Cowboy Poetry in South Dakota
by Linda Hasselstrom
Cowboy Poetry in South Dakota
“Just a’writin’, a-writin’,
Nothin’ I like half so well
As a-slingin’ ink and English—
if the stuff will only sell.”
Badger Clark (1883-1957), South Dakota’s first poet laureate, inscribed a copy of his Sun and Saddle Leather to a buyer with those words, which might form a motto for modern cowboy poets. We love writing poems, but for most of us, writing and reciting are primarily labors of love rather than income.
As one of the first and best of American poets to write and perform poetry about cowboy life, Clark is imitated today by hundreds of poets before audiences all over the nation. Fortunately for South Dakotans, some of the country’s best and most authentic poets keep the tradition alive right here.
“What has not changed ol’ cowboy friend
Since you was young and men were men?”
In the poem quoted above, “The Conversation,” Ken Cook examines changes in the cattle industry over the past three generations. Inspired by a conversation with his grandfather Frank Buckles, the poem earned Ken the title of 15th Lariat Laureate at Cowboypoetry.com.
What hasn’t changed?
According to his grandpa, “Cows.”
Ken, who lives near Martin, says his wife has a real job in town at the bank, so his is “a marriage made in Heaven,” because he gets to kiss his banker every morning.
“An astonishing exhilaration, akin to working from the back of a horse, erupts when I write, rewrite, edit, and ultimately recite a poem for folks longing to live this cowboy life,” says Ken. “I have a passion for ranching, the theatre, and writing poetry, none of which has proven to be a financial bonanza.”
Ranching with his wife Nancy, he has gathered cattle in rough country, saddled up on a lot of dark mornings, and been run over by an “embarrassing number of mama cows.” His poetry often involves his kids, cattle, horses and the working life of a rancher. In “Bloodlines,” for example, he tells how his four children persuaded him to buy a horse they believed just needed a little extra attention; the animal died on the way home from the sale.
His poem “I’m Gonna Be a Cowboy” was inspired by riding with his son Keil into a snowstorm to bring in a few heavy cows so they could calve in shelter. “We calve early up here,” he explains, “too early some years according to Mother Nature. The snow and wind was blowing in our faces as we rode out. I looked at my boy and hollered above the wind, ‘So you wanna be a cowboy huh?’ I'll never forget the look of determination on that boy's face as he said, ‘Yes I do, Dad." ‘”
There’s no better way to tell people what the cowboy life is like than through poetry, he says. “Besides, my singing is terrible and I couldn’t play guitar on a bet!” After hearing his poems, a listener may ask if what he’s written is true. “I tell them it’s all true, except the parts I made up.”
In 2010 the Academy of Western Artists named Ken top male poet of the year. He won a first place buckle for serious poetry at the National Cowboy Poetry Rodeo 2007. He has appeared in Elko at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, regularly performs in the Great Plains and has recorded several CDs of original poetry, including Dad, We’ll Rope Today and I’m Gonna Be a Cowboy. His CD Cowboys Are Like That includes the work of Buck Ramsey, Badger Clark and Ralph Garnier Coole, as well as his own. www.kencookcowboypoet.com.
“ . . . tho’ I bet most don’t want to hear it
danged if I understand how you can be a cowboy poet
when you don’t know the smell of cow . . . manure.”
That fragment from “Jinglebob” Dennis’s poem “Cowboy Poets?” demonstrates some fundamental traits of cowboy poetry: scorn for wannabe cowboy poets, a reluctance to use profanity, and dry humor.
Robert Dennis moved to the family ranch near Red Owl when he was 11 months old. “My parents were 44 when I arrived so I was raised by people who were born in the horse and buggy days so all my life I have been interested in old things and the old ways of working.” He still uses a team of horses to do many of the tasks on the ranch. “Considering that the Amish are the fastest-growing segment of agriculture, maybe they have some sound thinking.”
He’s lived on the ranch all his life, “except for them four years they sent me to prison, what they called high school,” and plans to pass it down to children and grandchildren.
