THE cattle drive and the wide-open range spawned the cowboy. His was a specialized craft, and eventually a complete subculture developed around him. Black or white, he came from the North and from the South after the Civil War, or from the bottom of the social ladders of Europe, and he found dignity in the skills and grace of cowboy life. He has been a hero in pulp fiction and the movies, and, though his real story is less romantic, it is never less than colorful. The cowboy told his own story in poetry and tall tales. And he still does. A rip-roaring Colorado Cowboy Poets Gathering last month at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities brought 25 poets here to this Denver suburb. Traditional and contemporary poetry, Western anecdotes and storytelling, and plenty of Western music broke out in an atmosphere of good down-home fun. But just under the surface of the yippi-tie-yeah frolic ran a cool stream of serious concern for heritage, a respect for history, and a passion for the poetics of the saddle-and-spurs way of life.
Vess Quinlan, one of the founding fathers of a series of cowboy-poet gatherings over the last six years, and a walking history of Western Americana, takes this poetry seriously. ``These poems are the only clear window we have into the past of the cowboy experience,'' he told me, ``because they are undistorted by the opinions of scholars.
``The poems of Bruce Kiskaddon, for example, give us a clear window to the [cowboy] work and his feeling about the animals. It's from these poems that we get a clear idea now of what it was like to start out on a gather, and so forth.''
In about 1984, folklorists rounded up some 40 working cowboys known for reciting poems handed down from one generation to the next. This lively oral tradition seemed to belie the outdoor, six-gun, hard-riding lifestyle but in fact sprang organically from it. Assembled in Elko, Nevada, these latter-day cowhands found they had something else in common. To their surprise, most were closet poets who for years had written verse in the style of their heroes without showing it to anyone. When they read their own work, they added their voices to the those of cowboys past.
THE resulting anthology, ``Cowboy Poetry: A Gathering,'' is in its seventh printing. The next six years found cowboy-poetry gatherings springing up all over the West, surprising even the participants with the size of the draw. A second anthology of this work, ``New Cowboy Poetry: A Contemporary Gathering,'' was recently published by Gibbs M. Smith, Inc. in association with Pergrine Smith.
Mr. Quinlan explained that scholars once believed cowboy poetry came out of loneliness, when actually nothing could be further from the truth. ``Ranch people know and depend on their neighbors. They can't afford the isolation city people experience in their apartments. I can go a hundred miles out of my way to see a friend and know I'll be welcome.'' The poetry, he said, came from a desire to be ``sociable.'' It [was] something to be shared.
Speaking of the colorful language of the cowboy, Quinlan said, ``It's editing. A man goes to town once a month; he has a lot to say, and he must condense his conversation - say all those clever things he's been saving up. So he doesn't say, `That man doesn't understand the cattle business.' He says, `That fella don't know which end of a cow gets up first.'''
Quinlan pointed out that the original cowboys read Shakespeare, Longfellow, Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott, and Kipling because they could send for the classics with a tobacco-tin coupon and a dollar. During the long winters in a cow camp, there was plenty of time to read; so many a cowboy committed a long poem to memory to recite around the campfire. And when they composed their own ballads, they took their meters and rhyme schemes from the classics, sometimes setting their verse to music inspired by Irish jigs and sea shanties.
COWBOY poetry comes in a range of styles and quality, often punctuated by earthy humor. Baxter Black, perhaps the best-known of the cowboy poets, is a master showman with an orginal and fascinating delivery. Once described as a kind of weird grandson to Will Rogers, he keeps audiences howling with lively recitations of his work. Paul Zarzyski's highly refined free verse [see example in box below] reaches for much more complex coupling of themes, satisfying the intellect - as does Quinlan's elegant verse.
But funny or serious, the cow-bards sing of horses and cattle, lariats and Stetson hats. They evoke in lavish metaphors the wild beauties of mountain and prairie, wind and fire, and man free of possessions beyond his bedroll and his saddle. A profound respect for the past of Native American culture and for the ecological needs of the present run through much of the poetry. Barnyard realism is mixed with the romantic longing for the past when the ranges were owned by no man.
The Colorado Cowboy Poets Gathering also featured craft exhibits and demonstrations, a complete antique ranch-house interior, whittled cowboy sculpture, and a fantastic photographic exhibition. Saddles, bridles, horsehair hitching, weaving, furniture-making, and quilting help define the lifestyle. But in the elegant photo portraits by Douglass Kent Hall and the rodeo shots by Sue Rosoff the cowboy soul springs into view.
Sad-eyed cowhands stare stoically into Hall's camera or insist on the modest nobility of their labor through their bearing and expression. The daring action of Rosoff's rodeo pictures search out not the facial expression but the one angle that best expresses the danger, courage, and frenzy of the rodeo rider's moment. Rosoff reaches for the same poetics the cow-bards have sought.
Among several upcoming wevents, one takes place in Lubbock, Texas, where thousands of people will meet from May 31 to June 3 for a Cowboy Poets Gathering. Anthropologists will give papers; craftsmen will demonstrate skills; performers will crack jokes and sing; and working cowboys will recite the verse of cowboy life past and present.