Ropin’ and Rhymin’ : Literature: Good cowboy poetry is like a good chew of tobacco--you can sink your teeth into it. Two Southland poets capture the bittersweet essence of a dying trade.
In his cramped and cluttered Castaic trailer, Les Buffham employs an old Hills Brothers can to make a mild “buckaroo brew"--coffee, that is--and takes sugar in it, something he concedes is for sheepherders, not real cowboys.
But his coffee pretty much describes the 50-year-old trucker: sweet and mild.
On the other side of the Santa Clarita Valley, the spurs worn by Earl Wayne (Duke) Davis ring out as he gives a tour of his Canyon Country townhome with its cow skull and paintings of American Indian life.
With saliva gathering in his mouth from the clump of tobacco chew in his cheek, Davis spits into a yellow plastic container as he pets his dog, Blue, and talks about a favorite pastime, one that he and Buffham share.
They write poetry. Cowboy poetry, of course.
The two are the best-known practitioners of the prose in Los Angeles County, and Buffham, some say, is among the best in the nation. The city of Santa Clarita recently announced plans to host a three-day festival in March dedicated to the poetry and music of the vaqueros , as a way to explore the area’s Western roots. Buffham and Davis intend to be there.
“I never thought of myself as being a cowboy; I was just a kid who grew up on a ranch,” said Buffham, a native of Craig, Colo., whose family still runs cattle there. “Now, being a cowboy is sort of a prestigious thing.”
Prestigious, maybe, but certainly nothing from which one could make a good living. Buffham worked the ranches in Colorado until he needed money, at which point he took up trucking. For a while last year, he lived in Santa Clarita proper, but he couldn’t take the noise.
“It was pure hell,” Buffham said, “what with the dogs yappin’ and the cars going by--I couldn’t do anything.”
Now, he drives a truck for local oil companies digging in the area’s hills and canyons.
Is a cowboy no longer a cowboy
When he’s forced to buck hay or drive truck?
Or when he’s laid up wrapped in plaster
From a run of real bad luck?
Is it when he’s had to sell his old home place
Cause his joints are stiff and snow rests on his head.
Well I’m thinkin’ he’s no longer a cowboy
Only when he’s dead.
Buffham hopes someday to travel around the country and interview the remaining cowpunchers to immortalize their stories.
“The old cowboy way of life is passing,” he noted. “There ain’t many people left doing it, and the ones who are doing it ain’t doing it the way they used to.”
Buffham himself has done some cowboying in his time, as evidenced by his misshapen nose, the legacy of a horse ride gone awry.
“I was just trying her out for a friend of mine and I got a little too cocky,” he said, swaying in a metal rocking chair. “She threw me and I landed on my face, cricked my head and broke my nose.”
Davis, too, has won his stripes as a cowboy.
The 45-year-old native of Schertz, Tex., spends two-thirds of his year with his country-Western music band Duke Davis and Buckshot, and the rest working ranches around Santa Ynez, doing roundups and brandings during the calving season.
“Poetry is just something that goes hand in hand with the cowboy world,” said Davis, petting his prized horse Choppo, named for a song about the ideal steed.
He has written of growing up dreaming of riding “every snuffy old pony” and his poetry sticks close to well-worn features of life on the trail. Titles of his pieces include “Time to Ride,” “It’s Good to Be Alive,” “My Team Ropin’ Pardner” and “The Last Coyote.”
Buffham, in contrast, muses as well about the melancholy that comes as the cowboy’s domain is overrun by modernization. And, since the best of cowboy poetry is based on true-life experiences, not all carries storybook themes--or endings.
In one of Buffham’s poems, “Lonnie’s Blue Heeler,” the cowboy of the title accidentally shoots his dog while aiming a warning shot between the dog and a heifer:
Lonnie turned around with a plumb-dumbfounded look
Jake, he’s just looking down, kicking at the sand.
Lonnie’s standing there with his mouth dropped open,
That smoking rifle in his hand.
Jake cleared his throat and said:
“I guess I’d oughtta told you since I dropped it on the sight?
That old gun has been a shootin’ just a little to the right.”
Such verse is a major part of Western folklore, said David Stanley, an English professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.
“Cowboy poetry, instead of emphasizing individual forms of expression and feeling, expresses the norms of a group, and yet at the same time expresses the artistic talent of the individual,” Stanley said. “This is partly because cowboy life is out of necessity, and also out of preference, a very group-focused occupation.”
Most cowboy poetry, Stanley said, is very traditional in form, even old-fashioned, tending to rhyme and have a regular rhythm, most written in ballad form. But that is changing, just as cowboy life is changing, Stanley said.
“We are seeing more and more free verse and other modern forms in cowboy poetry, and we’re also seeing a lot of attention to contemporary issues, such as the plight of Vietnam vets,” he said.
The first published cowboy poetry, Stanley said, dates to the 1890s, but the craft probably goes back several more decades, with much of the early poetry borrowing heavily from sailor poetry.
“Cowboy poetry is not now and has never been a simple form that praises good horses and laments fallen comrades,” said Stanley, who is editing a book of essays on cowboy prose. “There has always been much more variety, and the play of language within the poetry is incredibly complex and very often tremendously witty.”
Among today’s cowboy lyricists, said Rudy Gonzales, publisher of American Cowboy Poet magazine, Buffham is one of the best.
“He’s won the respect and admiration of cowboy poets wherever he has gone,” said Gonzales, who started the 20,000 circulation magazine in 1988. “Cowboy poetry, when it is done properly, portrays the cowboy heart and experience, and Les Buffham does it right.”
But in a poem called “The Hat,” about his start as a cowboy, Buffham wonders why anyone pursues the hard toil of the ranch.
There were lots of long hard winters
Sorting cows and pitching hay.
Wondering why I picked this life
Crossed my mind most every day.
There were salt to pack and springs to clean
Setting posts and stretching wire,
And it seemed it took a cord of wood
For fifteen minutes of fire.