He’s been making up rhymes all his life and reads cowboypoetry.com almost daily. He started noticing who was being invited to different cowboy poetry gatherings. “I’m usually too busy doing cowboy-type stuff to go, but it sure puzzles me how so many get invited as paid participants who don’t really live the life and have no ties to the land.” So he started to write his own poems about the experiences of cowboying.
In the early 80's,, he was astonished to hear Waddie Mitchell and Nyles Henderson reciting cowboy poetry on the Tonight show and came away thinking there really wasn’t much to it. “Heck, anybody could do that,” he thought. But “Like everything, it’s “harder than it first appears, at least if you want good meter and rhyme.”
A featured performer in Elko in 1989, 1990 and 1997, he’s also performed at many local functions, at the Badger Clark Memorial poetry gathering in Hot Springs, and at an annual gathering at Devils Tower, Wyoming; this year’s will be the 17th.
He and his wife Cindy have “three sons, too many horses and not enough cattle!” He builds saddles and other horse-related gear and says, “I can make anything but money,” he writes in his poem “The Gift”"
“Most folks wouldn't enjoy my kind of lifestyle
That's O.K., 'cause I'm livin' my dream.”
He says he rarely sees ranchers and cowboys at the poetic gatherings because “who wants to listen to this crap about the life they live!” His book Ranchers, Rounders & Ropers is available with a money-back guarantee; if you don’t like it, return the unread portion and he’ll refund your money for that amount. Read his blog at www.dennisranch.wordpress.com.
And he'd talk about Montana.
And you'd get a glimmer then,
Of the cowboy that he used to be,
And the man he might have been
Before the war and wife and whiskey
Had bent him out of shape.
Now the war and wife were history
And the whiskey was escape.
That’s an excerpt from Elizabeth’s poem “He Talked About Montana.” Baxter Black, arguably America’s best-known cowboy poet, said of the last four lines, "If her poems were mountains and the verses peaks, this would be the eagle soaring over all.”
“I have always written poetry,” she says, “but mainly just for myself. I write about what I know best which is ranch life. The old generation of cowboy poets always had such beautiful rhyme and meter and that is what poetry is to me. I do not much care for free verse–just call it prose and I could like some of it.”
Elizabeth was a closet poet until 1989 but has performed often in Elko as well as receiving the Academy of Western Artists’ Best Female Poet award. South Dakota Governor Michael Rounds proclaimed February 24, 2005 as Elizabeth Ebert Day. In early 2011 she won the Badger Award (in honor of Badger Clark, but we call him by his first name in this state!) from the High Plains Western Heritage Center in Spearfish.
As Baxter Black says, she “writes from inspiration with such graceful force it’s like her pen has power steering. There are so many first class pieces in her books, most contemporary cowboy poets would covet even just one so good in their armory.”
She writes of serious topics, but she also challenges stereotypes with humor that fits our picture of the ideal cowboy: clean and gentle. In “Ode to Tofu,” for example, she writes of cows who graze upon the plains,
“And then, in turn, expel methane
In manner somewhat crass.”
She notes that the cows
“are being blamed for making
Our atmosphere less dense,
They say someday we’ll die because
Of bovine flatulence.”
But, she suggests, we shouldn’t allow this premise to cause us to remove cows from the grasslands until we consider:
“Just how much gas will people pass
When they’re only eating beans?”
Many of Elizabeth's poems are about her husband SJ. She often said, “We have now been married for 19 wonderful years–plus those other 39 that sometimes got a little iffy.” They ranched near Thunder Hawk, South Dakota until his death last year.
Writing to me at two a.m. on a summer day, she remarked that the temperature was still 79 degrees but, in true South Dakota style, remarked on the bright side to the summer rain and heat: “My roses are gorgeous and my potatoes bigger than golf balls.”
She performs mostly at cowboy poetry gatherings since, she says, “they seem to understand what I am trying to say, but I do fall flat with city folk and I do not like speaking in schools.” Old vaudevillians said you should leave your audience laughing and tap dance off the stage. “At 86,” says Elizabeth, “I am happy to be able to just walk off.”
