What Spurs Cowboy Poets?

Cowboy Dude Poet

I like this portrait photo (even though I didn’t take it) because of the extra-dude style dress and mustache, and because the poet looks both glad and anxious as he is about to step out onstage and present his compositions before a roomful of mostly strangers.

PHOTOS CREDITS: Microsoft Office Clip Art
TEXT: © 1997, 2011, 2015 By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS: Next Friday and Saturday (February 27-28), Sul Ross State University here in Alpine will host its 29th annual “Cowboy Poets Gathering”. There are a few other similar gatherings, notably at Elko, Nevada, and Lewistown, Montana—both of which antedate Alpine’s by a year or two.

Although I claim to be a poet, I have never attended any of the several recitations and musical events associated with the event, which has drawn attendees from around the world. Over the past decade, however, I have gotten up before dawn to go down to “Poets Grove” each of the two mornings to chat with the cooks and drink some of the coffee prepared over one of several wooden fires in holes dug in the ground. By the time the breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage, biscuits, gravy and orange juice is ready, a very long line of hungry participants and attendees has developed. My early arrival entitles me to a place at the front of the line.

Back in 1997, while I was a reporter for the Alpine Avalanche, I wrote the following article. One of my interviewees was then-Ward County Judge Sam Massey; I had known Sam before he became a county official, when I was editor of the Monahans News. The other locals in the article I knew only on a greeting basis.

So, you are probably wondering why I never went to listen to their poems. Well, the answer is two-fold: (1) although when I was a young boy I had  wanted to grow up to be a cowboy, somewhere during my maturation I resigned myself to the fact that I lived in the 20th and then the 21st centuries, while the cowboy fantasy I had fostered belonged to the late 19th century; and (2) I associated (perhaps erroneously) all cowboy poetry as being of the same caliber as that composed by Robert Service and Edgar Guest, and I wasn’t interested in gagging. But those folks enjoy writing it, reciting it and hearing it…and they have a right to enjoy it. Perhaps you will, too. Anyway, please enjoy the article below.
— BL

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What makes a cowboy — or cowgirl — poet get involved in writing and recitation? Since the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering is coming up this month, we decided to ask a few of them for the genesis of their interest.

Some got into poetry as an offshoot of their music interest. That is certainly true of Alpine’s Mike Stevens and Karen McGuire. “I got started in cowboy poetry because I moved here in ’90 and it was happening,” says Stevens. “Mostly, being a musician, I got in just to play. I realized some of the songs I was doing were old cowboy songs instead of folk songs, especially Blue Mountain. After I sang it here, Buck Ramsey came out with an album with the title song My Home It Was In Texas — the first line from Blue Mountain. The song’s really about a mountain in Utah — pretty old, obscure song.

“The ‘Gathering’ was just another musical, fun outlet. After I had been around it a while, I wrote a poem. Actually, it was easier than writing a song because you don’t have to write the music.

“I admire some of the really good poets. To me, Joel Nelson is the best. He and his wife, Barney, started the ‘Gathering’ in ’87, one year after the Elko, Nevada, thing started. I like Joel’s subject matter, and his delivery is unaffected and impeccable. Breaker and the Pen, about the first person dealing with any horse, is a favorite.”

Karen McGuire has been participating in the “Gathering” ever since it started ten years ago. She participates along with her mother, Nessye Mae Roach of Fort Davis, and recites as much of Nessye Mae’s poetry as her own. In fact, reciting cowboy poetry and singing traditional cowboy songs are pretty much of a family vocation. “My sister, Linda, writes,” says McGuire. “Bunny (another sister) hasn’t written any, but she sings with us. She has a beautiful high tenor voice. My son, Chisum, writes a little bit, too.”

McGuire wrote her first cowboy song — The Cowboy’s Three R’s (roping, riding and rambling) — when she was a freshman in college.  “It’s just a part of me,” she says. “I’ve been writing songs and poems since I was little.”

Although Stevens has composed several songs over the years, he’s written only two poems thus far.  “I wrote about my first experience on a big ranch — the o2 — shortly after I moved here,” he recalls. “The o2 was pretty wild then — wild cattle.

“It was a new experience for me because my background had been in arena roping and horse shows. My father being a cowboy, I grew up roping calves, but they were in a pen. We only had a hundred and sixty acres, so it wasn’t like you gathered them.” That first poem was called o 2 A Maverick. “At that time there were a lot of mavericks down there spread over about two hundred and seventy-five thousand acres,” he says.

Stevens’ other poem is about his father’s saddle, made in 1948 by M.L. Leddy of San Angelo.  “It was a big event when it showed up at our house,” Stevens recalls. “He still uses it, probably his dream saddle. It’s been well taken care of. You can tell it’s never been thrown in the back of a pickup.”

McGuire’s subject matter is basically the same as other cowboy poets, only shorter. “They write longer, ballad-type poems,” she notes. Primary themes are the love between a man and a woman, the cowboy’s love for the land, and his animals. “It’s always more about honor and respect when they’re out riding rather than how good they are at what they do,” she explains. “The only time I’ve heard a cowboy brag was when he was talking about his horse. They like to see their animals shine.”

As for the versification styles, Stevens says thus far he has been writing in a “uniform” rhymed style because that’s the way he writes his songs. “I like the other styles, more like free verse,” he says, “but you have to hone those skills. I have more of an idea of the music I want to do than the poetry. At this point I’m just happy to mimic the styles of others.”

