Cowboy Poetry

We were in Medora, ND last weekend to hike in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It was a busy weekend in Medora, as the 36th Annual Dakota Cowboy Poetry Gathering was being held in the community center. We didn’t attend this year, but we did several years ago. Cowboy poets, singers, and musicians perform, and lots of poetry is read aloud.

There are many cowboy poetry events all across the western US from, ND to CO to TX. All the poets we saw in Medora were or had been working cowboys, and their poetry reflected their experiences working cattle and being out on the range. The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, NV seems to be the most famous, and was started in 1985 after Willie Nelson got funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Themes for cowboy poetry include ranch work, cowboy values and practices, western landscape, references to the past, and issues with modern , urban life. Most cowboy poetry rhymes. There is very little free verse. Here is a classic example by an anonymous poet:

Oh, music springs under the galloping hoofs,
Out on the plains;
Where mile after mile drops behind with a smile,
And to-morrow seems always to tempt and beguile,—
Out on the plains.

Oh, where are the traces of yesterday’s ride?
There to the north;
Where alfalfa and sage sigh themselves into sleep,
Where the buttes loom up suddenly, startling and steep,—
There to the north.

Oh, rest not my pony, there’s youth in my heart,
Out on the plains;
And the wind sings a wild song to rob me of care,
And there’s room here to live and to love and to dare,—
Out on the plains.

Another example by an anonymous poet.

The bawl of a steer
To a cowboy’s ear
Is music of sweetest strain;
And the yelping notes
Of the gray coyotes
To him are a glad refrain.

And his jolly songs
Speed him along
As he thinks of the little gal
With golden hair
Who is waiting there
At the bars of the home corral.

For a kingly crown
In the noisy town
His saddle he wouldn’t change;
No life so free
As the life we see
‘Way out on the Yaso range.

His eyes are bright
And his heart as light
As the smoke of his cigarette;
There’s never a care
For his soul to bear,
No trouble to make him fret.

The rapid beat
Of his bronco’s feet,
On the sod as he speeds along,
Keeps living time
To the ringing rhyme
Of his rollicking cowboy’s song.

Hike it, cowboys,
For the range away
On the back of a bronc of steel,
With a careless flirt
Of the raw-hide quirt
And the dig of a roweled heel.

The winds may blow
And the thunder growl
Or the breeze may safely moan;
A cowboy’s life
Is a royal life,
His saddle his kingly throne.

Saddle up, boys,
For the work is play
When love’s in the cowboy’s eyes,
When his heart is light
As the clouds of white
That swim in the summer skies.

What are some of your favorite poems? Do you like rhyme or free verse? What topics would you write about if you wrote poetry about your job or profession?

59 thoughts on “Cowboy Poetry”

  1. Curiously enough, for poetry that I hear (rather than read off the page) I really enjoy Sarah Kay and slam poetry, but I think that’s as much because of her performance of it as it is about the content. My own “occupation-related” poetic output is both metrical and rhyming, because it’s intended to be sung (thogh nobody will likely ever hear it). As a retired member of the clergy, I’ve been setting scriptures into tunes, posting them on a blog and making videos. I don’t have an agenda, in fact, having set stuff like the Song of Solomon, Leviticus, and (most recently) Ecclesiastes for singing, you know these won’t show up in anyone’s Sunday school. Some of doing this has been fun, some has been revealinng, but most of it has been about words, which I love deeply

    Liked by 5 people

  2. I love both rhyme and free verse. Here’s a favorite Mary Oliver -makes me tear up if I read it aloud:

    Peonies

    This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready
    to break my heart
    as the sun rises,
    as the sun strokes them with his old, buttery fingers

    and they open —
    pools of lace,
    white and pink —
    and all day the black ants climb over them,

    boring their deep and mysterious holes
    into the curls,
    craving the sweet sap,
    taking it away

    to their dark, underground cities —
    and all day
    under the shifty wind,
    as in a dance to the great wedding,

    the flowers bend their bright bodies,
    and tip their fragrance to the air,
    and rise,
    their red stems holding

    all that dampness and recklessness
    gladly and lightly,
    and there it is again —
    beauty the brave, the exemplary,

    blazing open.
    Do you love this world?
    Do you cherish your humble and silky life?
    Do you adore the green grass, with its terror beneath?

    Do you also hurry, half-dressed and barefoot, into the garden,
    and softly,
    and exclaiming of their dearness,
    fill your arms with the white and pink flowers,

    with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling,
    their eagerness
    to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are
    nothing, forever?