Her poetry is included in many anthologies, including Humorous Western Verse, Cooling Down, Cowgirl Poetry, and Graining the Mare. Her own publications include Prairie Wife, Crazy Quilt and a CD, Live from Thunder Hawk. Her work also appears on the CD Where the Buffalo Rhyme, was recorded with Yvonne Hollenbeck and two poets from North Dakota. Her poetry is included in many anthologies, including Cooling Down, Cowgirl Poetry, Humorous Western Verse and Graining the Mare.
“But I know very well—IF there's torture in Hell
It includes rusty barbed wire some way,”
So writes Don Hilmer, who wrastles rusty barbed wire on his ranch near New Underwood. Since ranchers need to use what they have and keep costs within budget, he says, he sometimes uses barbed wire that could be a half-century old. Cowboy recycling. Don sent this poem to singer and songwriter Red Steagall as a thank you for permission to recite one of Red’s poems; Red liked it so much he used it on his radio program Cowboy Corner.
Living between the Black Hills and the Badlands, Don looks at the same view that filled the eyes of his parents and grandparents a hundred years ago. He’s watched additions to the country– railroads, river bridges, fences, trails, roads, highways, cities, water supplies and reservoirs, and motorized transportation. While these things have made tourism the state’s second largest industry, he says “not a lot else has made this country a whole lot more usable than it was when herds of cattle were trailed in here from the south.” Still, descendants of the hearty men and women who survived that great era are performing the same duties with the same spirit of the west today. “Knowledge of that era and its people can be a positive example for all ages.”
Writes Don in “The ‘Uninterested’/ ‘Flat Busted’ Lady Banker,”
“It's not the long, hard hours of work that really ‘takes the cake’
It's how %interested% the banker is in the little bit we make.”
He recalls that the poem emerged from a time when the banker’s demands for payment on a loan added to their struggles to stay afloat; his Dad’s stroke had made it impossible for him to talk, and his wife was having problems with her knees from hard work riding horseback.
With his wife Beverly, who died in 2002 of cancer just short of 39 years of marriage, Don raised three children on the ranch; he has seven grandchildren and two great-grands. “I like every one of ‘em,” says Don. His 11-year-old grandson, Quirt Rice, is also featured on cowboypoetry.com; he recites Badger Clark poems, sings and plays music with his family, rides, ropes, and drives his team of oxen.
Don says, “the trials and tribulations of existing and surviving to enjoy what we’ve been blessed with here in this part of the west have produced more good character traits–common sense, humility, fair-mindedness, respect for man and beast–than all the man-made attempts combined.” Encouraging those values is one of the reasons he writes.
“So you want to be a rancher, well that's an easy thing to be,
you just marry it, inherit it, or win a lottery.”
So says Yvonne Hollenbeck in “Rancher Wannabe.”
Wife of a Clearfield rancher, Yvonne finds inspiration for her often-humorous poems while helping her husband Glen tend to their cattle or registered quarter horses. Yvonne’s poems cover many subjects: she offers a poetic suggestion to the president in “How to Cut Taxes” and a poetic explanation for “Why Jane Left Ted.” Her description of trying to climb out of the cluttered ranch truck to open a gate inspires “Ranch Rig.” In “Old Folks Rodeo,” she tells how an elderly roper loses his teeth while trying to tie a calf.
She’s also an advocate for the ranch and farm wives of the West, a minority these days. “All of the women in my family and extended family lived on farms and ranches in Nebraska and South Dakota and I have many stories about them and their life that is translated into a lot of my poetry, whether it be making aprons and clothing out of feed sacks, cooking on a big old wood cookstove for a crew of hungry men in a dumpy little kitchen with no electricity, air conditioning or running water and often with no window screens, or bearing children with only the aid of a neighbor woman.”
