Rhyming Wranglers: Cowboy Poets of the Canadian West Selected by Ken Mitchell

First a confession: I’m not a huge fan of cowboy poetry.  My academic training in literature and creative writing has made me that city slicker cowboy poets like to make fun of: the guy who barely knows one end of the horse from the other, let alone how to saddle a horse or wrangle anything.  My attempts at herding amount to letting the cats and dogs in and out of the house to do their business, letting them out in the morning, callin’ my “dogies” home at night from the front porch. I’ve ridden horses a handful of times, and once hard-reigned my hoss left and flew right – right into the trunk of a very large, very unforgiving Douglas fir tree.  Ah yes, I know the flora of which I speak: I wore a bruise from hip to thigh for at least a week afterward and hobbled around the Flying U Guest Ranch like Festus Hagen.  Only horse lineament, in fact, broke up the pooled blood and gave me any free range of movement.  My tastes, not surprisingly, tend to lean toward the academic stuff you tend to find in literary magazines and on literary web sites: free verse, long on schemes and tropes, indirection; short on linear narrative expression.

It’s not that I’m averse to the charms of metric verse or a good yarn or ballad though.  Indeed, I often write “form poetry” – mostly light verse for young adults, but occasionally for adults too.  And, of course, like most practicing poets of my generation, I wrote doggerel in my teens modeled after bad teen angst tunes or terribly portentous, tragic, or angry and pretentious rock lyrics.

The more I’ve learned, the more I realize I do not know, and the less dogmatic I get about what I do know.  The crafte so long to learne … and all that.

Most of the cowboy poetry I’ve seen has been no better than the doggerel I wrote in my teens.  The rhymes were forced, or predictable; the lines didn’t scan, or did, with the regular pedantic iambic cadences of a Hallmark gift card; the syntax was tortured, if not contorted or awkwardly reversed in true nineteenth century style; the diction a bad approximation of nineteenth century rural folk speech or fifties duster movie dialogue and country and western lyrics.  But why should I be surprised?  Most rap lyrics suck. Most contemporary free verse blows chunks.  Most of what aspires to art isn’t.

The best cowboy poetry I’ve read has aspired to but seldom equaled the witty whimsy and wonderful accentual-syllabic balladry of Robert Service, in his “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” or “The Cremation Of Sam McGee” (included with another of his lesser known poems here).  It scans, it’s clever, and, better yet, speaks poignantly – if with the delightful country corniness, and insouciant joy and humour – of a justly celebrated but vanishing ranching way of life.

Like much contemporary free verse, the vast majority of it is cliché-ridden and corny.

Ken Mitchell’s accomplishment here then is considerable.  He has doubtless winnowed his way through a pile of dreck to select the best verse lyric and narrative pieces he could find.  He’s given us a chronology of the cowboy poetry sub-genre, reaching back to nineteenth and early twentieth century archival cowboy verse, and placed it where it belongs in the tradition of light verse narrative, ballad, tall tale, shaggy dog story, folk yarn; even gone so far as to show a continuum between what we would recognize as folk art – comparable say to old painted milk pails and weathered door mirrors and wagon wheel driveway markers or chandeliers – and verse satire or truly western rural free verse.

Several of the poets represented are seasoned veterans of the cowboy poetry festival circuit – Elko, Pincher Creek, Maple Creek, etc. – and evince considerable skill with accentual syllabics, wit, timing, and delivery.  What we don’t get in indirection and metaphor we get in spades in hyperbole, ironic leg-pulls, wry (rye?) wit and humour.  You’ll smile a lot reading this book, and, occasionally, break out into lusty guffaws.  Several of the forty or so poets give Robert Service a run for his money, and are as gifted at oral storytelling and verse craft.  Among these poets, fans will recognize pioneers Kate Simpson Hayes, Robert Stead, and Paul Hiebert – to name but a few – and contemporaries Doris Bircham, Neil Meili, and Mike Puhallo from their self-published and trade published books, chapbooks, CDs and circuit performances.

Then there are the contemporaries who are better known for their work in the academic mainstream grove of contemporary letters – Sid Marty, Thelma Poirier, Andrew Suknaski, the editor himself and spoken word diva Sheri-D Wilson – poets I wouldn’t have expected to find here, but who offer good cowboy poetry, free verse “takes” or song lyrics on western ranch life, or satiric take-offs that work well with the versifiers and show extended possibilities within the sub-genre.

Even Corb Lund is included with an alt country lyric.  I would have hoped that John Wort Hannam, who writes better roots music lyrics – some of the best songs in the country, in fact, could have been included, and, of course, I was surprised not to find Susan Vogelaar and others of my acquaintance from southern Alberta, but this, of course, is the necessary evil of anthologies: they generally exclude as many good poets as they include because of restrictions of length, focus and whatnot.

Is this anthology as good as the ones we’ve had so far – Riding the Northern Range (Red Deer Press), Bards in the Saddle (Hancock House), others published stateside?  I think so.  Is it a worthy successor?  Yes, and even necessary for the detective work that’s gone into the discovery and unearthing of historical precursors represented.  Is it entertaining, and will regular readers of contemporary poetry enjoy it?  That depends on one’s taste, of course, but I certainly wouldn’t write the book off if you’re one of those who has yet to have the experience.

My friend, poet/physician Robbie Newton Drummond and I recently attended the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Pincher Creek.  I had my misgivings, but was pleasantly surprised and delighted.  The size of the very appreciative audience was ten to a hundred times what I’ve learned to expect at a regular poetry reading in any city in Canada.  Not surprisingly: the roots are as much in stand-up comedy as they are in verse.  Got a grumpy uncle on your Christmas list?  Buy him a copy.  It may be the first time he’s enjoyed poetry since he was a kid potting gophers on the bald prairie.