"In the Bad Lands," by Thomas Eakins.

High Lonesome: A Dispatch from the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Does the History of Western Poetry Begin with Sheep?

By  Michael Ursell

I’ve heard Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” twice already since I landed in Elko, and I think I might be hearing it again in the Star Hotel. This place and its restaurant opened in 1910 to cater to a northern Nevada Basque immigrant clientele who shepherded here. Now, its big neon sign is a beacon on top of a two-story box of a building for folks in town for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

There are a lot of us. I’ve only ever been here at this time of year, so the scene is just as I remember it: standing-room only and loud, with all red-vinyl bar stools occupied. There’s a lodge feel, with dark wood paneling, decades-old framed pictures, paintings of horses everywhere, and a tin ceiling in the dining room. Bartenders line up picon punches—the potent, unofficial drink of the Gathering—on the bar and hand them out as fast as they can. There are meaty handshakes and back slaps and everyone seems happy to have returned to this place for the weekend festivities.

Singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliot waits for a table for at least an hour with everybody else. He’s a New York surgeon’s son who left the city at 15 in the 40s to join a rodeo and learn to cowboy. Later, he became a student of Woodie Guthrie and a legendary folk singer in his own right as well as close friends with Johnny Cash. He’s here for the Gathering too, one of thousands of people who make the annual trip to the remote Great Basin town every winter. Jack was not born a cowboy. But earlier in the day he sang a raw cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice,” and nobody in the room doubted his authenticity. It was the kind of performance that draws people to Elko.

Jack was not born a cowboy.

The event has come here for 35 years, but it feels much older. At moments, it seems like 1884, when the trail drives were still happening, moving cattle across Texas towards railheads that took them to cities like Chicago. The genre was first published in that era, with Lysius Gough self-publishing 1,000 copies of his verse “composed on the trail in 1882.” Conventions established themselves soon after: rhyming couplets, colloquialisms, and heavy rhythm. (Think Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”) But cowboy poetry is more contemporary than it wants you to believe. Hal Cannon—folklorist, cowboy poetry anthologist, and one of the Gathering’s founders—tells attendees in his keynote, “National Cowboy Gathering, here’s to the next 35. Even as we count the years, you exist outside of time.”

*

At the Star, food courses come in predictable waves: cabbage soup with thick slices of bread, Caesar salad with so much garlic it stings, two kinds of beans, plus green beans, and spaghetti. You get it all, family style, usually followed by a massive cut of steak or lamb.

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Back in the kitchen, there’s one table left open for the hotel’s boarders, Basque men, descendants of shepherds, or perhaps shepherds themselves. A waitress packs rice pudding into a styrofoam container. She’s taking it to one of the “old guys” on her way home, because he couldn’t make it in tonight.

There is a way of telling the history of Western poetry and its evolutions over a millennia that begins with sheep. It’s based on the ancient Roman poet Vergil’s personal path to success, in which a poet’s career trajectory begins with the pastoral—shepherds singing in hilly landscapes while they tend their flocks and fall in love—passes through agrarian georgics, and lands on nationalist epic poetry, fully accomplished.

Much Cowboy poetry could be called pastoral poetry, which is a slippery genre. New critic William Empson’s influential 1935 reading held that these poems were “about the people” but not “by or for the people,” whether in Virgil or Renaissance poetry like Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender, or even 20th-century proletarian literature. More recently, contemporary, experimental poet Lisa Robertson explained pastoral another way when she improbably resuscitated the seemingly antiquated genre for her own feminist work: “Let’s pretend you ‘had’ a land. Then you ‘lost’ it. Now fondly describe it. That is pastoral.” This gets a little closer to cowboy poetry’s kind of pastoral. Cowboy poetry is loaded with such fond descriptions of a West that no longer exists, that perhaps never really existed, at least not without the dark shadows of colonialism and genocide. At the Gathering, the work of Native American poets like Henry Real Bird or Métis musician Jamie Fox remind us of other ways of having a relationship to the land and alternative histories of that land, while staying within the cowboy poetry genre.

There is a way of telling the history of Western poetry and its evolutions over a millennia that begins with sheep.

