Poem on Range: Cowboys Philosophize
Cowboy poets swapped rhymes on everything from the creation of the Earth to Washington politicians in a unique celebration of life on the range.
About 300 poets from every Western state took part in the four-day Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which ended Saturday in this ranch town 290 miles east of Reno, Nev.
Some of the rhymers of the range produced tears with poems on the hardships of ranch life, while others brought laughter with homespun humor on a wide range of subjects.
Baxter Black, one of the most celebrated cowboy poets, told the tale about his inner turmoil over science and religion. He said he grew up a Baptist but couldn’t figure out how carbon dating and dinosaurs jived with Genesis.
“How could God create the world in seven days?” he asked. His answer: God must have operated on cowboy time. The punch line of his ballad has God telling his working angels: “We’ll create the world in seven days no matter how long it takes.”
Black, a former veterinarian who now devotes his time exclusively to poetry, also told the tale about the difficulty of delivering a calf one day. It turns out a cocky buckaroo ended up with the calf and a lot more on him when he offered to do it himself.
From puzzling over tax returns to getting his wife to help push-start his pickup, Rodney Nelson’s perfectly timed tales of ranch life also lit up the hall.
“In rural America we have to sort of make up our entertainment as we go along,” the Almont, N.D., man said.
Gwen Petersen of Big Timber, Mont., provided a woman’s point of view when she told of the hazards cowgirls faced if they failed to buckle up their bras before riding out on the range.
On the serious side, she related a true ballad of a Western woman, whose love of the land saw her through the death of a child. Her account of her husband’s blindness and subsequent death caused many in the crowd to openly weep.
Listeners broke into laughter when Charlotte Thompson, who lives in Crescent Valley near Battle Mountain, Nev., offered a womanly confidence called “Corral Number Five.” Here’s an excerpt:
You’ve seen those kind of women
With every hair in place.
They’re always dressed up fancy
In their pearls and silk and lace. . .
One day I dressed up fancy
In my nylons and a dres s --
And then we calved six heifers
In about six hours or less. . . .
But Avon isn’t calling me
And I thank Gosh alive
For my perfume. It’s on my boots.
It’s Corral Number Five.
Another humorous poet, Don Kennington of Utah, said a trip to the nation’s capital inspired the following topical verse:
This government’s the darndest thing
They pay for grain that ain’t....
They say they need a beef supply
To help the country thrive,
But then they pay for grain that ain’t.
Why, goodness sakes alive!
Kennington wasn’t the only cowboy poet to see the funny side of a tough situation. Four other poets filled a whole hour with their wry verses during a session called “It Didn’t Seem Funny at the Time.”
Upwards of 7,000 visitors have jammed this northeastern Nevada town of 13,000 for the event. The area’s 40 motels were booked for weeks. Ten-gallon hats dotted Railroad Avenue and Commercial Street, and more spilled out of the Branding Iron Bar.
The cowboys donned fancy duds for the gathering--broad-brimmed Stetsons, silver buckles and handmade pointy toed boots--but their sunburned faces, calloused hands and faraway gaze told their own tales of hard and solitary lives.
One such poet was Waddie Mitchell, who runs 2,000 head of cattle on a ranch near Jiggs. Before he came to the gathering, he had to make sure there was enough hay put out and find a baby-sitter for his five children.
Mitchell began writing verse during long winters on the range. Like most cowboy poets, he didn’t show his work to many people because poetry didn’t quite fit the cowboy image.