While the modern ranch woman works under better conditions, Yvonne points out that we often work outside alongside our menfolk, and do without some of the luxuries afforded to women in town because any extra money is needed for corral repairs or equipment improvements. All of this is reflected in her poetry.”
Asked about her awards, she says, “The list is long but I don't feel I am any better than the next and I hate bragging them up (like some folks).” Her peers in the Western Music Association selected her as the Female Poet of the Year in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010. Her books of poetry include Christmas on the Range and From My Window. Her book Prairie Flowers Bloom includes photos of pioneer women and anecdotes by the folks who contributed the photos. Her CDs include Sorting Time, Pieces of the Past and What Would Martha Do? The latter two were each named best cowboy poetry CD of their respective publication years by the Western Music Association. And she insists that, “I got my start through the tutelage and encouragement I gained by attending Linda Hasselstrom's writing retreat several times and highly recommend to any woman interested in writing, journaling, or composing poetry of any type and style."
Yvonne’s great-grandfather Ben Arnold worked for 17 years as a cowboy for Ed Lemmon and rode with cattle drives from Texas to the Dakotas, penning numerous poems. The book, Rekindling Campfires, a biography, was published in 1926 and later reprinted by the University of Oklahoma Press under the title The Exploits of Ben Arnold. Besides all this, Yvonne makes, and wins awards for, gorgeous quilts, and tours with a trunk show, exhibiting 140 years of handmade quilts from her family while reciting poetry about the work and the women who created it.
When Yvonne pays her bills, she often sends this verse along:
This money has come from the sale of my beef
and I hope that the next time you dine,
you’ll be glad I supported your business
and be happy to help support mine.
Find her web site at www.yvonnehollenbeck.com.
“I’ve been spared the burden of overwhelming wealth,” wrote Bonnie Krogman in a poem she started while waiting for the results of a cancer biopsy, “But instead was granted common sense and good health.”
“I’ve lived through the joys and sorrows that come with ranching life,” her poem continues, “But was privileged to be both a mother and a wife.” Her farewell poem tentatively titled “Going Home” was well-started before she found out that the cancer biopsy was negative.
Bonnie and her husband Kenny, both ranch-reared in south central South Dakota, were married on horseback in 1969. Besides raising cattle on the ranch where Kenny grew up, they rodeoed, traded horses, and rode for neighboring ranchers. After the death of Bonnie’s father in 1975, they moved to the small ranch where she had been raised and continued to survive blizzards, drought, scouring calves, low cattle prices, high interest rates and the loss of loved ones.
“I’ve never considered myself a poet but rather, a worn-out ranch wife who happens to think in rhyme during certain situations,” she says.
“How I love working with the man who owns my heart!” she writes in “Sign Language. “But when the mowing’s over, that’s when our troubles start.” Her husband tries to convince her that she should feel lucky to have power steering and a brand new seat on her John Deere, but she remarks:
“Now I’m no rocket scientist but to me it is quite clear
That’s nice and cool inside his cab and it’s hot as Hell out here.”
She insists, “I rarely decide to write a poem, but when the verses start coming into my head, I jot them down on whatever is handy. Then it’s just a matter of rearranging them when I get around to it.”
For example, on hot day when a damsel in distress drove into the ranch yard while the family was working cattle, Bonnie noticed that “signs of peace and love” including a snow-white dove were tattooed in technicolor in the lady’s ample cleavage. Concerned about preserving the innocence of her teen-age son, she completely forgot about her husband who, she says, was perched on the fence “like an old bald eagle.” He later insisted, she writes in “The Tattooed Lady,” that he was interested only in the lady’s “fine art.”
Bonnie has “been privileged” to perform at various poetry gatherings and credits Marty Blocker (of Cody, Nebraska), along with South Dakota poets Dennis, Hollenbeck and McNaught, among others, for giving her that opportunity.
“When I look into the audience while doing “Sign Language” and see an old ranch wife nodding in agreement, while her husband hangs his head, I know I am connecting with them. And that is what I truly enjoy.”
