photograph of Wallace McRae by Peter de Lory
In this site's first three months, we've had occasion more than once to discuss the great things that are happening in Elko, Nevada at the Western Folklife Center. Back in our earliest early weeks we highlighted the 26th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and, more recently, the music of one of the Gathering's headlining acts this year: the Creole-Cowboy Zydeco stylings of Geno Delafose & French Rockin' Boogie.
Their Facebook page recently posted a link to "All the Real Dudes" a piece on cowboy poetry published last week on the Poetry Foundation site. It has garnered some comments, many to the effect of "it's great the Foundation is covering cowboy poetry" but wondering how deeply the writer, Paul Constant, considered the poetry and the community from which it emerges. This feedback continues on the Founation's own comment section--as one reader feels that "the author of this piece looks down his nose at cowboy poets, as lesser than 'normal' poetry." Here's how Mr. Constant frames the place of this genre's growing popularity:
If you don’t live in a state with a sizable amount of desert, or a livestock-to-human ratio that gives the animal kingdom a fighting chance, then this may come as a surprise. Bookstores in temperate coastal climates aren’t very likely to stock more than one cowboy poetry title at any given moment, and that solitary book, if they even carry it, will be shelved in either the poetry section or the humor section, depending on the whims of the store’s staff. Based on the evidence on display in any of these bookstores, you’d never realize that cowboy poetry so popular, drawing thousands of fans to events and festivals across the U.S.
Cowboy poetry festivals take place in dozens of towns across America—virtually every state west of the Mississippi—from Alpine, Texas, to Monterey, California, to Green Forest, Arkansas. Every year in January, thousands of people gather in Elko, a small town in northern Nevada, for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The gathering—now in its 26th year—was founded primarily thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Cowboy poets record best-selling CDs and podcasts and have been nominated for Grammys (and even won one). By any standard, cowboy poetry has been a hit. By poetry standards, it’s a smash. But if you ask its practitioners, the real success of cowboy poetry is that on the page it attracts normal people—people who would otherwise never pick up a book of poetry—and on the stage it’s a performance that most non-slam poets don’t bother to grasp.
While I sense that Mr. Constant meant no condescension, I agree with others that the examples of cowboy poetry could have been more various and more deeply considered. While there's only so much any writer can accomplish in a given word count, it's interesting that so much of the article is used to contrast this form of poetry with the innate presence of "mainstream" poetry:" an urban, coastal art form emanating from (and subsidized by) academic institutions. What's suggested below is that these "connoisseurs," all having inherited the aesthetic attitudes of modernism and modern art, could not tolerate a kind of poetry that speaks so directly:
To put it lightly, there’s a bit of a gap between mainstream poetry and cowboy poetry. It’s easy to see how poetry connoisseurs could completely disregard cowboy poetry as a genre; the poems all more or less stick to ballads, with stanzas constructed of strict ABAB or AABB rhyming patterns. And the subject matter, to someone on the outside, can feel constrained; when all you’re discussing is cattle punching—slang for tending cattle, usually while on horseback—and life on the range, you can understand why urban or suburban readers would think that’s a small canvas on which to paint.
Cowboy poets, too, frame themselves as outsiders from the mainstream; while they’re welcoming to newcomers, you get the sense that an academic study of cowboy poetry would be frowned upon by most of the poets and fans as unnecessary.
One reader was quick to respond that there is indeed "academic study" on this art form, and that these poets number among the Fellows at the National Endowment for the Arts. Others invited Mr. Constant and Poetry's readers out to Elko.
As just another voice of commentary here, I'm left wishing that the widespread success of cowboy poetry had lead to an article that not only investigated some of the genre's finest voices but also asked what the "mainstream" might learn from cowboy poetry--and vice versa. The implicit understanding in this piece, so evident in the way that the rural west is presented here, is that there is an insurmountable distance between these two poetries. I wholeheartedly disagree with that suggestion, and I believe that it enforces some false dichotomies that keep segments of the american arts from talking to each other.
One reader on the Poetry Foundation's site made this point with perfect clarity, writing that "Cowboy poetry in one form or another has been around for eons." Mr. Constant is certainly right in suggesting that cowboy poetry's way of speaking clearly, of being responsible to an audience, might turn off many conventional readers. But, in his words, cowboy poetry's way of "[using] the past as a lens through which to remark on the future," is in principle no different than much of what we might find in twentieth-century poetry. The undeniable fact is that the style of modernism that still exerts itself over these "mainstream" readers' tastes emerged itself from folk culture. This is certainly true with classical and "art music" of the twentieth century, but profoundly true for many of the great modernist writers. During a period of world wars, genocides and startling technological advancements, they turned to folk culture to help express an alienation and a vision of a world (and a language) of fragmented meaning. James Joyce, Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats would be three prominent examples.
The question for these readers and for all us, whether we are in the urban, coastal mainstream or not, is why these cowboy poets would be alienating at this moment in our collective history. Do we find ourselves, as Mr. Contstant mentions more than once, comfortable with these ballads of "cow-punching," or do we more closely resemble the way that (as Ian Halbert wrote in these pages) T.S. Eliot flees from the cow?