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Poetry Guide: Cowboy Poetry

Cowboy poetry is a form of poetry that focuses on the culture, features and lifestyle of the West, both the Old West and its modern equivalents. It is not defined by any particular scheme or structure, but by subject matter.

Cowboy poetry grew out of a tradition of extemporaneous composition carried on by workers on cattle drives and ranches. After a day of work, cowboys would gather around a campfire and entertain one another with tall tales and folk songs. Illiteracy was common, so poetic forms were employed to aid memory.

Contrary to common belief, cowboy poetry does not actually have to be written by cowboys, though adherents would claim that authors should have some connection to the cowboy life such that they can write poetry with an "insider's perspective".

Typical themes of cowboy poetry include:

The following is a verse from LaVerna Johnson's poem "Homestead", which exhibits traditional cowboy poetry features:

We hear calls of cattle lowing, voices carry on the breeze
As it wanders down the canyon, then meanders through the trees.
While we stop to smell the sage, light shimmers "quakie's" golden leaves,
And it sure feels good to be back home again.

(Note the use of cowboy vernacular such as meander and quakie.)

Though it deals with those who work with livestock and nature, it would be incorrect to categorize cowboy poetry as pastoral. Cowboy poetry is noted for its romantic imagery, but at no time does it sacrifice realism in favor of it.

Few examples of experimental verse are known in cowboy poetry. One argument is that cowboy poetry is meant to be recited and should "sound like poetry". The counter-argument runs that imposing a particular structure on cowboy poetry would move the focus away from the subject matter. Regardless, most cowboy poets stay within more classical guidelines.

Cowboy poetry continues to be written and celebrated today. Baxter Black is probably the most famous, and possibly the most prolific, contemporary cowboy poet. Many cities in the United States have annual "roundups" dedicated to cowboy poetry.

Prominent cowboy poets

Clayton Atkin
Baxter Black
Arthur Chapman
Badger Clark
D.W. Groethe
LaVerna Johnson
Wally McRae
Red Steagal
Hilma Volk
Paul Zarsyski

In addition, Robert W. Service is sometimes classified as a cowboy poet.

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