From "No Excuse for Lazy Poets"
More about Darrell Arnold
(an essay by Darrell Arnold)
Like so many others I know, I grew up loving good poetry. My dad wrote poetry, as did my paternal grandfather and grandmother. And in high school, I had the good fortune to have an excellent English teacher who insisted that her students learn the rudiments of poetry. She fed us a regular diet of the works of the great poets such as Shakespeare, Keats, Kipling, Byron, Shelley, Whittier, Longfellow, Poe, Hood, Whitman, Coleridge, and Burns. We had to memorize some of their verses every week, and we had to recite them to the class.
I also found my own favorite poets, the most prominent of whom were Banjo Paterson and Robert Service. "The Man From Snowy River," was read again and again, and "The Cremation of Sam McGee" was read, loved, memorized and recited. In addition, as an ardent young reader of Western Horseman magazine, I was exposed to the works of some of the best cowboy poets. My favorites were Gail Gardner and S. Omar Barker. "Tying Knots in the Devil's Tail," and "Bear Ropin' Buckaroo" are unbeatable as quality cowboy poetry.
All this background in poetry proved right convenient when I started writing poetry of my own. The three things all the poets I admired had in common were that they only used as many words as they absolutely needed to tell their stories, their poetry really rhymed, and their metering was immaculate. I knew if I could write poetry like that, I could turn out fairly decent poetry.
When I get on my soap box and preach about how poetry should rhyme, I mean it should really rhyme. The words jump and hump rhyme. The words jump and up do not rhyme. Race and face rhyme. Race and lame do not rhyme. Mane and pain rhyme. Mane and name do not rhyme. How and cow rhyme. How and cows do not rhyme. It is my cranky-old-fart contention that, if you are going to write "rhyming poems," then they damn sure ought to rhyme.
Let me grant an exception here. If you are writing lyrics for songs, then your rhyming lines don't necessarily have to rhyme exactly. There are many, many excellent cowboy songs that have half-assed rhymes, like those I cited above. But, because the words are in songs, the beat of the music and the tune carry the listener right past the "unrhymed rhyme" if you will, and almost nobody notices.
Unfortunately, a lot of contemporary cowboy singers and songwriters decide to write some cowboy poetry as well. But they forget their bad habit of not getting the rhymes exactly right, and they write poems with key verse-ending words that don't rhyme. And those kinds of poems are just not as pleasant to listen to as poems that have the rhyming done correctly.
The one thing songwriters generally do get right is the metering. That's because correct metering is essential to songs. Unfortunately, a lot of so-called poets don't pay any attention to their metering, and their poems are sloppy and off about half a bubble. They are difficult to listen to.
There are many creative ways to meter your poetry. Paul Zarzyski is a genius at unconventional, fairly complicated but effective metering (and rhyming). But for most cowboy poetry, metering schemes are fairly simple. For those who don't understand what I mean when I say metering, I'm talking about the beat of the poem. For example, let's take a look at one verse from Banjo Paterson's "Brumby's Run":
But when the dawn makes pink the sky
And steals along the plain,
The Brumby horses turn and fly
Towards the hills again.
If you simply count the syllables (beats) in the first line, you'll see that there are eight. If you count the syllables (beats) in the third line, you'll see that there are also eight. If you count the syllables (beats) in the second line, you'll see that there are six. If you count the syllables (beats) in the fourth line, You'll see that there are also six. [Poetic rhythm is more formally counted in "feet," which measures the combinations of the accented and unaccented syllables that make up the "beats." ed.]
This is how rhymed and metered cowboy poetry should be written. If you want your poetry to be remembered, make it easy for your listeners and readers to memorize. The writer must pay attention to getting the rhymes correct, and the writer must pay attention to how the beats of the appropriate lines match up.
As publisher and editor of COWBOY MAGAZINE, I get mountains of poetry submitted to me every year. I can only use a fraction of what is submitted, and my natural inclination is to publish the poems that are well written--- read rhymed and metered correctly-- in simple, easy-to-read patterns.
