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rial Service on Sunday when the President and Mrs. Clinton and Billy Graham and other assorted dignitaries gathered to grieve officially on television. Actually, it was Billy Graham who received top billing in Oklahoma. As one radio host put it, “Billy Graham will be officiating and there will be many others there, including President and Hillary Clinton.” the narrative is a classical Western tory drawn straight from the lives of the participants. Or this is what they would have you believe. Everybody is quick to stress his or her ties to the land, his or her experience in corrals and feed lots and on horseback and in boots. Cowboy poetry, more than any verse I can think of, has its roots in actual work, in the traditions of ranching lore and life. The cowboy poets themselves contrive not to look like working cowboys, however. Most of them are all decked out in the gaudy plumage of the drugstore cowboy. Hats are de rigueur: The code of the cowboy poet begins with a hat. And boots, but here’s the telltale sign of rampant cowboy dandyism: Most wear their jeans or ranch-style pants stuffed in their boots in order to highlight the loud, swirly designs of manly footwear. The effect is sometimes rather shocking, closer to the neon style of pimps and transvestites on Hollywood and Vine rather than actual cowboys and ranchers from gritty places like Guthrie, Oklahoma, or Buffalo Gap, cowboy poets are not shy on stage either. Nor on their license plates. A pickup in the parking lot sported a plate reading “COW POET.” The oral, declamatory nature of the poetry complements the amateur theatrical feel of many sessions. Some of the cowboy poets are actually more musicians than poets, and often the liveliest entertainers are men and women who can yodel like Jimmie Rodgers and sing like Gene and Roy. In this West all clocks are set to Standard Nostalgia Time. Since sessions are staged concurrently, it is possible to drift in and out of simultaneous entertainments \(drifting being an honhearing a snatch of verse here, a scrap of song there, an entire session here, a fraction of one there. Six hours of wall-to-wall poetry can make a man restless. And it really doesn’t matter much which session you’re in because the tropes and themes are virtually identical, part of a continuously recycled threnody of observation, sentiment, rhyme and gesture. Cowboy poetry is a brand of performance poetry, a kind of folk art that has its own rules and conventions that go back to the beginnings of cowboy poetry in the late 19th century and continue to the present. Cowboy poetry is conservative in that it wants to preserve both a tradition and a way of life. It is almost entirely an outdoor poetry and its values derive from living and working on the land. According to one of its best poets, Wallace McCrae, cowboy poetry “is not abstract or impressionistic; it’s not religious preaching. It hinges on a cultural tradition: It’s about a man and a horse following a cow.” Everything about cowboy poetry sounds familiar, everything has been said a thousand times before. In his 1939 classic of range life, We Pointed Them North, Teddy Blue Abbott recalled how quickly “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” wore out its welcome: “It was a saying on the range that even the horses nickered it and the coyotes howled it; it got so they’d throw you in the creek if you sang it. I first heard it along about ’81 or ’82, and by ’85 it was prohibited.” It’s entirely appropriate that cowboy po “Oklahoma and other Westerners do not give in to terrorism. We do not intimidate easily.” etry came to the forefront during the Reagan years. The first gathering of cowboy poets, at Elko, Nevada, in 1985, launched a movement so popular that this year there will be 48 cowboy poetry gatherings, ranging from predictable sites like Round Rock, Texas, to Pincher Creek, Alberta, and to a town named Capon Bridge, West Virginia, the eastern-most site. Reagan’s favorite poet was Robert Service, the literary equivalent of Reagan’s favorite president, Calvin Coolidge. A narrative poet, Service told in ringing rhythms stories of Alaskan mining camps and saloons. Reagan, it is reported, could give a mean rendering of such fare as “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”: “A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon.” Behind Service lay Rudyard Kipling, the manly poet of empire and barracks life. Kipling and Service are good poets, better than literary snobs who haven’t read their work might think. To like them is to be a square, but Reagan didn’t care. He was an unreconstructed square, still another reason he was so popular. Westerners are squares and proud of it, and cowboy poetry is the squarest verse of all. Of the types of performance poetry in our time, only cowboy poetry is work-specific, work-oriented. This is highly important in recognizing the populist basis of cowboy poetry. At the National Cowboy Hall of Fame you could always tell who the real cowboys and ranchers were because, off stage, they all talked about the same thing: whether the other had gotten any rain or not. Almost nobody had \(though, ironically, it rained hard all that day in Oklahoma City, hampering the gruesome work jp B. ALLEN FROM WHITEFACE, Texas, was one of the few poets I heard at the Cowboy Hall of Fame who actually looked the part of a real cow boy. He wore jeans, a denim jacket, a Western shirt, boots without the pants leg stuffed in them, and a hat creased just right and worn so low that his eyes were like slits beneath the brim. He recited only one poem \(and that’s another thing about cowboy po title was “Saddlin’ Up,” and it spoke only of the pleasures of work. Cowboy poets constantly write about building fences, tending cattle, roping and performing other pastoral duties. Many poems celebrate ani mals, a loyal dog, a skillful cutting horse, a favorite cow. One “lady cowboy poet,” as she called herself, read a humorous poem, “Kamakazi Cow,” about a mean bovine. Cats don’t get much play in cowboy po etry, but pigs, oddly enough, do. To a cow boy, there is apparently something inher ently funny about simply putting the word pig in a poem. I heard several poems about pigs. One of them was about a pig who took to sucking a cow’s teats. This led the poet, a woman, to use the word “tittie” with a slightly salacious titter, and it was one of the few blue notes that I heard at the gath ering. Cowboy poetry is scrupulously decorous, except for the outright obscene, but that is another story, one already told in Guy Logsdon’s The Whorehouse Bells Were Ringing. In such poems the Chisholm Trail becomes the “jism” trail, and so on. A number of presenters, as they were called, referred to the tragedy, and a por tion of the proceeds had been designated for relief funds. One poet, with an astound ing number of volumes to his credit-138, the program saidwas a medical doctor who came to the gathering for “therapy.” A sheriff’s car had driven him to the site from the morgue downtown where he had been on duty since the morning of the bombing, and when he concluded his recital of poetry he was scheduled to return to his grim task. There is a star system among cowboy poets. The three brightest stars are Baxter Black, often heard on National Public Radio; Waddie Mitchell, famous for his sweeping handlebar mustache; and Wal lace McCrae, author of the wildly popular and clever little classic, “Reincarnation.” None of them were present at this gather ing, but the man generally held to be num ber four and moving up fast, Red Steagall, from Azle, Texas, was there to headline the event. Guy Logsdon, who introduced Stea gall, drew a connection between the THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23