As for McGuire, she is satisfied with the take-it-as-it-comes approach. “I’m always looking at the words, if they come from the heart,” she says. “I think most of the cowboy poets don’t look to see how it’s going to rhyme. It’s just something that needs to be said and it flows right out — just a story that needs to be told or a memory that needs to be recalled.”

McGuire says she usually recites about three poems a session. Three of her favorites, which she will probably recite at this “Gathering”, are Just Another Rider, a poem her mother wrote about her own teenage years near Big Lake; Vaquero Puro, a poem by Chisum about Ben Morrow of the McIntyre-Morrow Ranch; and an untitled poem of her own about the stick horse and the pony of her childhood.

“One of the things I like about the ‘Gathering’ is that they have a session for young people,” says McGuire. “I think it’s important to keep that going because the young people can show their abilities and talents, and it’s a good way to insure that cowboy poetry will stay alive for many years.”

A cowboy poet with more experience than either Stevens or McGuire is Wickett rancher Sam Massey. He came to Alpine on business in 1987 and saw the sign about the “Gathering” in front of Sul Ross. “I stopped in to see what they were doing and enjoyed it,” he recalls. “I wrote a poem on the back of an envelope on the way home and said, ‘I can do that!’ and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Massey has written seventy to eighty poems since that first “Gathering” ten years ago and is a regular reciter.  “I missed it only one year,” he says, “and my daughter read my poems then, so I was represented.”

Massey, who says he spends about fifty hours a week ranching and fifty hours serving as Ward County Judge, is a son and grandson of ranchmen. In fact, Massey’s grandfather spent his early years cowboying and raising horses for the U.S. Army. In 1917, he bought his first ranch in Ward County and established the town of Wickett. Both grandfather and father bought, renovated and then sold ranches in several states, mostly Texas and New Mexico. Both also ventured into other occupations during drought years. “My dad droughted out in the ’50s and had to sell the cattle and go work on a pulling unit in the oil patch for about ten years,” Massey recalls. “Then it started raining in ’57 and ’58, and he went back to ranching.”

During the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, Massey’s grandfather would drive his Model T truck from Wickett to Fort Davis, pick up a load of apples, and carry them to Midland to sell. “They had to take the apples out of the truck when going through creeks and carry them up the hill and go on,” says Massey. “It took a long time to get to Midland.”

Such experiences provide much of the material for Massey’s poems.  One of his favorite poems is about his father’s adventure with the Davis Mountain Orange Juice. “My father and I went on a Hereford tour in the Davis Mountains,” he recalls. “At an early morning breakfast he got into a bunch of Screwdrivers and Bloody Marys. “Being a teetotaler, he didn’t realize what it was.  He drank about five or six ‘orange juices’ (he thought) and came over to me and said, ‘That Davis Mountain orange juice is a sure cure for rheumatism!’”

Massey describes his poetry as ‘gentle stuff’ — family and the ranch, stories that have been passed down through the years from family members and friends, and personal experiences.  “What I write about is generally not as wild and woolly as some guys do. I don’t write about wrecks — like getting a roped calf tangled around a tree. Wrecks do happen, but I try to avoid them and when they do happen I don’t like to tell about them, although I do enjoy hearing the other fellows when they tell about them.”

A favorite poem — both for Massey and for his audiences — is one called Trailer Lights.  “It’s about a poor guy who is trying to haul his stock down the highway at night after being out on ranch roads for a long time,” Massey relates. “Everything is shaken loose on his trailer, and the lights won’t work and he ends up getting a ticket.”

One he wrote about his wife relates her episode with a rattlesnake in the yard while Massey was away from the ranch. “She was afraid to get close to him,” he says. “She took a shovel out of the pickup and threw it at him and cut his head off. I end it by saying I think it’s kind of neat a lady can take care of herself when she needs to.”

Although Massey recalls some prosody terms from his college years, he resembles Stevens and McGuire in that he doesn’t worry about complicated rhyme schemes. “I do it all sorts of ways,” he explains. “A lot of it is rhyming the second and fourth lines of a stanza, but some of the best poems I’ve done is rhyming the first and second lines of a three-line stanza and then having the third  line of the second stanza rhyme with the third of the first stanza:

It’s a wonder to me, A mystery, you see, Why stock trailer lights won’t stay lit. We patch ’em with wire, Change bulbs then in ire, We watch ’em burn bright when they sit.

Massey doesn’t claim to be a cowboy in the sense that most cowboy poets are. “I’m a good ranchman but only a tolerable cowboy. I don’t ride as much as these real cowboy poets. To me, that’s work, a tool of the trade. I’ve got a poem about how the cowboy doesn’t make much money but he’s free  to do what he wants to, while the ranchman is married to the bank.”

Like Stevens and McGuire, Massey says he gets as much or more out of the camaraderie at the “Gathering” as he does out of sharing his poetry. “I enjoy the fellowship and the fact that it’s not competitive — no awards given,” he says. “You can enjoy everyone, from the amateurs to the professionals.”

I like this photo, despite the hidden face of the poet,because it appears to show him in a dramatic gesture, like he's really got his heart into the performance. Also, the  mesquite tree and bright sunlight in the background resonate as a Texas scene, although it could be in New Mexico.

I like this photo, despite the hidden face of the poet, because it appears to show him in a dramatic gesture, like he’s really got his heart into the performance. Also, the trees and bright sunlight in the background resonate as a Texas scene, although it could be in New Mexico.

— Alpine Avalanche, February 13, 1997

Finis

NOTE TO NON-BLOGGER READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to read any comments or helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page above the title of this post. Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it. Thank you for reading. BL

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