Quite frankly, much of the poetry I receive is of very low quality. Sometimes, it actually stinks. Generally, in those cases, it's because the writer knew absolutely nothing about authentic cowboy life, or because he paid no attention to correct rhyme and meter. On occasion, I'll get a poem that is marginal in technique, but, because it is written by an authentic cowboy who knows what the hell he's talking about, I'll relax my standards because the message of the poem is true to the lifestyle.
But if someone claims to be a cowboy poet, and that person continually presents material that is poorly constructed, then I will throw my riata down and demand that the poet do better.
Poorly constructed poetry is poetry written by a lazy writer. The author simply does not care to edit his or her material before submitting it as a final product. This is NEVER done by good poets. Look at the work of the best contemporary cowboy poets such as Baxter Black, Wallace McRae, Mike Logan, Vess Quinlan, John Dofflemyer, Rod Nelson, Joel Nelson, Larry McWhorter, J. B. Allen, Virginia Bennett, Red Steagall, and Paul Zarzyski. Their poetry is good because they know how to tell a cowboy story and because they know how to polish their material.
If you think any one of these poets just sits down, writes a poem, and calls it finished, you don't know crap from apple butter. Every one of these poets-- as do all good poets everywhere-- agonizes over every word, every line, all the metering, and all the rhyming. If they can't make it work, they toss out the offending words, rhymes, or ideas, and try something else until they finally make it work. No word or phrase is so sacred that it can't be pitched out the hay-loft door. And, if they're like me--and every one of them is a better poet than I am--these poets will edit their poems five, ten, even twenty times if necessary to get them right.
As the next step, they put the poems away for a time a few hours, a few days, even a few weeks, before they go back to them and edit them again. A fresh approach can often correct errors the author can't see until he takes a break from his labors.
And after these brilliant minds have shined each poem up as much as they can, do you know what else many of them do? They have someone else read the poem back to them. If the reader stumbles over a word or a line, then the poem is still not right, and the author needs to keep working on it. And when they don't do that, then they exchange their poems with each other. McRae will send his poems to Black or Zarzyski, and they do the same to him or the others, and they'll get honest, constructive criticism on whether or not they've accomplished what they set out to do.
If you want to be a good, quality, cowboy poet, then you have to take the time and the trouble to make your poetry really correct. As correct as you can possibly write it.
One other thing: When you choose the words for your poems, exhaust your supply before you settle on a word. Never use an "adequate" word if there is any possibility that the "perfect" word is still out there somewhere. Go after it, find it, and use it.
Write, re-write, research, edit, correct, polish, polish, polish, and shine, shine, shine. Do all these things as a matter of course. And then, five years after you've absolutely finished it, go back to it. Don't be surprised if you find ways to make your poem still better yet.
There are many styles of poetry, and there is way more to writing good poetry than I have covered here. There are entire books written on the fundamentals of writing poetry, and entire college courses are taught on the subject. And most cowboy poets probably do not have to go that far. Still, just writing some verses and calling yourself a poet just will never make it so.
If you want to be a good cowboy poet, you need to actually know, in considerable detail, the truth about the lifestyle. You have to have experienced it or at least gained some expertise in some other way. And you have to work hard at constructing your poetry in the correct manner.
Another essential thing to do is read as much quality poetry as you can get your hands on. Read the works of the best contemporary cowboy poets, read the works of the best American poets, living or dead, and read the works of the great, classic English poets who wrote some of the very best poetry ever written. All of those poets labored over their work, and they never stopped editing until they were as sure as they could be that they couldn't improve their poems even one letter more. You want to strive to write poetry that is as good as what these giants in the field have written. High standards will only improve your poems.
If you want to be a good cowboy poet, you'll work hard at becoming one. Those who do have a good chance of creating poetry that will survive and become part of the folklore of our era.
© 2005, Darrell Arnold, All rights reserved
This essay may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.
See our feature about Darrell Arnold here, which includes some of his poetry and more information about his books and COWBOY MAGAZINE.
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