*

In the Elko Convention Center, former New Mexico state slam poetry champion Olivia Romo performs poems about sheep herding, water rights, climate change, and corn seed. She weaves together Spanish and English. When she delivers the words “l’aigua es una frontera,” the audience, a mix of ranchers and cultural tourists, seems to know exactly what she means. She recalls the Mexican cowboy or “vaquero,” phonetically rendered into English as “buckaroo.” Vogue Robinson, another slam performer and poet laureate of Clark County, Nevada, is at her first Gathering and in the audience after performing on an earlier panel.

Romo is on a panel titled “New Voices,” joined by Forrest VanTuyl, a youthful, bearded Oregonian poet and songwriter who writes about losing horses to wolves and quotes lines from Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Joshua Dugat, from Texas, rounds out the panel. He can recite “Pied Beauty” (another 19th-century classic) from memory and writes formally complex meditations on rural environments and ranch life.

After several rounds of readings in the Ruby Mountain Ballroom, the poets give up the stage. The next panel, on “Rural Journalism,” features prose writers. They discuss 1,000 layoffs in the media industry the week before, how to report stories on mining and resource extraction, and who gets to tell the story of contemporary rural America. They talk about how hard it is for most of the country to know what’s going on in rural America.

Romo’s ecopoetics seem like one way to learn about what’s going on. Her pastoral is not a fantasy land, but the representation of a charged landscape where her community tries to survive climate change. The sheepherders in her poems are real.

*

The next day, I go to see Joel Nelson. He has been performing at the Gathering since the 1980s. He runs his hand and its swollen knuckles up and down the edge of the podium, measuring time deliberately between poems. He starts with the poem “Ambush,” which plays with the crowd’s expectations from its opening line: “Beside the trail in the A Sầu Valley / My team is lined up motionless.” The poem is set in Vietnam, where Nelson served in his mid-twenties, rather than a 19th-century trail drive or even Nelson’s home ranch in West Texas. This poem, and the ones that follow—others set in Vietnam and love poems to his wife—lack the couplets of his more traditional work, like “Sundown in the Cow Camp,” with its description of a camp cook:

His expression kinda clues you
That his memories have flown
To other camps at sundown
And the cowboys that he’s known.

Nelson doesn’t read “Breaker in the Pen,” about the solitary civilizing force of the horse breaker, but he does talk to the crowd about writing poems on alfalfa feed sacks while breaking horses in Hawaii. He’s self-referential in a poem about wind in West Texas “blowing like a bad poem that goes on way too long.”  He starts to wind down with a poem titled “Definitely Not Cowboy,” an ode to acetylene torch welding.

Poets in the 80s accused him of killing cowboy poetry with his free verse.

John Dofflemeyer, another fixture at the Gathering since the early days, tells me that some of the other poets in the 80s accused him of killing cowboy poetry with his free verse, his refusal to recite from memory, and his insistence on publishing cowboy poets in print in the journal Dry Crik Review. In the late 60s and early 70s, he listened to Leonard Cohen while writing poems. Dofflemeyer said he felt that Gary Snyder’s descriptions of the Sierras gave him permission to write about his own experience of that landscape as a fifth-generation cattleman. Reading Allen Ginsberg helped him develop his own free verse. Of course, this short list of influences obscures the women central to poetic communities of the same era, like Margaret Atwood, whose devastating poem “Backdrop addresses cowboy” appeared in her 1968 collection The Animals in That Country. Even so, the Gathering, whose future is being smartly charted by Kristin Windbigler, executive director of the Western Folklife Center, has long featured women poets and storytellers.

Both Nelson and Dofflemeyer write after the Beats, after Dylan and Cohen, after the Vietnam War, moving along a path that connects the cowboys and the 60s poetry and folk scenes of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. This is where Ramblin’ Jack Elliot fits in, too: the Jewish kid from Brooklyn who was born with the name Elliot Charles Adnopoz until he decided to become a cowboy troubadour.

*

After a full schedule of performances take place, and after the closing Saturday midnight dance, the Gathering breaks up. At the lone terminal of the Elko airport, before 5 a.m. on a Sunday, performers in a single-file line dutifully remove cowboy hats and boots and belt buckles to pass through security, headed for the first flight out of town. For a few more minutes, we are contemporaries, in the same time zone and the same poetic moment.

Michael Ursell
Michael Ursell
Michael Ursell is associate publisher of The Believer, and the manager of development and strategic partnerships at the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.





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