October 27, 2020

Cowboy Poets


What with all the ugly things I’ve said about cowboy poets over the years, together with the even worse things I’ve written about their zany poetical flounderings, I thought I had ’em folded, stapled, and mutilated, boxed in from any further mischief, cadged from inflicting any more pain than they already have on a world that has had to put up with their rhymed nonsense and tortured meters. But they’ve rallied recently and seem more determined than ever to defy decency, manners, and good taste in the mistaken belief they are adding something to a world literature of which they appear blithely unaware to be already burdened with inconsequential, non-essential maunderings.

Exactly why a bunch of cows and an open range inspire the muse in a man and stir him up to flights of rhymed nitwiterie is a mystery that absolutely defies explanation. My hunch is that it is something of a mental game to be played while trailing cattle, eating the dust of strays rounded up and herded together. In the same way, words are rounded up and herded together; words whose only virtue is that they rhyme with others in a closed-circuit vocabulary, and the whole thing fitting together in some rhyme scheme or another, discounting the fact that proper syllabication is as foreign as Lebanese and therefore about as useful as an atheist at a tent meeting.

In addition to being a mind game, there is, I suppose, more of a romantic link with the past at work here. Cowboys are often thought to be sage-bound knights questing against all odds; men whose valor is tested again and again and whose heroic disregard for weather and harsh conditions is tantamount to living the chivalric code. However true that may be, I don’t recall that Lancelot or Sir Gawain went about poeticizing their adventures or themselves. No, they and Arthur and Galahad left the flummery to bards and singers who had use and mastery of words and the idle time in which to shape them.

Now, I must acknowledge that the people who commit cowboy malfeasance are, more often than not, the sort you might be tempted to loan money to in the belief you stood a chance of getting it back. Most are genuinely nice people whose one lapse of judgment could be forgiven them if the results were not so odious. Not to labor the point, but we’re in about the same situation as the fellow who found skunks to be cute and their whole species handsome except that the results of meeting one lead him to wonder if he might not want to avoid encountering another one. All poets appear to be an ocean view short of a beach resort, and every cowboy poet I’ve met provides a test case. As I say, they’re generally sociable people, honest and hard working, but these latter superlatives do little to militate against the dis-ease engendered by their work nor cause you to invite them to lengthen their stay.

But, as I said, the bovine rhymers have rallied recently following a depressed period when it seemed mercifully possible their natterings would cease altogether. That hope died when the Prescott chapter of C.P.’s, meeting in salubrious celebration of their questionable achievements, conceived the idea of organizing a chapter in Sedona, near neighbor of the small island kingdom of Doodlebug. And what makes this interesting is that there isn’t a cow to be had in Sedona! Not one! Oh, there are quite a number of wannabee poets who can remember what a cow looks like and who have enough imagination to place themselves at the head of great trailing herds, or in death-defying shootouts in cheesy saloons, or opening new territory where vicious men and even more vicious weather provide grist for rhymed culpabilities. But the accommodation made possible by the presence of an actual cow just is not in the cards. Still, there is soon to be a chapter of C.P.’s nearby, and the thought frightens me. Civilization, after all, is in question. It has withstood fire, war, plague and the pestilential harangues of religion, but can it bear up under this kind of test? I worry it can’t.

Poets have, from time to time, asked if they might be privileged to respond to my criticisms, and have pointed out that fairness might include publishing their response in my Doodlebug paper and in this column. Now, fairness might do well for the short term. However, I take the longer view of things. The material interests of civilization, not to mention its sanity and actual survival, militate against it. Besides, when I’m in a tight corner and my pronouncements regarding right and wrong are challenged, I can be as mule-headed as a Baptist preacher debating the question of original sin. And no one can lay over that!

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