This is a guest post by Karen Wang, a Young Readers Center intern who is currently pursuing an MLIS at Pratt Institute.
What do kids think of when they think of a poet? Do they imagine someone sitting at a desk, scribbling in a notebook, or a performer on stage at a poetry slam? Have they ever imagined a cowboy riding a horse across the land and then taking a break by the campfire? If you share this with the kids in your life and find they are surprised, you can share that there is actually a long history of cowboy poets in the United States—and the tradition is still alive today.
Cowboy poetry dates back to the late nineteenth century when cowboy crews embarked on long-distance cattle drives across the West. These journeys could last up to six months, and the crew would entertain themselves by singing and playing music, telling stories, and composing songs and poems.
These poets drew inspiration from their lifestyle and their diverse cultural backgrounds. Typical crews included vaqueros from Mexico and south Texas, formerly enslaved African Americans from the South, Anglo-American Texans, travelers from the East and Europe, and sometimes Native Americans. Many of the earliest cowboy poems and songs were in Spanish—including the oldest known cowboy ballad (from the 1860s-1870s), “El corrido de Kiansis” about a group of vaqueros on the cattle trail to Kansas.
In the 1800s, when cowboy poetry began, many cowboys could not read or write, and it was a point of pride to recite long verses from memory. Today, cowboy poetry continues to be an oral tradition, with performers coming together at various events across the West and around the country; several cowboy poets have even performed at the Library of Congress!
Check out D.W. Groethe’s ode to strong coffee at the 19:08 mark and his love song to meat at 46:36 (Maybe he was hungry while he sang?). Or watch Grammy-nominated musician Don Flemons perform Black cowboy songs from the Library’s archive in this program recorded in 2020. At 15:35, Flemons plays a song from a Black cowboy, Charlie Willis, “Goodbye Old Paint.” Flemons has also written and performed the song “Steel Pony Blues,” based on the life of Nat Love, a formerly enslaved African American who became a cowboy after the Civil War.
Now that you’ve explored the diverse history of cowboy poetry, will that change the way you picture cowboys? What is the “typical American cowboy” in movies and TV shows (such as Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West” shows starting in 1883), and how do those images differ from what you now know about cowboying? To explore more about the realities of cowboying, explore the Backaroos in Paradise and The American West 1865-1900 collections.
There are no strict rules to writing cowboy poetry, and it can reflect all kinds of experiences! It can rhyme, but it doesn’t have to. It can be funny and light-hearted or serious and dramatic. It can be about a great adventure or an everyday routine. The key to cowboy poetry is to create a mood and an experience with words that reflect what it means to cowboy.
So, for National Poetry Month, you can try writing cowboy poetry together. Ask kids to close their eyes and imagine they’re outdoors on the open plain, or use these images of cowboys, cowgirls, and the American West in the Library’s collection from photographer Carol Highsmith, these images of cowboys in the 1930s by Arthur Rothstein, or this image of cowboys at a “mess wagon” in Utah or Colorado in the early 1900s for inspiration. Or if you live in this region, head out to an open space for your imagining! Try to describe the environment around you, focusing on your senses:
- What do you see? Mountains rising over the plains? A bright moon shining down on the ranch?
- What do you smell? The scent of fresh grass? A campfire about to burn out?
- What do you hear? Hoofbeats on the ground? The babbling of a nearby river?
- What do you taste? A cold drink of water to strengthen you on the road? Your last home cooked meal before a long journey?
- What do you feel? The warm sunshine on your face? The cool night breeze as the stars emerge?
Your poem doesn’t need to include a story—you can start just by describing a place or a common part of cowboy life, like Buck Ramsey’s poem “Anthem” (written in 1993):
I lived in time with horse hoof falling;
I listened well and heard the calling
The earth, my mother, bade to me,
Though I would still ride wild and free.
And as I flew out on the morning
Before the bird, before the dawn,
I was the poem, I was the song…
You can also write poetry from the perspective of another kind of job, such as a fishing or factory work (known as “occupational poetry”). For example, watch this conversation about cowboy poetry and occupational poetry to guide you (start at 21:00): Veterans History Project Art Showcase: Occupational Poetry.This poem by Bruce Kiskaddon explores the smells and sights of cowboying, and can serve as inspiration for kids. It is recited starting at 55:29:
It’s likely that you can remember
A corral at the foot of a hill
Some mornin’ along in December
When the air was so cold and so still.
When the frost lay light as a feather
And the stars were just blinked out and gone.
Remember the creak of the leather
As you saddled your horse in the dawn.
Here are some more significant moments in this recording:
- 37:08 – Meezie Hermansen (fisher poet) on communication and expression of the universal within the context of a specific occupation: “We all have that thing that may be particular to us, but when you look at it, people can relate to… Even if I speak to something that’s particular, I try to do it in a way that draws people in and makes it a shared experience.”
- 46:51 – “Tools of the Trade” poem by Meezie Hermansen (fisher poet), connecting the uniqueness of her father’s homemade tools with the pride we should all feel in being our unique and authentic selves.
- 1:20:48 – “First at the Face” poem by Jerry Brooks (miner poet), describing the coal mining experience.
Imagine yourself in the role of cowboy or any other work, ask yourself the same questions about what you see, smell, hear, etc. and start describing your surroundings.
When you’re done, share your poetry with others, or with us in the comments. We look forward to reading your creations!