poem index

A Brief Guide to Cowboy Poetry

Year

2004
"It [is] a jazz of Irish storytelling, Scottish seafaring and cattle tending, Moorish and Spanish horsemanship, European cavalry traditions, African improvisation, and Native American experience, if also oppression. . . . the songs and poems of the American cowboy are part of that old tradition of balladry." —Western Folklife Center Archive

One of those rare indigenous creations of America, cowboy poetry has a long and vivid history, driven by its colorful practitioners and memorable canon of poems.

Cowboy poetry is distinctive both in its culturally specific subject matter and its traditional use of rhyme and meter. While the range of emotional landscapes explored in cowboy poetry are the traditional province of poetry—from joy to grief, from humor to spirituality—the particulars derive from the American West: horses, cattle, fire, prairie storms, mythic figures of cowboys and ranchers, and the sublime wilderness. The use of forms such as ballads and odes and of poetic devices such as mnemonics and repetition sets cowboy poetry apart from the majority of contemporary poetry and relates it more to the Homeric tradition of oral poetry.

In the anthology Cowboy Poetry Matters, editor Robert McDowell collects the poetry of such cowboy poets as Paul Zarzyski, Linda Hussa, Laurie Wagner Buyer, Wallace McRae, and Buck Ramsey, as well as poets such as Maxine Kumin and Donald Hall, who have written in the genre. The collection also contains scholarly essays about cowboy poetry, including Zarzyski's response to Dana Gioia’s "Can Poetry Matter?": "The Lariati versus/verses the Literati: Loping Toward Dana Gioia's Dream Come Real." The book ends with a list of "Cowboy Poetry Anthologies of Note," and while there are cowboy poetry archives, publications, documentaries, audio recordings, and online resources, most would argue that cowboy poetry lives in the human voice, during live readings and gatherings.

Many cowboy poetry gatherings exist in almost all Western states, but the most popular of them is the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, held in Elko, Nevada. Every January, cattle people, rural folks, poets, musicians, western enthusiasts, and curious urban dwellers gather for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, described as "a jubilee of conversation, singing, dancing, great hats and boots, stories, laughing and crying, big steaks, incessant rhymes, and a galloping cadence that keeps time for a solid week." Launched in 1985, the Gathering is a program of the Western Folklife Center, a regional nonprofit folk arts organization dedicated to preserving, perpetuating, and presenting the folk arts of the West.