The true worth of cowboy poetry, she believes, lies in the friendships forged among people who have a common bond. “To be able to portray the lifestyle that we love to those who may not understand our way of life is an added bonus.” Bonnie hasn’t done a book or CD but may consider it—when she can take time from ranch work.
So while this spring is gettin' here
and I'm enjoyin' all that's new,
I hear some folks discuss this one,
and reminisce about a few.
Then argue 'bout which one they say
was the dryer or the wetter,
Well, in seventy years I've seen 'em worse
but then, I've seen 'em better.
Those lines from “Spring in South Dakota” show the knowledge of experience. Slim and his wife Darlene have operated a custom leather shop in New Underwood for nearly 40 years. He started writing poetry in high school and explains, “It just seems easier for me to write a story that rhymes rather than regular prose. Also our ancestors who came up the trail left us a legacy that we have not only the opportunity, but also the obligation, to keep alive. They put their stories to rhyme so they could remember them for repeating, which started what we nowadays call “cowboy poetry.”
He’s published articles and poems in various collections and in cowboy, horse, and agriculture magazines and newspapers. Since he started performing in 2004, he’s recited at cowboy poetry gatherings from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Medora, North Dakota, appeared on RFD-TV, and entertained at banquets, trail rides and cowboy churches. He’s performed on the Friday Night Opry and the Saturday Stage at the Western Music Association Awards Festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
His best-known poem, “The Snubbin’ Post,” was inspired by memories of the round corral where he first began to work with a young horse; the poem and the corral were filled with the thick dust, as well as the heat and the horse’s fear and curiosity. The poem won an “8 Second” award, one of three Slim has won in the global competition from The Bar-D Ranch’s CowboyPoetry.com.
“It’s fun,” he says, though he admits not all audiences are easy to work with. Once, when he’d been hired to entertain a wagon train, confusion caused delays. The act before him ran over their time by an hour and a half. “By the time I got on stage it was getting dark, the audience was full of beer and raring to dance. Not a good experience.”
His books and CDs include Poetry From Cowboy Country, A Book of Cowboy Prayers and Reminiscin’, selected as the 2009 Cowboy Poetry CD/Album of the Year by the Academy of Western Artists. He is currently the Cowboy Poet “Lariat” for CBSI Radio in Spearfish.
Find his web site at www.slimscustomleather.com.
When the caterpillar sings
And the night bugs sigh
The spider dances on her silver thread,
The night hawk dives
To hear the last refrain
And dew drops sparkle on the honey bees’ bed.
Troy McNaught Westby wrote the poem “Benediction,” in which the lines above appear, from observation of her daily life. Slim writes that his mother was born January 5, 1916 on a farm east of Glasco, Kansas. Married, she moved to Nebraska, and in 1935 to a ranch southwest of Wanblee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Now 95, she still writes and performs poetry of all kinds including haiku, sonnets, and children’s poems about her 10 great-great-grandchildren. She was the featured poet at The Alzada (Montana) Cowboy Poetry, Art and Music Show on October 2, 2011.
Like many other women in cowboy poetry, Mrs. Westby doesn’t call what she writes “cowboy poetry,” but rather poems about her ranching life. “The Long Ride Home” is about an incident that happened in the late 1940s when she was teaching in a country school in the former Washabaugh County in South Dakota.
Slim explains that the log house where he was raised, “...sat on the bank of Bear Creek, with the barn and corrals on one side and the house on the other and a large cottonwood tree laid across the creek for a footbridge.”
His mother was always a prolific writer, with shelves and boxes of writings, but many were lost or destroyed over the years. “It wasn't always easy keeping material safe from little varmints in the old log houses, “says Slim, “plus the weather that came in through the cracks when the chinking crumbled and fell out. When I was small it seemed to me she spent a lot of time mixing mud from the "buffalo wallows" and chinking the openings between the logs in that old ranch home.”
