Sunny Hancock had covered many miles by the time he eased his weary cowboy legs around the chair and sat down. He sighed and gazed into the distance as he gathered himself for the task ahead. Then a grin broke the creases on his weathered face, and the words started tumbling out in a silky Oregon drawl:
I traded for a horse one time
He wouldn't take no beauty prize
Great big long-eared blue roan gelding
Not too bad for weight or size
I had to make some long old circles
And this trader guaranteed
That horse would show me lots of country
And not need too much rest or feed
He said "No this here ain't no kid horse
But he'll pack you up the crick
He will hump up on some occasions
And he has been known to kick
I wouldn't trade him to anyone without having some remorse
But if you're sure enough a cowpuncher, mister
He's your kind of horse.
Hancock was in full flight now, and his audience at the Library of Congress listened raptly as the old cowboy poet rambled through his original poem, "Horse Trade."
Yes, Hancock is a cowboy poet--one of a growing number of rough and ready ropers with a passion for preserving their culture through verse. The art form is getting so popular that cowboys and cowgirls now gather at about 150 different poetry events in the West every year, and it is reaching into the more serious art world.
So while the literati are not necessarily accustomed to the rowdy and rhythmic tales of life in the West, they are filling up the chairs at readings elsewhere in the country, including the one held last month at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
"What was a little radical about our event was that we were trying to cross over two worlds that normally don't come together," said Alan Jabbour, director of the library's American Folklife Center. "I think you found a lot of puzzled reactions from many in the literary community."
Those puzzled reactions, Jabbour said, stem from the unique nature of the poetry. It is written to be recited like a story or fable, rather than read in a book, and makes use of simple rhyme schemes rather than complex poetic elements.
Excerpts from "A Cowboy Reel," by one of the library event's featured poets, Montana resident Paul Zarzyski, is typical of the style:
The real cowboy's rare as hen's teeth,
As watermelons vine-ripened in Alaska-
Extinct as Brontosaurus
On the plains or in the forest
But these purebloods, they'll brashly up and ask ya,
"Ever seen a gen-u-wine, authentic, real cowboy?"
Boredom gave birth to the art of cowboy poetry in the late 1800s, as more and more pioneers began settling in the West without the luxuries so readily available on the other side of the country.
"It was one way to entertain each other when there was no entertainment around," said Hal Cannon, the artistic director of the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nev. "Everyone knew a poem or two."
Poems actually became more popular than songs among cowboys, Cannon said, because they were a much easier form for telling stories and weren't as potentially embarrassing as singing.
While never getting widespread exposure in the literary world, cowboy poetry endured even as the ranks of cowboys dwindled in this century. The art form had spawned a few books and pamphlets that recorded some earlier poems, but a handful of cowboy poets decided something more should be done to preserve their tradition.
The first step came at a folklore gathering at the Library of Congress in 1980, where Cannon, along with a small group of enthusiasts, laid the groundwork for a regional gathering of cowboy poets in Elko.
After five years of fund raising and planning, Cannon hesitantly organized the first cowboy poetry gathering in 1985, worried that the event would fail. Turns out that cowboys, spectators and journalists showed up in droves, spawning numerous gatherings elsewhere and establishing the Elko roundup as a yearly event.
"There was just such a spirit of excitement that these people who didn't know each other could come together with a common interest," Cannon said.
"Somehow its resurgence is linked to the sense that its way of life is at risk," Jabbour said. "It took the initial event to give focus to it and bring it on stage for everybody to contemplate."
That cowboy poetry has become the rage surprises Sunny Hancock. "I thought it was strictly for cowboys and that not many people would identify with it," he said. "But America seems to be on a cowboy kick these days."
Hancock, 63, was a cowboy before he retired, and his poetry was inspired by cowboys he's heard reciting poems his entire life.
"The current cowboy poet is an ambassador; a savior," Zarzyski said. "It's important that we pay tribute to our tradition that we represent."