So my brother’s in town, and we get to talking about traveling, and one thing or t’other, and eventually we start talking about Nevada. And the fact that Winnemucca advertises itself as the ‘Hub of Northern Nevada.’ And Battle Mountain is apparently proud of the fact that it was named Armpit of America by New York Magazine. And also that Battle Mountain put its high school’s initials on a nearby mountain, so right there, for everyone to see, the mountain has a big BM on its side.
And Elko hosts the annual Cowboy Poetry festival. They actually call it a Gathering. It’s a very big deal.
So we’re chatting there, my brother and his kids and me and my wife, and I’m on-line, and I thought I’d Google Cowboy Poetry, the way you do. And found, I’m not kidding, cowboypoetry.com. And sorted through some of the poems. And fell in love.
I’m not kidding, it’s great stuff. A lot of it is narrative poetry, the kind of stuff folks used to memorize and recite. And I love stuff like that. “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” “Casey at the Bat.” “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” People used to gather and listen to recited poetry–it was theatre and it was literature and it was art.
I like real poetry too, of course. (And am kicking myself right now for making a false distinction between ‘real’ poetry and ‘recited’ poetry–it’s all good.) But there’s something about the public, performative quality of recited poetry. You get to play with voice, you get to create a character. You get to tell a story. And relish the inevitable plot twist at the end.
So here’s one I absolutely love, a poem I’m working on memorizing, and hope someday to recite. It’s by cowboy poet Henry Herbert Knibbs. I like all his stuff. But this poem, I adore:
Now, Mr. Boomer Johnson was a gettin’ old in spots
But you don’t expect a bad man to go wrastlin’ pans and pots
But he’d done his share of killin’ and his draw was gettin’ slow,
So he quits a-punchin’ cattle, and he takes to punchin’ dough.
Our foreman up and hires him, figurin’ age had rode him tame,
But a snake don’t get no sweeter just by changin’ of its name.
Well, Old Boomer knowed his bidness–he could cook to make you smile,
But say, he wrangled fodder in a most peculiar style.
He never used no matches–left ’em layin’ on the shelf,
Just some kerosene and cussin’ and the kindlin’ lit itself.
And pardner, I’m allowin’ it would give a man a jolt
To see him stir frijoles with the barrel of his Colt.
Now killin’ folks and cookin’ ain’t so awful far apart,
That musta been why Boomer kept a-practicin’ his art;
With the front sight of his pistol, he would cut a pie-lid slick,
And he’d crimp her with the muzzle for to make the edges stick.
He built his doughnuts solid, and it sure would curl your hair
To see him plug a doughnut as he tossed it in the air.
He bored the holes plum center every time his pistol spoke,
Till the can was full of doughnuts and the shack was full of smoke.
We-all was gettin’ jumpy, but he couldn’t understand
Why his shootin’ made us nervous when his cookin’ was so grand.
He kept right on performin’, and it weren’t no big surprise
When he took to markin’ tombstones on the covers of his pies.
They didn’t taste no better and they didn’t taste no worse,
But a-settin’ at the table was like ridin’ in a hearse;
You didn’t do no talkin’ and you took just what you got,
So we et till we was foundered just to keep from gettin’ shot.
When at breakfast one bright mornin’, I was feelin’ kind of low,
Old Boomer passed the doughnuts and I tells him plenty slow:
“No, All I takes this trip is coffee, for my stomach is a wreck.”
I could see the itch for killin’ swell the wattle on his neck.
Scorn his grub? He strings some doughnuts on the muzzle of his gun,
And he shoves her in my gizzard and he says, “You’re takin’ one!”
He was set to start a graveyard, but for once he was mistook;
Me not wantin’ any doughnuts, I just up and salts the cook.
Did they fire him? Listen, pardner, there was nothin’ left to fire,
Just a row of smilin’ faces and another cook to hire.
If he joined some other outfit and is cookin’, what I mean,
It’s where they ain’t no matches and they don’t need kerosene.
Now, pardner, tell me that ain’t great poetry. And when you say it, smile. . . .