Several of Mrs. Westby’s poems were published in Ranch Romances, a popular publication of the 1930s. Slim’s first book Way Out West, published in 1981, includes some of Troy’s poems as well. In 2005, Slim bought a saddle stapler, paper cutter, and office printer, and has published three of his books and four of his mother’s in his leather shop. Both Troy and Slim have material ready for another book as soon as he can get them put together, and Slim plans another CD soon as well.
Mrs. Westby has also published Portrait Of Life In Rhyme, including sonnets, haiku, free verse and other forms of poem. They Say In Rhyme includes thirteen paintings with a children's poem for each. For more information about Slim and Troy: www.slimscustomleather.com.
“This gittin’ born turned out to be
A rigorous kind of deal,”
writes Gale Patzlaff in the voice of “The Newborn Calf,” and continues,
“I’m feelin’ mighty grateful,
To that cowboy and his ilk
But what I’m really cravin’ now
Is a belly full of milk. . . . .
Re-unite me with my ma,” demands the calf
Then stand back, and let me suck.”
Gale has lived his entire life in or near Fulton, South Dakota. Since 1951 he has lived on his home place, running a cow-calf operation with his wife Geri. His dad always raised cattle and he grew up loving the lifestyle.
“We always had horses around and from the time my Dad sat me up on one of those big old work horses for a ride around the yard, I guess I have been riding ever since.” He does as much work as possible on horseback and considers that the only way to work cows.
After high school he stayed and worked with his dad on the home place. He spent six years in the SD National Guard and has “never been much of a traveler,” though he and his wife Geri did take several short trips to the Black Hills when their three kids were small. These days, he says, he likes getting to that part of the country once a year for the cowboy poetry gatherings.
His heroes were always cowboys; once he met Gene Autry at the Corn Palace when he was nine years old, the cowboy course of his life was set. He writes to keep the heritage and tradition alive. In this fast-paced world, he says, more and more people are getting away from the values and simple lifestyles that cowboy poetry represents. “I don’t like to see it disappear,” he says. Like many cowboy poets, Gale explains that he inherited his love of poetry from his mother. He heard about Elko in 1985, saw some poets on TV, and decided to give it a try. “In 1988 I met Leonard Larson,” (a rancher and chuck wagon builder from Mitchell), “and we started doing poetry at different events. The purpose of my poems is to tell a story, which is the way cowboy poetry started out. I hope to be a small part of informing and educating folks, especially the younger generation.”
Gale particularly likes seeing younger people in the audience at gatherings, “although I am not sure they are there by choice.” Most audiences are older folks who have, or have had, ties with the livestock or agriculture industry. Still, he thinks some of what the poets do will rub off on them.
Besides writing his own, he enjoys reciting work by other cowboy poets he admires. In South Dakota, he’s appeared at the Badger Clark Poetry Gathering in Hot Springs and the Spirit of the West event in Sioux Falls. He’s also recited verses at the annual Cowboy Poetry Festival at Devils Tower, Wyoming; Old West Days in Valentine, NE, and in other locations around the Midwest. Between poems, Gale does pencil sketches of cowboy life.
“I’ve never done this for awards,” he adds, though he won the “Poetry Shootout” competition at Hot Springs one year. “I always feel that if people leave the show feeling that they had a good time (and most of them will let you know if they did) that’s reward enough for me and gives me some confidence to try again sometime.”
Yvonne Hollenbeck says that though Gale has not published a book or CD or won an award, “Folks that hear him just love him. He is a very creative writer and good performer.” Gale is he’s working on getting a book of poems published, though he says he hasn’t done a great job of promoting himself because, “I’m not even comfortable calling myself performer or entertainer, but prefer to simply call myself a reciter of cowboy poetry.”
Traditions that we hold
Are really why we go.
They tell us who we are,
At every rodeo.
Kip Sorlie says he was not raised as a cowboy, one of those fellows that were trail-hardened before they could walk.
“In my case,” he admits, “the condition was entirely adult onset.”
