Cowboy poetry flourished in the late 1800s with the long, monotonous days of longhorns dragging from Texas to northern shipping points and later to establishing permanent ranches in the northern Dakotas, Montana, and Canada. The poetry was composed by trail hands to entertain each other or to impress a young “filly” when they arrived at a trail head town. The first cowboy songs also came out of it, at first sung “a cappella”.
It was revived after a long demise in the 1980s, resulting in the first-ever annual national cowboy poetry gathering in Elko, Nevada, in 1985. Regional, state, and local gatherings followed. I founded the Dakota Cowboy Poetry Gathering in 1987, hosted in Medora, ND, showcasing talent from a dozen upper Midwestern states and Canada to become the oldest ongoing regional gathering in the nation, which will be our 36th on May 28th. 29.
As an artist-in-residence for the North Dakota Council on the Arts, I went to schools all over the state teaching students how to write poetry. This word repels students, just like me when I was a student. Most don’t like poetry, for others it’s intimidating. My message to them is to write about extraordinary events in and around their own lives and have fun.
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Intimidation? No. If you are writing about events that you witnessed or were involved in, you have become the expert on this poem. A common rule is to coordinate single words to end rhyming statements that have many analogous choices. Don’t put yourself in a corner using fancy swear words from companions with limited rhyme. Use the ones that build up to your climax as adjectives to add flair and explanation. I don’t care if it’s a bit rough or if it contains “Cowboy Slang”, no college graduate with a doctorate in journalism can condemn it or should try to “correct” it. It’s up to you, you were there, and they weren’t.
There are many different versions of English speech in our great country, some longer than others to be accepted by formal teachings. Habitat and regional occupancies are usually the culprits on their basis, whether Appalachian “hillbillies”, northeastern New England pits, southern “drawl”, ethnic origins or “cowboy lingo”. We make history every day of our lives. You can save it in your writing.
Traditional cowboy poetry is rhyming verse, what we jokingly call free “free verse poetry” – because you can’t sell it.
Here are some of the reactions of my students when they were told on Monday that they had to produce a poem on Friday.
“I’ve been there all week.
Now it is at the critical moment.
I’m sitting here like a fool,
And I couldn’t find a single rhyme.
He then wrote an entire poem in rhyming verse about not being able to.
“Roses are red, violets are blue,
Writing a poem is the last thing I want to do.
A third young woman put her feelings to paper, writing:
“I have this secret hiding place,
Who I can talk to when times are bad.
It’s a cove hidden behind the house,
It reassures me when I’m sad.
“I ask him about all my troubles,
About my daily rule friends.
And listen to its speaking waters,
As I sat on a tree trunk stool.
“When the world turned against me,
And everything is bad.
I go down by the talking stream,
And it sings a beautiful song to me.
It was obvious that this young lady was being bullied, but she had a straight head with enough spine and was determined to overcome adversity. Children can be cruel and brutal to each other. More often than not, our child victims turn out to be our best, most productive citizens.