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Rise and Shine, Baboons,

    As ever, Auden is one of the few poets who really resonate with me. This clip is a favorite, and I realize it was one of the scenes that made the movie, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” a hit. I always admired the first minutes in which the only dialogue was “F***” and it made sense (as opposed to using the word for shock value.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. My great-grandfather, who homesteaded in eastern South Dakota, wrote some cowboy poetry, which he included in his first self-published collection of writings called “My Seventeen Years with the Pioneers”. Here’s one of his better poems, from May 1945:

    The Cowman’s Calendar

    First of the year, and wind blowing strong,
    Cattle humped up and hair getting long,
    Calves in the shed eating good feed,
    White-faces and good for the breed.

    February here and snow getting deep
    Blizzard each day and frost bitten cheek.
    The ground-hog came out all shaggy and thin
    But the sun-dogs were watching to chase him back in.

    March half gone and no spring in sight,
    Feed getting short and cattle are light.
    Then all of a sudden, that wind from the west (note: chinook wind)
    Snow disappearing, creeks running their best.

    April now here with snow squals and cold rain,
    Little calves born right out on the plain.
    Cows bogging down in the edge of the creek
    Get your rope on them and pull them out quick.

    May has come up, with grubs taking flight
    Cattle high-tailing in circles with fright.
    Calf getting his ration with foam on his snout,
    Yearling behind his Mother, helping him out.

    June, the best month of them all
    Brandin the calves as fast as they fall.
    Wrestling calves is said to be play
    But don’t give the boys too long a day.

    July, mosquitoes at night and flies in the day,
    The whole family now are putting up hay,
    Mother drives the bucker, Sonny the rake,
    Dad’s at the stacker pounding a stake.

    August, feed drying up and pastures look bare,
    Then thunder and lightning to rumble and glare.
    Cattle bunch up too close to the fence
    Five of them struck and no recompense.

    September, big run of cattle and price going down,
    But it’s cut out the steers and drive them to town,
    Load them and bill them out on the train,
    Then hammer out to the ranch through mud and rain.

    October, and still working with fodder and hay,
    Hired help, interest and taxes to pay,
    Sheds to repair and feed to haul in,
    Then the oats to but for the old oat bin.

    November, time to bring cattle down from the hills,
    Lots of hard riding and a number of spills,
    Calves to be weaned as its late in the fall
    And try not to mind the bellow and bawl.

    December, cows and calves have given up the fight,
    And it sure seems good to sleep through the night.
    Calves vaccinated to make them blacking immune,
    Oh! How I wish we were once more in June.

    Liked by 5 people

      1. Sure! Here’s a MUCH shorter poem, one I’m quite fond of:

        Knitting on the Blue Line

        The rhythm of the needles
        matches the rhythm of the wheels:
        yarn, flick; yarn, flick;
        rattle, clack; rattle, clack;
        yarn flick
        rattle clack
        yarn
        rattle
        flick
        clack

        Liked by 6 people

  5. I love poetry of all sorts. Everything from Shakespeare to Billy Collins, and Mary Oliver to tim jones. Need I say from the sublime to the ridiculous? Even doggerel sometimes. Here’s one I saw the other day, author unknown to me:

    Roses are red
    Limes are chartreuse
    Gregg Abbott’s a dick
    And so is Ted Cruz

    Of contemporary poets, Bill Collins never fails to satisfy. I love how he captures the beauty and whimsy in everyday things. Here’s one I stumbled on recently:

    AIMLESS LOVE

    This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
    I fell in love with a wren
    and later in the day with a mouse
    the cat had dropped under the dining room table.

    In the shadows of an autumn evening,
    I fell for a seamstress
    still at her machine in the tailor’s window,
    and later for a bowl of broth,
    steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.

    This is the best kind of love, I thought,
    without recompense, without gifts,
    or unkind words, without suspicion,
    or silence on the telephone.

    The love of the chestnut,
    the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.

    No lust, no slam of the door –
    the love of the miniature orange tree,
    the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,
    the highway that cuts across Florida.

    No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor –
    just a twinge every now and then

    for the wren who had built her nest
    on a low branch overhanging the water
    and for the dead mouse,
    still dressed in its light brown suit.

    But my heart is always propped up
    in a field on its tripod,
    ready for the next arrow.

    After I carried the mouse by the tail
    to a pile of leaves in the woods,
    I found myself standing at the bathroom sink
    gazing down affectionately at the soap,

    so patient and soluble,
    so at home in its pale green soap dish.
    I could feel myself falling again
    as I felt its turning in my wet hands
    and caught the scent of lavender and stone.

    Liked by 5 people

  6. I am so moved by all poetry, whether rhyme or free verse. Mary Oliver is a current favorite but I have always loved e e cummings. I treasure the poems some old friends have written for me.

