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Poets Of The Purple Sage

July 05, 1987|JESSICA MAXWELL | Jessica Maxwell is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer who now lives in Seattle

THE COWBOY POEM IS A TRADITION FROM THE TRAIL DRIVES of the late 1800s, when men stayed out on the range for months and entertained themselves around the campfire by cultivating a storytelling style with a desert-dry wit. Written in clear and Spartan prose, these odes to cowboy life recall broncos that wouldn't be broken, senoritas who couldn't be tamed, roping and branding and going to town. Often they celebrate the wide-open spirit of the American West, its prairies, deserts, rivers and valleys, its names like places in the heart--the Cimarron, the Badlands, Golden Gulch, the Great Divide.

Utah folklorist Hal Cannon has collected the best of both traditional and contemporary cowboy verse and sluiced it into three volumes published by Peregrine Smith Books of Salt Lake City--"Cowboy Poetry: A Gathering," "Songs of the Sage: The Poetry of Curley Fletcher" and "Rhymes of the Ranges: A New Collection of the Poems of Bruce Kiskaddon." Cannon is the founder of the annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering, held for the last three winters in Elko, Nev. "This year we invited more than 200 cowboy poets from 17 Western states and Canada," he says. "All of them were selected by their state's folklorists, and they're all genuine cowboys or ranchers--that's a prerequisite." The audience, too, is made up of cowboys, not tourists. "That's how we maintain our authenticity," Cannon adds.

The poems on these pages are indicative of the cowboys' range of subject matter and style. "The Strawberry Roan" was written in 1914 by Curley Fletcher, one of the genre's most popular practitioners. Bruce Kiskaddon, who left the range to drive chariots in the silent film "Ben-Hur" in 1926, spent the rest of his life writing poems as a bellhop in the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. James Barton Adams was a 19th-Century Denver-based poet; Billy Fouts is a 25-year-old Sonora resident who was selected as one of three California representatives to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering last January.

THE STRAWBERRY ROAN By Curley Fletcher I'm a-layin' around, just spendin' muh time, Out of a job an' ain't holdin' a dime, When a feller steps up, an' sez, "I suppose That you're uh bronk fighter by the looks uh yure clothes." "Yuh figures me right--I'm a good one," I claim "Do you happen tuh have any bad uns tuh tame?" He sez he's got one, uh bad un tuh buck, An' fur throwin' good riders, he's had lots uh luck. . . . "He offers uh ten spot. Sez I, "I'm yure man, Cause the bronk never lived, that I couldn't fan; The hoss never lived, he never drew breath, That I couldn't ride till he starved plum tuh death. . . ." (The cowboy takes a ride on the Strawberry Roan.) He goes up t'ward the East, an' comes down t'ward the West, Tuh stay in his middle, I'm doin' muh best. He sure is frog walkin', he heaves a big sigh, He only lacks wings fur tuh be on the fly. . . . He hits on all fours, an' suns up his side, I don't see how he keeps from shedding his hide. I loses muh stirrups an' also muh hat, I'm grabbin' for leather an' blind as uh bat. . . . Then I knows that the hosses I ain't able tuh ride Is some of them livin'--they haven't all died. But I bets all muh money they ain't no man alive, Kin stay with that bronk when he makes that high dive. From "Songs of the Sage: The Poetry of Curley Fletcher," preface by Hal Cannon. Copyright 1986 Gibbs M. Smith Inc., Layton, Utah. Reprinted with permission.

WHEN THEY'RE FINISHED SHIPPING CATTLE IN THE FALL By Bruce Kiskaddon . . . When you make the camp that night, Though the fire is burnin' bright, Yet nobody seems to have a lot to say. In the spring you sung and hollered, Now you git your supper swallered And you crawl into your blankets right away. Then you watch the stars a shinin' Up there in the soft blue linin' And you sniff the frosty night air clear and cool. You can hear the night hoss shiftin' And your memory starts a driftin' To the little village where you went to school. With its narrow gravel streets And the kids you used to meet, And the common where you used to play baseball. Now you're far away and draggin' To the home ranch with the wagon-- For they've finished shippin' cattle in the fall.

From "Rhymes of the Ranges: A New Collection of the Poems of Bruce Kiskaddon," edited and with an introduction by Hal Cannon. Copyright 1987 Gibbs M. Smith Inc., Layton, Utah. Reprinted with permission.

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