Where Have All The Cowboys Gone: National Cowboy Poetry Week

Apr 18, 2011

Howdy! Got cattle wranglin' on the brain? You just might take a shine to cowboy poetry. If this genre is of interest to you, you're in luck: it's National Cowboy Poetry Week! Here's some info on cowboy poetry and some tips on how to celebrate. Yeehaw!

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By Sarah Wright

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What Is Cowboy Poetry Week?

Though it isn't exactly an established academic discipline, cowboy poetry is certainly a genre unto itself. Defined more by its plaintive, scenic content than any specific meter or melody, cowboy poetry is the product of the American West. National Cowboy Poetry Week is celebrated each year in April, which is the designated National Poetry Month in both the U.S. and Canada. In the U.S., this designation was officially recognized by the Senate in 2003, with bipartisan support from Senators representing Western states.

Gatherings for this celebration typically take place on ranches in states like Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Utah and Montana. Usually, their purpose is to celebrate the past and present of the genre. Some people, particularly those in urban areas, may think that 'cowboy' is an obsolete career in the U.S., and many organizers of Cowboy Poetry Week events want to change this perception. However, it's not just those in the profession that are able to write a good cowboy poem, and many of these events have open poetry composition and reading contests.

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Cowboy Poets In the News

Cowboy poetry became an unexpectedly hot issue in 2011. This formerly obscure genre found itself at the forefront of political debate when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, criticized a budget plan proposed by Republicans. On the Senate floor, Reid mentioned the fact that the budget would force cuts to programs like the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, NV. This gathering is separate from Cowboy Poetry Week, taking place in one area and typically occurring in February.

Unfortunately for the cowboy poets, Reid was criticized in the press for his complaints about budget threats to the event. Conservative talking heads like Michelle Malkin and Sarah Palin mocked Reid's mention of the event as an important one worthy of federal funds. Whether their criticism is appropriate is a matter of opinion, but fortunately for cowboy poetry, the mockery was directed at Reid, not at the genre. However, this kind of negative attention was not entirely welcome in a relatively small and obscure community. Luckily, though, National Cowboy Poetry Week is an event that is privately funded, shielding it from any political media scandal.

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How To Celebrate Cowboy Poetry Week

Even if you're a city slicker, there's still a chance that you've got the spirit of a cowpoke. Whether or not you have a Stetson hat to dust off, you can still get in the spirit of celebration. If you don't live close to any official events for Cowboy Poetry Week, here are some ideas to make your own celebration:

  • Write your own poems! Read up on some famous cowboy poets, like Baxter Black and Frank Maynard, to get a sense of the style.
  • Invite some friends over for a cowboy poetry reading. If you or someone you know is handy with a guitar, get the tablature for songs like 'Streets of Laredo' and 'Git Along Little Dogies' and arrange a campfire sing along.
  • Read up on the history of the Old West. Writers who've addressed the topic include historian Richard Slotkin and researcher Harold Nash Smith. There is plenty of non-fictional literature about this region and period in U.S. history.
  • If you're feeling a bit more romantic than scholarly, check out one of the many works of fiction that involve cowboys. Famous entries in this genre include Lonesome Dove, a novel by Larry McMurty that was made into a TV-miniseries, and any number of the many western movies starring John Wayne.

If all this talk about poems has made you hungry for more, why not check out some poetry blogs?

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