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Rod Miller takes on humor in cowboy poetry in his essay below, "Have You Heard the One About ..." He addresses the differences in "funny stories" and "joke poems"; notes some top "funny" poems and poets; and offers a careful look at Wallace McRae's "Reincarnation" as he suggests "how to write a better humorous poem."

Rod Miller's self portrait

Award-winning author and poet Rod Miller has contributed a number of essays on the art and craft of poetry to CowboyPoetry.com. He has given poetry workshops and lectures at numerous places and judged many poetry competitions. He is a widely published poet whose work has appeared in several anthologies and numerous periodicals. He is author of a collection of poetry, Things a Cowboy Sees and Other Poems, and a chapbook of poems, Newe Dreams.  

Miller also writes book reviews and magazines articles for a variety of periodicals, has published short fiction in several anthologies, and is author of three novels and three books of nonfiction.  

Born and raised in Utah, Miller is the son of a working cowboy and spent his youth working with cattle and horses. He competed as a bareback rider in high school, college, and professional rodeos throughout the Intermountain West. 

Miller is membership chair for Western Writers of America and a former board member. Learn more about his writing at writerRodMiller.com.

Rod Miller has contributed other essays to the BAR-D, including:

"Opening the Gates"

"Get Up On Your Hind Legs and Howl"

"Don't Say It"

"A Brief Introduction to Cowboy Poetry, or, Who's the Guy in the Big Hat and What is He Talking About?"

"Whipping up a Poem"

"The Rhythm Method"

"Five Ways Cowboy Poetry Fades in the Footlights"

"Free Range and Barbwire"

"Does Slant Rhyme with Can't?"

"Are You All Talk and No Trochaic Tetrameter?"

"You Call THAT a Poem?"

"Fine Lines and Wrinkles

"A Brave New Future for Poetry"

"How to Pick a Performance Poem"

"Where Have I Heard That Before?"

See our separate feature about Rod Miller here, which includes some of his poetry and more about his publications.

You can email Rod.

Your considered comments are welcome.  Email us.


From "Have You Heard the One About ...":

Cowboys are a funny bunch.

Granted, as with any collection of human critters, there’ll be a mixture of ornery, angry, gruff, grumpy, and downright dismal citizens, as well as a scattering of quiet types. But, having grown up in the company of cowboys of all makes and models, ages and origins, sizes and shapes—and continuing to congregate with them to this day—I contend there is a higher-than-average appreciation of humor in the cowboy culture.


 by Rod Miller 


Cowboys are a funny bunch.

Never mind all those oaters and horse operas that made strong, silent, steely-eyed cowboys the stuff of legend. There’s likely as much truth in those pictures as there is in the idea that cowboys spent their days spreading virtue across the countryside at a high lope, six-guns a-smokin’, rescued maidens in tow, nefarious robbers and rustlers on the run.

Forget those celluloid images of statuesque silhouettes staring off into the middle distance from beneath a low-slung hat brim; of calm and quiet, taciturn, stoic cowboys.


Cowboys are a funny bunch.

Granted, as with any collection of human critters, there’ll be a mixture of ornery, angry, gruff, grumpy, and downright dismal citizens, as well as a scattering of quiet types. But, having grown up in the company of cowboys of all makes and models, ages and origins, sizes and shapes—and continuing to congregate with them to this day—I contend there is a higher-than-average appreciation of humor in the cowboy culture.

And, based on my reading of history, there always has been. Practical jokes and horseplay are (and were) as common as cow manure. Western air is (and was) constantly astir with windies—lies and legends, tall tales and tangled yarns. Even tragedies, from roping wrecks to bad buckoffs to love affairs gone wrong, are (and were) fodder for cowboy fun once the wounds scab over.

All of which points to the popularity (now and then) of humorous poems in cowboy poetry.

At any gathering today, whether on the stage or the printed page, you’ll likely find more smiles than serious reflection, more laughter than tears. And while the cattle-trail campfires have long-since gone cold, had we the opportunity to hunker down around one of an evening, we’d likely find the literary entertainment situation there was much the same.

There is evidence, such as it is.

One of the earliest collections of lyrics and poems from the old days, Jack Thorp’s slender 1908 volume, Songs of the Cowboys, includes plenty of humorous verse, including “The Tenderfoot” and “Whose Old Cow,” both without attribution. John Lomax likewise incorporated funny poetry in his important early anthologies, including “Broncho versus the Bicycle” (anonymous) and “The Cowboy's Dance Song” (James Barton Adams) in his 1919 collection, Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp.

And, of course, we’re all familiar with well-known humorous poems from the classic era of our craft—Curley Fletcher, Bruce Kiskaddon, Henry Herbert Knibbs, Charles Badger Clark, S. Omar Barker, and our other poetic heroes penned rollicking rhymes.
It continues today. And, now as then, the truly funny poems will survive and perhaps become classics themselves, while those that don’t measure up will fall by the wayside.

But what’s the measure? How can you create humorous poetry that’s lasting and timeless, rather than transient and ephemeral?

For that matter, how can you tell if it’s funny in the first place?