    I wrote a poem for a coworker who retired on May 1. It was free verse. Much of it was about the mundane tasks but the meaning was how hard she worked and how much of herself she gave to others.

    Every day starts with coffee
    And ends with a smile.
    In between there are questions to be answered,
    Phone calls returned,
    Meals to be prepared and meds to be given.
    You’ve repaired the walls
    and the windows, and even
    Some of the hearts.
    Every day is a new start
    Doing the same old thing
    And making it look easy.
    You’d better grab another cup of coffee ‘cuz
    The Arjo tub is leaking again
    The bills haven’t been paid, and there’s
    A semi-annual meeting next week.
    Who’s got time for e-mail or training?
    Where’s the boss?
    Did that new med come from pharmacy yet?
    Did anyone call? No?
    And the schedule is almost ready but
    Someone wants to change it.
    ~
    I don’t know how you did it all.
    All I know is there was coffee
    And a welcoming smile

    Liked by 5 people

  7. Pippa’s Song – Robert Browning

    The year’s at the spring,
    And day’s at the morn;
    Morning’s at seven;
    The hillside’s dew-pearled;
    The lark’s on the wing;
    The snail’s on the thorn;
    God’s in his heaven –
    All’s right with the world!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I consider my job to be life at this point, and I collect little quotes and poems about what helps us all get through it. Couple of favorite quotes:

    He drew a circle that shut me out,
    Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
    But love and I had the wit to win:
    We drew a circle that let him in.
    Edwin Markham

    You may have tangible wealth untold
    Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold
    Richer than I you can never be
    I had a mother who read to me.
    Strickland Gillian

    Liked by 5 people

  9. You expect me to pick just one? I actually have a binder in which I keep poems that speak to me. But here is one of my all-time favorites:

    Fan Piece for Her Imperial Lord

    O fan of white silk
    Clear as frost on the grass-blade,
    You are also laid aside.

    Ezra Pound

    Liked by 4 people

  10. In about 2004 I was doing a two day workshop at a small school in central Kansas, the kind of workshop that can go bad. But it was wonderful, 3 of the secondary teachers were very interesting and lived their lives their own way and well. One, a science teacher was a cowboy poet and balladeer. He and I and the two others went out for a couple beers together. He gave me a tape of his music and a booklet of cowboy poetry, only a couple his. His was a bit grittier than most, saw more of reality and less of John Wayne. I think it is great there is this culture thriving out there. But I will never attend one. Not in my taste at all. Same with Slam. Great it is out there but I will stay home.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. The One That Got Away

    Man, you got a bird where your brain
    should be, he says, talking to me.
    I say: Perhaps you’d like to explain
    that figure of speech for the whole class.

    He says: A bird, man, a bird — thass
    one o’ them things with wings that flies
    around. You, you jes sits on your ass,
    but your brain it flies around, goes

    flap an’ flap — like this. He shows
    me then with his arms, doing flap-an-flaps
    between the aisles like a trained crow’s
    bad imitation of a little black

    boy flying. Then he flaps to the back
    of the room and out the door, free:
    free of the class, that doesn’t crack a smile;
    free of the teacher, who sits

    on his ass, a bird where his brain should be.

    Gary Miranda

    (this was a poem I read often when I was doing Poetry Circus in high school)

    Liked by 5 people

  12. One more and then I’ll try to shut the floodgates:

    What if you slept….
    by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

    What if you slept
    And what if
    In your sleep
    You dreamed
    And what if
    In your dreams
    You went to heaven
    And there plucked strange and beautiful flower
    And what if
    When you awoke
    You had that flower in your hand
    Ah, what then?

    Liked by 5 people

  13. Here’s a poem by Chelan Harkin.

    The worst thing we ever did
    was put God in the sky
    out of reach
    pulling the divinity
    from the leaf,
    sifting out the holy from our bones,
    insisting God isn’t bursting dazzlement
    through everything we’ve made
    a hard commitment to see as ordinary,
    stripping the sacred from everywhere
    to put in a cloud man elsewhere,
    prying closeness from your heart.
    The worst thing we ever did
    was take the dance and the song
    out of prayer
    made it sit up straight
    and cross its legs
    removed it of rejoicing
    wiped clean its hip sway,
    its questions,
    its ecstatic yowl,
    its tears.
    The worst thing we ever did is pretend
    God isn’t the easiest thing
    in this Universe
    available to every soul
    in every breath.

