One of the more intriguing aspects of being in Wyoming for this Easterner has been exposure to cowboy culture. Parts of the West retain in their vast spaces a tunnel to the past of the land and thanks to some locals, I was given clues on how to distinguish between genuine and poseur cowboys. For one thing, a real cowboy never enters an establishment with a cowboy hat on his head. Also, he when he takes his hat off, he places it with the hole to the sky, so as not to let the luck fall out. Indeed real cowboys have their own list of etiquette, which includes never turning your horse's tail to a cow, never touching another person's tack and - rather obviously - keeping the branding to your own cattle. Other famous codes include Gene Autry's earnest wisdom ("The cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man or take unfair advantage") and the genius comic epigrams of Will Rogers who has a few of my favorite bits of advice: The quickest way to double your money is to fold it and put it back in your pocket; Never kick a cow chip on a hot day; and of course, if you're riding ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to make sure it's still there.
But what I didn't fully realize until my trip out West was how popular poetry is to these ranchmen. And in case, it's hard to discern, here's a poseur cowboy:
Cowboy poetry in America dates back to the time of the long-distance cattle drives from Texas to Kansas that followed the Civil War, as a kind of entertainment and diversion for lonely trailhands and itinerant cattle-herders gathered around a fire. You can read a good history of the movement in this essay by Rod Miller in RATTLE and Western and Cowboy Poetry at the Bar-D Ranch is clearly the Dial of the movement, including a Lariat Laureate, gatherings and festivals and a rural library project where you can suggest libraries, particularly those serving ranching communities. From the looks of it, cowboy poetry is one of the healthiest segments of contemporary poetry, with it's own raging debate between the formalists and the free versers.
As Miller details, the cowboy poetry world changed in 1985, "the year a few folklorists, led by Hal Cannon and Jim Griffith, put together the first cowboy poetry “gathering” in Elko, Nevada. Folklorists throughout the West scoured cattle ranches and rodeo arenas, bunkhouses and bars in search of cowboys who recited and wrote poems about the life they lived. A handful were invited to the high-desert cowtown to recite their own compositions and classic poems for a few hundred onlookers.The idea took hold like a lariat dallied hard around a saddle horn. The event—officially designated by Congress as the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering but known in cowboy poetry circles simply as “Elko”—celebrated its 25th anniversary in January, 2009." Elko is a tough ticket and hundreds of cowboy poets via for the chance to get on stage in front of thousands. The festival includes music, like this guerrila video of the Marshall Ford Swing Band who express the usual reverance and incredulousness about sharing the stage with poets and reveal that when not on stage there, you can find them at places like Pooties Hilltop Bar & Grill.
Seems Elko is quite a town for festivals and their ballons just might give their cowboys a run for their money.
In addition to Elko, there are hundreds of "gatherings" around the West, some version of which took place at the Jackson Hole Writers Conference where I was last weekend. We were led down a trail by Missoula, Montana writer and photographer Jayme Feary who expressed some consternation at reading cowboy poetry in front of such a literary crowd but nonetheless read a poem by cowboy poetry legend Buck Ramsey (nicknamed by his father as Buckskin Tarbox). In the cool forest, in front of a man and his horse, the words expended themselves initially in simple music but transformed in the air, as sunlight fell in slats and mosquitos hovered, the horse chomping grass snorting, pawing the ground, something deeper triggered. Oral poetry. And to be fair, Buck Ramsey is no slouch:
If time and moon were right or wrong
For fitting works and rounds to weather.
The critter coats and leaves of trees
Might flash some signal with a breeze—
Hearing Ramsey's poem out loud it was clear that the essential quality of cowboy poetry was that it was meant to be sounded, sung really, and in that way in a tradition of oral poetry that stretches far back, before the advent of writing but also into the written. Yet somehow the performance is more primary than its transcription, in that it's essential quality is that it is transient. According to Ruth Finnegan, "oral poetry does indeed like written literature possess a verbal text. But in one respect it is different: a piece of oral literature to reach its full actualisation, must be performed...in this sense an oral poem is an essentially ephemeral work of art, and has no existence or continuity outside of its performance." While you might encounter Buck Ramsey on the page or online, the experience of hearing the poem in his voice at a particular location of space and moment in time could never be replicated.
Indeed some, like Albert Lord and Milman Parry, have argued persuasively that some of the classical epics, like Beowulf, have an immanence that is primarily oral. That great literature is a performance and that it's only "reduced" to text. That there's an ongoingness to the the story that's an amalgam between performer and audience. Hearing him read from Beowulf in this terrific and edifying conversation about the nature of orality in literature, it's hard to think otherwise:
And if I managed inadvertently to provide a half-hour deviation from your day listening to that conversation, as I did to myself, I better take more of Will Rogers's advice to heart never to miss a good chance to shut up.