A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, before the days of dot-coms and IPOs, little boys and girls longed to grow up to become cowboys and cowgirls. Willie Nelson did his best to discourage them by crooning sweet warnings to their mamas. Fortunately, the dream persisted.
But it''s getting harder and harder to make a living as a cowboy these days, with the demand for cowpoke-related services vanishing like the prairies. Happily, the voice of cowboy folk culture--cowboy poetry--has had a rebirth.
The renaissance of contemporary cowboy poetry began in 1985, with the first Elko Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Nevada. Every year since, the event has grown in size, inspiring other regional cowboy poetry gatherings around the country, including one in our own backyard, the upcoming 13th annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering, at the California Rodeo in Salinas.
Since cowboy poets are still kind of an endangered species, some thoughtful local souls at the Foundation for Monterey County Free Libraries have started a training program. It''s called the Buckaroo Cowboy Poetry Contest, and it''s open to all Monterey County residents under the age of 18. The top three winners will get a chance to read their best cowboy verse at the gathering in Salinas on July 15.
The judges of the contest are authentic cowboy poets who know the real thing when they see it.
What is the real thing? We haven''t found a better definition of cowboy poetry than this one, from Barney Nelson, who was one of the founders of the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Dr. Nelson (that''s mighty high falutin'' for a cowgirl, but she''s earned it) was one of the original five women poets who participated in that first gathering in Elko. Formerly a rancher, she''s now a professor at Sul Ross State University in Texas, and an expert on the cowboy oral tradition.
Dr. Nelson spoke at the 10th annual Texas gathering, which was dedicated to her. She trans- lated Carl Sandburg''s definitions of poetry into cowboy poetryspeak, which we''ve helpfully reproduced for budding buckaroo bards to ponder:
1. Poetry is stump-ching, stump-ching, stump-ching across an echoing hardwood floor.
2. Poetry is why horses buck for no reason at all and don''t when they should.
3. Poetry is hitting a cold pocket of air on a pre-dawn circle.
4. Poetry is rinsing out tin cans before you throw them in the dump.
5. Poetry is leather.
6. Poetry is the first baby calf and the last old one-eyed, crippled cow.
7. Poetry is the old cook throwing a match at gasoline-soaked live oak logs.
8. Poetry is shod horses thundering down a rocky hill for no apparent reason.
9. Poetry is a gate that swings, grass in the middle of the road, taking your leggin''s off at the end of a hot day.
10. Poetry is not rhymed jokes, bragging, politics, or sad tales about losing horse, girl or poker hand--but it can be.
11. Poetry is keeping a good crew as your audience; only then will you say something the rest of the world needs to know.
We should add that cowboy poetry, like most of the good things in life, is having its feet held to the fire lately. Real cowboys say that real cowboy poetry should rhyme. Some of the new artsy cowboy poet wannabees write free verse, which real cowboys say ain''t cowboy poetry at all, but storytelling. We''re staying out of the ruckus.
Entry forms for the Buckaroo contest are available at all branches of the Monterey County Free Libraries. Deadline for entries is July 5.