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Adam
    by Louis Jenkins

    At first it was okay naming the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air…dog, cat, cow…but it was a time-consuming job and after awhile it became boring…slender loris, brindled guillernot…And the insects drove him crazy. Then there were the plants and the rocks. Sunrise to sunset, the same thing. He didn’t want to just name things Jehovah had made. He wanted to recombine the elements to make something significant, a creation of his own. He just needed some time off to think, to plan. He wanted a convertible, something sporty, so he could take Eve for a little drive; lovely Eve dressed in her snakeskin miniskirt with the matching bag.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Jenkins was a master of the prose poem, and had a talent for seeing the beauty in the mundane. Roughly ten years ago, Guthrie produced a play based on his poems called “Nice Fish.” It really showcased his wry sense of humor. If I remember correctly, Cynthia knew him.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. What makes that one a poem?
      Ack, poetry. I just don’t get it. And don’t try to convince me either, you’ll just be in a long line of others who have tried.
      Just tell me straight, no similes please. So the Jenkins one; it’s a nice little story. Why is that a poem??

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Don’t let the terminology get in the way of you enjoying poetry, Ben. I know that I’ve posted the following Billy Collins poem in response to your assertion that you don’t “get” poetry. I think a lot of us had a teacher or two at the high school level who put some serious obstacles in the way of us ever overcoming our dislike for it.

        Introduction to Poetry
        By Billy Collins

        I ask them to take a poem
        and hold it up to the light
        like a color slide

        or press an ear against its hive.

        I say drop a mouse into a poem
        and watch him probe his way out,

        or walk inside the poem’s room
        and feel the walls for a light switch.

        I want them to waterski
        across the surface of a poem
        waving at the author’s name on the shore.

        But all they want to do
        is tie the poem to a chair with rope
        and torture a confession out of it.

        They begin beating it with a hose
        to find out what it really means.

        Like

    1. ACH! He was the first poet I thought of today! I met him years ago when he was doing his play ‘Chin Music’ along with ‘Box Elder bug Variations’ by Bill Holm at the Jon Hassler Theater. I didn’t work on this show, just attended and went to the bar with John, Bill, and others. Bill was way down on the other end, but John and I had a really nice time talking and we kept in touch a little bit. I have his (not a booklet; he had another name for this 4 page book) titled “What the Sheriff saw” and it’s just the coolest little story. Thanks for sharing the website!

      Liked by 2 people

  15. Ah, finally found it. Love this – esp. on the days when I believe in a god energy:
    God Says Yes to Me – Kaylin Haught

    I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
    and she said yes
    I asked her if it was okay to be short
    and she said it sure is
    I asked her if I could wear nail polish
    or not wear nail polish
    and she said honey
    she calls me that sometimes
    she said you can do just exactly
    what you want to
    Thanks God I said
    And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
    my letters
    Sweetcakes God said
    who knows where she picked that up
    what I’m telling you is
    Yes Yes Yes

    Liked by 4 people

  16. Sir Walter Scott’s, Lochinvar. It was the first poem I memorized.
    With the 45 election, I have memorized more Scott. To be recited in the future.
    “The wretch, concentred all in self, living, shall forfeit fair renown, and, doubly dying, shall go down to the vile dust, from whence he sprung, unwept, unhonored, and unsubg.”

    Liked by 3 people

  17. And now for something completely different, that I wouldn’t likely have found on my own. A friend just, out of the blue, sent this poem:

    A Supermarket in California
    BY ALLEN GINSBERG

    What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the side streets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
    In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
    What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

    I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
    I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
    I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
    We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

    Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
    (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
    Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
    Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
    Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

    Berkeley, 1955

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Of course we can’t have a day of poetry without another of my favorites.

    Timing Toast
    by Piet Hein

    There’s an art to doing it
    never try to guess.

    Toast until it burns
    then 20 seconds less.

    Liked by 3 people

  19. And then there’s what was my dad’s favorite, The Hunter by Ogden Nash:

    The hunter crouches in his blind
    ‘Neath camouflage of every kind
    And conjures up a quacking noise
    To lend allure to his decoys.
    This grown-up man, with pluck and luck
    Is hoping to outwit a duck.

    Liked by 4 people

  20. Hope.
    Hope is a beautiful thing.
    It is fragile and wonderful
    And it is more than wishing.
    Hope says that there will be a better tomorrow.
    Hope shows us a path, a way forward.
    Hope is about dreaming, yes,
    And it is also about belief.
    Belief that you can be the change you want to see.
    Belief that you can shape and affect.
    Belief that there are others beside and behind you.
    Hope rolls up its sleeves and says, “let’s make this happen.”
    Hope is a beautiful wonderful thing.
    And it is yours for the asking.

    – Anna Bliss

    Liked by 2 people

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