle represent raw energy ready to explode at the slightest spark.

 The second historic category that Miller introduces is "A New Paradigm: Nostalgia Ushers in a Growing Respect for Nature." As the West became settled in the late 1800s into the early 1900s, lands were extensively fenced, and railroads and telegraphs connected distant cities and towns, the cowboy's way of life began to change, to become a little restricted, less free. He offers this example from an important early collection of cowboy poetry and songs : Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, (1910) John A. Lomax and Alan Lomax, Macmilllan, publisher, 1986. In this excerpt from "The Last Longhorn"—which is attributed to frontier judge R.W. Hall of Amarillo, Texas—a nostalgic, talking longhorn steer describes the passing of the Old West and the end of the old cowboy life:

"I remember back in the seventies,
Full many summers past,
There was grass and water plenty,
But it was too good to last.
I little dreamed what would happen
Some twenty summers hence,
When the nester came with his wife, his kids,
His dogs, and his barbed-wire fence."

Miller's final time period he names "The Old Paradigm Inverted: The Chaos of Civilization Becomes the Major Threat to the Environment and to Cowboy Culture." The enormous increase in population in the United States in the twentieth century brought good and bad results for those in the cattle ranching life. Demand for beef kept the cowboy's work necessary and relevant despite increasing mechanization of food production. Higher paying jobs in cities pulled young people away from the ranching life and culture. Laws and regulations regarding land use began to restrict the rangelands. The entertainment industry and published literature created unrealistic mythologies and stereotypes of the cowboy and the culture. In the second half of the twentieth century cowboy poetry began to include themes of environment destruction, foreign wars, and modern ideas of the value and relevance of wild animals.

The Animals in Cowboy Poetry

Horses have played an important role in human civilization from the ancient empires of Egypt up to modern nations. Today in North America, Europe, South America, Asia, and Australia, the mounted rider still is important to the managing of domestic animal herds. Horses are the subject of many cowboy poems. They are both the blessing and the curse to the cowboy. Though it is less common today, in the past cowboys often had to break wild horses for the cowboys to use as working horses. They could be unpredictably wild and violent, as we read in this excerpt from Ham Hamilton's "Rough Rider" from One Cowboy's Roundup, Prairie Poetry and Proverbs, Frontier Publishing,1995:

A horse's name usually told you a bunch
About how people viewed his demeaner.
"Cyclone" and "Storm" and "Tornado"
Were in the class with old "Steamer".

 But I watched close for the subtle names
Of "Lady", "Sweetheart", "Beauty", and sorts.
Some of those gals could rattle your bones
And shake you right out of your shorts.

The cowboy's horse is his most important tool, and partner, in his work. Good horses respond well to the rider's directions and they often actually know what moves are needed in certain situations. They may not be pretty but they get the job done, as Wallace McRae writes in "Red Pup, Bonine, and Owl" Cowboy Curmudgeon and Other Poems, Gibbs-Smith Publisher, 1992:

I go to some horse shows every year,
And usually come home feeling foul,
And slightly ashamed of my stay-at-home mounts:
Red Pup, Bonine, and Owl.

 The arena horses are shining and proud.
Their ears are always alert.
While Red Pup, Justin, Bailey, and Snip
Are slovens, in sweat and in dirt...

...But could the show horses keep up with my boys,
Doing their chores on the ranch?
Could they make the circle, work herd, drag the calves?
Would an honest day's work make them blanch?

 ...So Hail! to the Red Pups, the Bonines, and Owls.
Hail! to the equine wage slave.
In this beholder's eyes you're beauties.
You never took as much as you gave.

In the cowboy's world, loss and death is never far away, and there are many ways that a cowboy or his horse can lose their lives, or simply be parted from one another, possibly never to see each other again. Whether one is a man or woman in the cattle industry, one learns at an early age to stuff down and rationalize away natural feelings of tenderness and grief toward animals because such emotions can interfere in the rough work that is the livestock industry. This is a strong cultural tradition that continues from long ago. Some contemporary cowboy poems speak to the feelings of loss that can come upon a man or woman when their relationship with a special horse is disrupted. Here, a few excerpts from Liam Rector's "My Pony", from Cowboy Poetry Matters, From Abilene to the Mainstream, Contemporary Cowboy Writing, Story Line Press, 2000:

Coming back to you, my pony, whom I had to leave
To make money, I proffer up the dire smidgen,
The torn thing I managed to lug back with me,

 ...How long I have loved thee to see you now grown old
Though still able---under all this weight---
To put your foot to the far off, to the going...

 ...Ride on while we're here, my pony, and next spring

 I'll bring Virginia, whom I've left back in the city.
I'll bring her to you for her safekeeping.
She needs the hurl and arc these fields have put in us,

Out looking : she needs the kind of joking past grieving
We've come to together, thrown through the pressed world
Where I went off to earn being hers and yours, your Liam.

Cattle have hard lives, and in cowboy poetry they are the source of curses, despair, and comedy. Out on the rangelands, they are independent, ornery, and vulnerable. Just getting them started in life can be an epic struggle. Cowboy poet Baxter Black has become a living legend in his community, particularly for his humorous poetry. Here are some excerpts from his "Fetal Eye View" from Croutons on a Cowpie, Volume II, Cowboy Poetry by Baxter Black, Coyote Cowboy Company, 1992. A calf being born is speaking to the humans assisting in his birth:

"Say, anybody got a light? It sure is dark in here
     and tighter'n the skin on Polish sausage.
For nine long months I've trusted Mom but now she's pulled the plug!
     A pure and simple case of double crossage!

