I thank you, Lord, that I am placed so well
that you have made my freedom so complete
That I'm no slave of whistles, clock or bell
nor weak-eyed prisoner of wall and street
Just let me live my life as I've begun
and give me work that's open to the sky
Make me a pardner of wind and sun
and I won't ask for life that's soft or high..."
-- Excerpt from "A Cowboy's Prayer" by Badger Clark
Not to be confused with other Western-ish phenomena like country music, cowboy poetry is a unique manifestation of the cowboy lifestyle. A rich, oral tradition that's been evolving since the days of the Old West, this poetry harkens back to a time when men shared a special connection with the vast open spaces they called home. Sitting around campfires with their companions inspired humorous anecdotes and observations on everyday life that were imbued with solitude, longing and sadness. "The essential elements of this life," says cowboy Bud Strom, co-chairman of the annual Cochise Cowboy Poetry and Music Gathering, "are honesty, integrity and a deep appreciation of what God has created and that the cowboy or rancher is the steward of this life for a short time on Earth." This idea that real cowboys were good, hard-working men who loved God and respected women (even though there were generally none around) has elevated cowboys to a larger-than-life status still revered and written about by many in the cowboy culture.
Although cowboy poetry has remained relatively unchanged for over 100 years, some new themes did appear thanks to outside influences that managed to affect the traditional cowboy way of life. Jack Lamb, aka Cowboy Jack, is not a bona fide cowboy, but a collector and archivist of American cowboy poetry. Lamb explains: "When railroad corrals became the predominant destination of trail drives in the 1880s, the railroad corral began to show up as a topic. When the fences began closing off the range, the cowboy's 'end of a lifestyle' lament began -- and it's still going on today, over 100 years later."
Truck driving became an option when cattle-punching (that is, everything that one does to maintain cattle and prepare them for sale) no longer sustained cowboys year-round, so life-behind-the-wheel themes emerged. Cowboy Jack also asserts that women poets have "transformed the art in terms of subject, delivery and perhaps even form and style."
Though cowgirls and their poetry have been around as long as there have been women toiling on the range, the early female poets never achieved the same status as their male counterparts, mostly because their work was rarely published. One famous exception is Sharlot Hall, whose experiences as a child on the Arizona frontier in the late 1800s inspired prose and poetry that actually made it into print. According to Dee Strickland, aka Buckshot Dot, Hall was probably published because she wrote in a more "acceptable style for ladies."
Georgie Sicking, a contemporary female poet and cowboy in her own right, enjoys a greater following. Poets like Sicking spin their own verses and, as Buckshot Dot explains, "If they are actually hired to care for the cattle, they prefer to be called cowboys" and "female cowboy poets" -- not cowgirl poets. According to Sicking, she earned respect as a cowboy after she had earned respect as a woman. "It's been a tremendous fight," she said, "but I know I have enjoyed the best of two worlds. I know what it is to rope a wild mustang and have him hit the end of the rope, and I know what it is to rock a baby. I think I've truly lived. I'm not ashamed of it."
What makes female cowboy poetry different? Nothing really, most female poets would say. But we can assume that the experiences of women and the way they tell their own stories is, in fact, inherently different, and that will somehow manifest itself in this traditionally male genre. Buckshot Dot maintains that she often writes poems from the male point-of-view, but her poem "Old Hank Morgan's Place" allows for a few more "feminine" lines:
Then he'd swing down from the saddle,
and he'd take me in his arms,
I could smell the scent of buckskin,
see the first bright evening stars.
Then we'd talk and plan and ponder
about things that never came:
How we'd buy a ranch together,
for I would have his name.
Rhyming verse has always been a requisite of cowboy poetry, and the die-hard traditionalists would insist that anything else is just storytelling. Yet "free" verse has made its way into contemporary recitals and many credit the female cowboy poets with this change. Les Siemens, Board Member and Media Advisor to the Cochise Cowboy Poetry & Music Gathering, breaks from the rhyming tradition with an original haiku that was used to promote this year's event:
Grass dry, no water;
Cows broke through the barb-wire fence.
Love that cowboy life!
Many thanks to Francine Robinson, Jack Lamb, Dee Strickland Johnson, Les Siemens, Bud Strom and others on the Web for sharing their knowledge and love of cowboy poetry.