Analyzing humor takes all the fun out of it. So I won’t talk about what I think is funny. For openers, it’s very subjective. Some folks, for instance, are disgusted by scatological humor while others think it’s hilarious. Likewise morbid humor, puns, sexual innuendo, and so on.

So, never mind what.

But I do think it can be profitable to think about and talk about how humor works in poetry. There are a few principles and techniques that can, I think, be identified and applied.

Let’s try.

Maybe you’ll get it.

Or maybe I don’t.


Funny Stories vs. Joke Poems

First off, let me split the herd of humorous cowboy poetry into two bunches: funny stories and joke poems. The cut is, perhaps, arbitrary. But I believe it’s defensible. Besides, two smaller, somewhat organized herds are easier to work than one big, unruly bunch.

“Funny stories” seems self explanatory.

A “funny story” poem simply narrates an incident or series of events that, by some measure, add up to humor. What’s happening is funny, the telling of it is funny, or both.

Bruce Kiskaddon’s “An Old Western Town” is an example. So are Pat Richardson’s infamous “The Donner Party,” Curley Fletcher’s knowing “The Sheep-Herders Lament,” Phil Kennington’s complex “Cowboy Granola,” Badger Clark’s “The Legend of Boastful Bill,” Yvonne Hollenbeck’s “What Would Martha Do?” and many, many others.

I was once taught that the essence of a funny story boils down to some unfortunate soul’s attempt(s) to maintain dignity in an absurd situation(s). As I contemplate the above list, that idea seems to apply in most cases.

But at the bottom of the page, it’s up to each of us to decide for ourselves whether a “funny story” poem is funny or not. We will not always agree.

Beyond all that, from a poetic perspective, a truly funny story told as a pedestrian poem can still be a funny story at the same time it’s poor poetry. But a funny story told as a poem that uses the literary techniques that put poetry a level above ordinary writing is better—a funny story and well-made poem all in one. I’d put the poems in the above list in that category.

I like “funny story” poems. Even some that fall short by poetic standards still earn my appreciation for the quality of their humor.

Joke poems are another matter.

A better name might be “punch line” poems, for the breed of joke I’m meaning here is the kind that leads to a surprising, unexpected, humorous conclusion. The narrative and events that get the audience to that point exist solely for that purpose—to set up the punch line. And, generally speaking (and sad to say), the sum total of the humor contained in most joke poems exists in the punch line.

We’ve all heard—and many of us have written, and recited—joke poems. They’re easy prey for poets. Any joke in current circulation around café tables, water coolers, campfires, or wherever folks congregate is fair game for a joke poem.

Nowadays, the internet propagates jokes at the speed of light, putting more subject matter for more joke poems in the sights of more cowboy poets more often than ever before in history. It has become permanent open season for joke poems, and there’s no bag limit.

We don’t even seem to care all that much if they’re “cowboy.” But that’s another story.


How to Write a Joke Poem

Here’s how it works: you hear a joke, you suddenly feel “inspired,” you shoehorn the joke into a rhyme-and-meter form (with varying success, from a poetic standpoint), you try it out on someone, you get the expected laugh at the punch line, you pat yourself on the back, you add it to your repertoire.

And there’s the rub.

Your joke poem has now outlived its usefulness.

Since joke poems live by the punch line, they die by the punch line—for once you’ve heard it, there’s no reason to hear it again. The surprise is gone. The shock value has disappeared. The anticipation is no longer there.

Just try repeating it to your original hearer.

Oh, you’re all right as long as you keep getting fresh audiences. And most everyone will sit still for one, maybe two repeated tellings. But only those with severe memory loss will find anything funny about a joke they’ve already heard.

Think about it. Do you suppose your latest joke poem—no matter how popular it seems to be at present—will stand up under repeated and repeated and repeated telling the way “funny story” poems like Don Kennington’s “Shoeing Ol' Rivet” or DW Groethe’s “The Bunny Poem” do?

Probably not.

Another fatal flaw that repeatedly shows up in many joke poems is the lack of poetic quality. (Which is, of course, often the case with all kinds of cowboy poetry—but it seems especially evident in joke poems.)

Many poets, caught up in the excitement of the latest joke, don’t take the time to contemplate. They dive right into the rhyming, without stopping to think about how to effectively turn the joke into a poem. Rather than studying the setup to see if it can be modified to make more effective poetry, the joke is simply laid down as heard, then twisted and turned and kinked and bent into some facsimile of poetic form. Meter is seldom observed with any faithfulness, rhymes are often forced beyond the breaking point, careful word choice and literary techniques are given little thought in a headlong race to reach the punch line.

So is there hope for joke poems?


How to Write a Better One

A well-made joke poem, a punch-line poem, can hold its own among poems of any kind, by any measure—longevity, popularity, literary quality, humor, depth of meaning, evocative or provocative capabilities, complexity, and so on.

By way of demonstration, I’ll offer only one example.

But it’s a good one.

Wallace McRae’s “Reincarnation” is, without apology, a joke poem. It’s all a set-up, leading relentlessly to the punch line.