Instead, he spent more than half his sixty years on Drummond Island, in the far north of Lake Huron. “In the fifties we would boat across to the mainland of the Upper Peninsula twice a year for necessities. We had neither power nor plumbing. We filled our ice house in winter, made maple syrup in the spring and put up next year's firewood in the fall. My father and grandfather taught me to hunt, fish and trap.”
Surviving more than six months of snow-covered ground required that the family develop multiple techniques for staying alive. Sounding just like an old-time cowboy, Kip says, “It was a hard life, but I did not know that until power and plumbing found our island by the early sixties.”
During the sixties and seventies, the island was transformed into a “tourist destination.” In the early eighties a large corporation created an executive retreat on the island, destroying the fabric of the small community. Reluctantly, Kip packed up his wife Marilyn and his children and headed West, settling on a ranch in Sanders County, Montana. “It was a fine place to raise both kids and cows, without power and plumbing,” he says, “for a time.”
His life’s purpose, he says, was raising five children to stand on their own two feet and deal with whatever life would toss at them. “I was partially successful,” he reports. “When they left home, my purpose disappeared.” Eventually, the children settled in South Dakota, so Kip and his wife exchanged the ranch for a hay farm near them, at Winfred.
He’d begun writing verses in high school, and tried different styles and techniques for years. “I found purpose again in cowboy verse. It is an honest, straight-forward handshake with honest, straight-forward people who, even if they do not live the lifestyle, carry the values with great pride.”
One of Kip’s poems, “Rope,” springs from his earliest memories of a long rope tied from the house to the barn every winter. Storms were frequent, intense and could last for days, so that he grew to depend on it and yet took it for granted. Though the rope is not in use anymore, it still hangs in a barn away from the weather, retired but ready to perform again if needed. His Epilogue to the poem admits to embellishing the story a bit, but adds:
Of men who lived this tale,
Two have long departed.
The third awaits a trail,
The fourth has not started.
A son may sometimes spurn
A dad, too proud to hope,
But in the end they learn
From withered, weathered rope. . . .
It's tied to where I've been
And where I hope to be.
For his poem “A Hug,” Kip received a silver medal, the Solo Patriotic Poetry Award from the Veteran’s Administration’s Creative Arts Council. In the poem, Kip portrays himself as both father and son. “My father served in the Medical Corps of the U.S. Army in WW II, Korea and Viet Nam. Our service overlapped in Viet Nam. My youngest son is pursuing a career in the U.S. Navy in the SeaBees."
Kip’s poem “The Rhyme Survives” was written for his daughter, who researched the evolution of cowboy music for a paper during her senior year in college, with help, he says, from John Lomax, Badger Clark and Jack Thorp. Don Edwards, well-known singer and composer, provided both insight and direction in a long telephone interview. “Her paper received an A+ and her dad could not have been prouder.”
These days, Kip says, “I write poems and look out over some mighty fine hay ground, with cows off in the distance, waiting for the third cutting to be removed.” Everyone, he suggests, should write down their own stories, “pass them to their children’s children, and watch as the bonding takes place.” His first book, just published, is Cowboys Are The Magic, available from him at 24327 446 Avenue, Winfred, SD 57076; or email email@example.com.
Cattle must’a caught his scent,
Off that mountain those steers went,
Hell’s a’poppin’, send the dogs ‘n’ trust your mount!
Ol’cowpony loves the chase,
She’s a mad cross-country race,
Long deep tracks and thin green runny show the way.
Cowboy’s flailin’, duckin’ branches,
Never thinkin’ ‘bout the chances,
That a squirrel hole or missed step’d end the day.
Brindle lead steer jumps a rockpile,
Big black baldy’s close behind him,
Head held high and steppin’ likewise—this ain’t right.
Down that mountain they’re flat floggin’,
Cowboy’s ridin’ wild and dodgin’,
Dogs got ‘em bunch, runnin’ straight ‘n’ tight.
