Words On Cowboy Poetry From The High Prairie

Written by B Lewis for Now.readthisplease.com

Somehow or other, seems cowboy poetry has taken on a big todo east of the Great Divide. All because of the timing of a runaway tale, I expect. Harry Reid, big city guy, made mention of the past time (?) to downtown folk when he was promoting a cowboy poetry festival recently. Never heard of it. I guess there’s chance on most things, and if cowboy poetry is in, well, then lemme pull a medley out of my saddlebag.

Suggested headlines:

Political redemption rides in for the western bard

Cowboys are now a special interest group

Funny, timing the announcement of cowboy poetry with that new kids’ movie Rango, starring old timey cowboy, Johnny Depp, and some insurance lizard.

One cowboy poem of note in the last fifty years, Desperado, Eagles. When radio spins it, in some jurisdictions, watch for drivers to pull over and take an impromptu emotional pause. The song’s not about being a desperado. It’s about how much the listener gave up on his spirit to live in the modern world.

I was raised by cowboys out west, and set out in the world wearing soft deer mukluks until three, and hand made boots from then on. Once you’re used to them, you can run, climb, ride, and sweet talk in boots. I was set on cows, horses, pigs, and goats by family, cousins, and relatives before I could understand they were just having fun with the baby. Wearing a hat was proper, and a toy sidearm was expected, exceptin’ around Mom, until you received a long barrel at twelve. Some kids got a Daisy at ten, but only trapper kids could shoot any earlier.

Adults spoke slowly, with deliberation and forethought, and your word was everything. Everyone was know by their word, and how well they upheld it. Your name was your honor. Money was just a little something that could be converted through negotiation. Property and machines are signed with a tip of the hat and your word. Word gets around, too. Dishonor is something you’d have to make a big show of apology to overcome. Honor was gained through considerate effort, abiding your word, and upholding your name. Humility, in the face of shame, could regain honor, if you show honest effort.

There was such instillation of independence and personal fortitude upon a young person, that by the time I was four, I headed out to make my own way in the world. Obviously, I was reclaimed before sunset.

I was never beaten, whipped, or spanked by my father. He was a fierce and overbearing man on whiskey, but he was reserved and contemplative with children. Children were children, and treated as such. Never spoiled, but rewarded fairly for good deeds and effort. His honor was my honor. For severe behavior, something bordering on rebellious or criminal, I was hauled along with him on the road, or the trail, which gave me plenty of time to think on my actions without too many words. With good behavior and effort, I got responsibility, more free range, and a longer rope.

Being a cowboy is not about an image, it’s about having a way with things to get them going in the direction you want—how well you can interpret what’s ahead, on the trail and in the weather, and how resourceful you are when a challenge pops up. There’s a lot of dust, water, blood, and feed issues for cowboys. Cowboys know that every life is a spirit in a shell, and sometimes we do our best to keep things alive and moving. Cowboys don’t use words like ‘hankering’ and ‘git along’. They might have, but more ‘n likely you’ll catch em sayin words like ‘humidity’, ‘temperature’, and ‘coverage’.

Cowgirls are formidable beasts and uphold their own values which correspond with the values of cowboys due to the situation they both find themselves in. At six years old, a young doe chased me around the school yard everyday during lunch, until I tired, then she tackled me, pinned me like a squealing pig, and smothered me with kisses. I complained to the teacher and the young girl was told to back off, though she often winked. Cowgirls could also ride, drink, and kick you in the nuts before you could draw. They made great home brew Kahlua with old cowboy coffee, and could skin and dress the meat of an animal by the age of twelve. They were often better with machinery because their fingers could fit more places. My wife was raised on the high prairie, meaning she can put on makeup and then help pull the drive train on the pickup if it won’t go to town. And she’s not one for complaining. She’s soft and gentle with a sick animal, and a mean one with an axe. The only big difference between cowgirls and cowboys, excepting the plumbing, is that one likes to gossip and the other doesn’t. And cowgirls look prettier when they wash up.

Cowboys hate fences. They hate dinner dates and occasions. They hate crowds, formality, and false recognition that obligates them to an image or a debt they can’t repay. If you want help, get a lead hand or a partner. A cowboy has to come to terms. And that includes the animals and people he’s trying to motivate toward a goal. Being honest with your horse and dog, that shows up in their commitment to the task. Cowboys don’t do well with the subtle nuances of lying, cheating, manipulating, and capitalizing on endeavors. Cowboys don’t do well in politics because, by their very nature, cowboys are not social animals. Friendships are considered pillars by the cowboy, and politics can spread a person too thin, force a man to break his word, or forget his honor. A cowboy would never do that. You see, a cowboy doesn’t think that the endeavors of a politician are logical. Because if the politician was logical, he wouldn’t need all the fancy words and decorations. And he wouldn’t be promoting pavement and concrete. Cowboys learn that no good saloons attract flies and moths with flashy lights. I can see how a politician would consider exploiting the virtues of a cowboy. Maybe the news people buy it, but then, cowboys don’t put too much stock in what you read in slogans and promises.

Cowboys take to writing letters and observations because they don’t find utility with cameras and phones. If a cowboy sets out a poem or a verse, that’s because he didn’t have a pen handy and rhyme helps remember the gist. The cowboy doesn’t wake up and say, “Gee whiz, I think I will write a poem today.” No, the cowboy witnesses a wonder, or has an epiphany and frames his words as a tribute to the gift he received. Cowboys are good with words because they consider the meaning of each one as a vow, so the word must be well chosen, and not just a convenience. A cowboy’s verse is his prayer, and he’s not likely to share with many people for fear of giving away part of his soul. If a cowboy does tell you a poem, consider that a charm on your bracelet, or he’s wooing you. If you are interested, you can hear some of that in old western songs. I always wondered who took the ‘Western’ out of Country and Western? Shame about that. My father spoke of Hank Williams with reverence, but my mother preferred classical music and the styling of Burl Ives.

I was raised a real cowboy, by real cowboys, and I write poetry. Funny, I didn’t get no invite to a fancy speaking arrangement. Oh well, c’est la vie, as the French say. That was my choice for staking a mailbox on a rural route.



Words On Cowboy Poetry From The High Prairie © 2011 B Lewis. Lewis. Images from Kirkland Ranch Road by B and D Lewis for Now.readthisplease.com Check out B and D Lewis’, Wild West Wood, a picture book exclusively in the Now.

One Response to “Words On Cowboy Poetry From The High Prairie”
  1. curly says:

    I smiled at the ideal truth in this essay.

    All the good cowboys I ever met were word men and masters of compression.

    Words have a lot of power. Cowboys know that. When cowboys feel they’ve used too many words, they are embarrassed and disappear for a while.

    Never met a dumb cowboy (or a dumb farmer for that matter).

    I read a lot of poets, but very few can can ride beside Baxter Black.

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