And yet “Reincarnation” is among the few poems by contemporary cowboy poets that seem surely destined to an eternity among the “classics” of our craft. In fact, I submit that McRae’s poem has already arrived—and I don’t suppose many would disagree.

There’s no doubt about its longevity, or that it will bear repeated telling. It has been for decades and continues to be popular among cowboy poetry audiences.

So popular that the author can scarcely stand to recite it anymore. (But he’s about the only one who’s sick of it.) So popular that countless other cowboy poets have appropriated it for their repertoire. (Making it, probably, the most plagiarized cowboy poem of our time, since few see fit to credit the author.)


What is it about “Reincarnation”?

The answer lies in pop philosophy.

I don’t know from whom or where the idea originated, but it is (too) often said, in (too) many ways, that life is not a destination, but a journey.

Likewise McRae’s poem.

It would have long since landed on the dung heap of joke poems if the path to the punch line was a pedestrian (no pun intended) trail. Rather, the author treats us to a well-mounted romp through fine lines, unique phrases, unusual words, delightful sounds, and altogether unexpected expressions. I think it unlikely that most purveyors of joke poems would have taken the time or expended the effort or had the talent to create such oddball descriptions and use such uncommon—but perfectly clear—words.

Start with McRae’s selection and saying of silly details about burial preparations:

They comb yer hair, and warsh yer neck,
And clean yer fingernails,
And lay you in a padded box
Away from life’s travails.

Hear his unusual description of burial:

Yore planted ’neath a mound

And decay:

Them clods melt down, just like yer box,
And you who is inside

And a simple, spare explanation of the whole, complicated notion of reincarnation:

Yer transformation ride.

Then, again, a pair of hilarious descriptions of the otherwise off-putting process of dissolution and decay:

…yer rendered mound
…yer mouldered grave

McRae’s telling of the eating of a flower is especially apt, using a few well-chosen, unusually vivid words to create a scene:

And say a hoss should wander by
And graze upon this flower

Consider the options. There are all kinds of ways this scene could have been written. But the way McRae says it captures the random happenstance of it all, and the unthinking, uncaring participation of the horse.

He continues with yet another oddball name for a grave:

Yer vegetative bower.

Who else among us would have bothered to devise such an apt, yet unusual phrase? Which us have the talent to do so? I wish I did.

Then, again, with a few well-chosen words (some of which I would, could, never have thought of) arranged into well-turned phrases, he captures the entirety of equine nutrition:

The posey that the hoss done ate
Up, with his other feed,
Makes bone, and fat, and muscle
Essential to the steed.

And one can sense—through word choice and a simple comma—the nose-wrinkling disgust in this description of a deposit of horse dung:

This thing, that once was you.

Next, note the author’s use of subtle differences in the meanings of words to capture in one brief phrase what we subconsciously recognize as a lengthy, contemplative process of consideration and meditation. And he manages to do it with poetic flair, using corresponding sounds and rhythmic arrangement:

I ponders, and I wonders

A similar facility with language condenses our biggest philosophical questions into a single line:

Of life, and death, and such,

Finally, the author subtly signals the arrival of the punch line with this expressive, consonance-laden phrase:

come away concludin’

Thus, “Reincarnation.”

Despite being a simple joke poem, a punch-line poem, it survives—even thrives—owing to the superiority of its telling, not the nature of the joke.

In other words, the lasting qualities of “Reincarnation” are found in the journey, not the destination—the poem is funny, not just the punch line.

It’s my contention that any joke poem that hopes to survive repetition must similarly rise above its punch line. Readers and listeners must be fed a continuous meal of wit and wordplay, smiles and laughs, interest and involvement throughout the poem, for a well-rounded, balanced diet better satisfies our appetites.

And, in the end, dessert—the punch line—tastes all the sweeter.


The Last Laugh

As every writer and performer knows—or soon learns—humor is serious business. Contrary to its seeming off-the-cuff nature, humor usually results from a lot of thought and consideration, planning, discipline, practice, revision and editing, more thought, reconsideration.

Even those natural-born comedians among us who are “funny” by temperament (Andy Nelson, Glenn Ohrlin, Rodney Nelson, Baxter Black come to mind) will most likely confess when pressed that it takes a lot of hard work at the keyboard and in rehearsal to become spontaneous and unstudied.

So, don’t take humor lightly.

Whether it’s a “funny story” poem or a “joke poem,” work hard to make it work. Make every effort to make its plot, its structure, its characterization, its voice, its point of view, its form, its music, its pace and timing, its balance, its climax, its conclusion, and all the rest of its parts and pieces work together to make a marvelous poem.

Most of all, make it funny.

© 2007, Rod Miller, All rights reserved
This article may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.

Wallace McRae's poem, "Reincarnation," appears in full here at CowboyPoetry.com; © Wallace McRae, reprinted from Cowboy Curmudgeon (1992) with permission from Gibbs Smith, Publisher  The poem may not be reprinted or reposted without the author's written permission.



See our separate feature about Rod Miller here, which includes some of his poetry. 






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