The exhilaration of a hard ride collecting mavericks thunders through those words from buckaroo Bill Wood’s poem “The Blind Steer,” set in the Yokhol Valley of California. Raised in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Bill began working for small family operations while he was still in grade school. His best-known poem, “Viejos,” is a tribute to those wise old men—los viejos—of old California, whose traditions and style of horsemanship still have influence.
Bill was the son of a machinist and welder, but had little interest in taking up his father’s trade. Aware that sons may not choose their father’s path, he wrote “Fleeting Moments,” published by Gibbs-Smith in Maverick Western Verse in 1994, picturing a father watching his son handle a reluctant cow, hoping the son will choose to come back to the ranch.
“If it is that he so chooses,
To come back to those beginnings,
Then his father will be waiting—
But that’s not always how it goes.”
Bill says he’s done a lot of things to put beans on the table, because starvation is a great motivator. He’s cowboyed in California, Wyoming and South Dakota, but has been a full time farrier for about 14 years. On their place east of Newell, he and his wife Jan run some black cows and “too many horses.” They have four grown children and seven grandkids.
Since appearing the first time at Elko, Nevada in 1986, Bill has been in poetry gatherings in Arizona, California, Wyoming, Nebraska, and North Dakota. Besides writing his own poetry, Bill recites the classics. You can hear his version of S. Omar Barker’s “Rain on the Range” on the Cowboy Poetry Classics CD compiled, produced, and annotated by David Stanley for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in 2003. (Hear a sample at http://www.folkways.si.edu/cowboy-poetry-classics/album/smithsonian.)
And he’s listed as “South Dakota buckaroo poet Bill Wood” on The Cowboy Poets: Live at Elko, a recording from the 10th annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering, along with better-known poets like Wallace McRae and several musicians including Michael Martin Murphey, Riders in the Sky, and the Sons of the San Joaquin. Proceeds from the sale of the DVD support the Western Folklife Center.
Jan Swan Wood
Looking for more information on the close-mouthed wrangler, I remembered that Jan Wood is also a poet. She can quote bits of verse never written down but passed orally from her great-grandfather, Jake Palmateer. According to Jan, he would “just walk up to somebody on the street and carry on a conversation—all in rhyme.”
Jan was among the original poets invited to the 1986 Gathering in Elko, where she and Bill met. These days she writes freelance articles, draws a cartoon (“Outtagrass Cattle Company”) and writes a weekly column (“The Outside Circle”) for TriState Livestock News. Her first book, published in November 2010, is a compilation of cartoons titled It’s a Great Life if You Don’t Weaken.
Her long poem titled, “One of Those Days” makes clear her preference for the cowboy life, and expresses a viewpoint about city dwellers that’s often mentioned by cowboy poets–but not necessarily in rhyme.
In cities of faces where nobody places,
Much value or pride in their work,
Where contracts are signed, for no handshake can bind,
A person to keeping their word.
So you work from can see to can’t see, just to be free,
From the noise of the crowd in the city,
And they’d sure be surprised to look through your eyes,
And find that you view them with pity. . . .
Sure they make the big dollars and I’ll bet they would holler,
If they had to get by on our pay,
But they just wouldn’t believe all the stuff you don’t need,
When you like what you’re doing each day.
The poem describes getting home at midnight, taking care of the horse, finally getting into bed exhausted, and concludes with lines most real cowboy poets would applaud:
There’s no job anywhere that you’d trade, fair and square,
For the one that you did here today.
‘Cause even with aggravations, there’s no other vocation you’d want,
You’re a cowboy to stay.
So there they are: the best South Dakota cowboy poets I could corral long enough to pry poems and biographies out of them. Because cowboy poets are modest folks, I’ve no doubt missed many more. Go find your own! Track them down in coffee shops and roping arenas; go to gatherings and talk to the folks you hear. Ask ropers and riders; they may be hiding a stack of poems in a back pocket. Maybe you’ll find yourself sharpening a pencil and turning an envelope inside out to try a verse or two of your own.© 2012, Linda Hasselstrom, All rights reserved
A version of this article, with photographs, was published in the September, 2012 issue of South Dakota Magazine
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