 I'm not sure what I really am or even what I'm for?
     To breed? Or do they plan to milluk us?
I've checked myself the best I could . . . a bull calf's what I think,
     but, heck, that might be my umbilicus!

 . . .Git out the way! I'm bailin' out! Too bad we met like this
     'Cause you might be alright, at least I think . .
And to show there's no hard feelin's, belly up here to the bag
   and I'll buy you and all yer friends a drink!

Domestic cats don't get invited on cattle drives, as you may have suspected. They hang around barns and ranch houses, keeping the rodent population in check, but there are a few poems that include them, though not as the main subjects. In my research I have found them in Vess Quinlan's "The Barn Cats", Linda M. Hasselstrom's "What the Falcon Said", and Liam Rector's "My Pony".

Dogs are necessary companions to the cowboy. They are not pets, and they too have rough lives. Cowboy poet Ed Brown, in his "Cowdogs", in New Cowboy Poetry, A Contemporary Gathering, Gibbs-Smith Publisher,1990, wrote:

Now some cowdogs have pedigrees
           And other claims to fame.
But here a cowdog gets two things:
         A whipping and a name.

And we don't just give them a name
         From a book upon the shelves.
We use them, and if they stay around,
         We let them name themselves. . .

...Backhoe fills the yard with holes;
      Nixon covers them up;
Welfare hasn't done a thing
       Since he was just a pup.

Buzzard eats the darndest things;
       Leppie's mother never claimed him.
If we had a dog that could work cows
       We wouldn't know what to name him.

Wild predators were once common enemies of the cowboy and the herds but the wolf, bear, cougar, and coyote were drastically reduced in number in North America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Naturally they do appear as subjects of cowboy poetry. Bears get mentioned in Ham Hamilton's "Bear" and here in Jesse Smith's "Message in the Wind" from New Cowboy Poetry, A Contemporary Gathering, Gibbs-Smith Publisher, 1990

. . . Yer old pony's eyes are a-lookin',
       his ears workin' forward and back.
All of a sudden you feel his hide tighten,
     And a little hump come into his back. . . 

. . .But you know yer old hoss ain't a-lying,
     He's as good'ne as you'll ever find.
And you know that old pony's tryin'
     To warn ya 'bout somethin' in time.

Well, ya look real hard where he's lookin',
     His eyes are plum fixed in a stare,
Then ya see what he's seein',
     A cub and an old mama bear.. .

 A cougar, felis concolor, makes an appearance in Virginia Bennett's "The Lion", and a deer in Floyd A. Jenson's "The Day I Roped a Deer", and a falcon in Linda Hasselstrom's "What the Falcon Said". Accounts of wolves are uncommon in cowboy poetry but the coyote is popular. An old poem attributed to Robert Fletcher is "The Belled Coyote", telling a likely fictional story about catching a coyote in a trap and tying a small bell around his neck and letting him go. The cowboy later takes pity on the coyote because the bell is always warning away the coyote's prey, and so he accurately shoots the bell off the collar.

Four contemporary poems, Buck Ramsey's "Songdog", Wallace McRae's "The Coyote", Eric Sprado's "Our Range", and Linda Hussa's "Under the Hunter Moon" bring in more modern ideas about the relationship of humans and coyotes. The McRae and Sprado poems are considerations of how humans and coyotes share the land. Hussa's "Under the Hunter Moon" tells of how she must kill a coyote who has attacked a flock of sheep. Ramsey's "Songdog" found in Cowboy Poetry Matters, From Abilene to the Mainstream, Contemporary Cowboy Writing, Story Line Press, 2000 is more friendly to the coyote:

When young I saw a coyote spring in air
And arc and tumble in a backward flip,
Then chase his tail and wallow in his joy,
Exalting with his private yap and yip.

 Caught up, I sprang from hiding to my horse
And somersaulted backward to the ground,
Then rolled and wallowed in the flow'rs and grass
And mocked the private rapture of his sound.

There is much more to learn about cowboy poetry than the small fragments I have shared with you here. There is much more history behind modern cowboy poetry, and forms of cowboy poetry can be found in several other nations. In the month of April in 2015 I posted a series of essay excerpts by prominent authors, reports of two cowboy poetry events which I attended, and twenty-four poems with animal themes in my DreamWidth journal which are available for you to read beginning with this post:

Included among those posts is a list of books that I have referenced in this essay, and several websites. Very soon I will post approximately twenty more cowboy poems. For those of you living in the United States, Canada, and even Australia, you may find live cowboy poetry (or bush poetry, if you are in Australia) events in many states/provinces, simply by an online search.

The cowboy community and the furry community have some significant differences and, most likely, little in common. The majority of us have only seen the cowboy's world through the fiction and fantasy of popular, mass-produced entertainment. It requires some sincere effort to look beyond that. If you do so, because this is poetry, a language form expressive of emotion, you may find something in cowboy poetry that appeals to you in your deep emotional core, as this writer has found.

there is a canyon,
a grand canyon,
an unbridgeable canyon between
those cowboys
and those animals.

But we can see
and they can see
the stars in the constellations,
those man and animal line figures,
the star-stippled spirits
of us all.