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Western attractions: Poetry at day’s end

Courtesy Charlie Ekburg/Sweetlight Photography

ELKO, Nev. — When 19th-century cowboys were out on the trail for weeks or months at a time driving cattle, they had plenty of time to think, and they often put their thoughts and feelings into the form of poetry, most often recited around campfires at the end of a long day.

“They were about the lives of the people who wrote them, their experiences about driving cattle, about horses, about cooking on the trail,” said Darcy Minter, external communications director for the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nev.

“It was an oral tradition mostly in those days. The poems were later written down and passed along through generations and are still being recited today.”

The Western Folklife Center sponsors the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, a weeklong celebration of the rural West that includes numerous recitations of historic and contemporary cowboy poetry.

“People are continuing to write their own poetry,” said Minter. “Nowadays it is about similar subjects but different, because ranching and cowboying have changed quite a bit. The themes are about land, animals, weather, the kinds of activities that happen on a ranch and in cowboys’ lives.

“It is a very accessible kind of poetry. It used to have a very set rhyme and meter, but nowadays they are writing in free verse; the sky’s the limit.”

Poets gather

The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, started in 1985, is the oldest and largest of its kind in the country, said Minter. It also includes workshops, ranch tours, discussions about contemporary ranch issues and music.

“There is as much music at the gathering as poetry,” she said. “They are very closely related.”

Minter said the poems are nearly always recited from memory, not read, and the presentation is a key part of the show. “It is a performance,” she said. “It is not like a poetry reading at your local bookstore. It is more energetic and theatrical.”

The Western Folklife Center preserves the various cultures of the West and includes artwork and exhibits about those cultures and about cowboy poets.

“Our mission is to present contemporary ranching culture as it truly exists without any rose-colored glasses —  the real deal,” said Minter. “We are very serious about authenticity.”

For more Western attractions:

As cowboy as you can get
Western art has an eternal quality
Poetry at day’s end