Out Where the Sages Bloom, 120 Rhyme-Stoned Cowboys Show How the West Was Spun

updated 03/04/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/04/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

I hate poetry
I can't really say why
And yet I write some
At least I try.

I write about things
That I like best
Old horses and cowpokes
And places out West.

—These stanzas and the ones that follow are from I Hate Poetry, by Nyle Henderson.

An hour out of Salt Lake City, the quart bottle of Cuervo Gold emerged from deep within a duffel bag. As the train whistled across the night-darkened desert, the poems began and the bottle went from full to empty. On board the Amtrak special were 60 or so poet lariats. These were prairie sages heading for Elko, Nev. for the first annual convention of cowboy poets. The club car never closed.

There were cowpunchers from California, mule trainers from Utah and slick buckaroos from Nevada duded out in silk scarves and handlebar mustaches. There were Ph.D.s from Western colleges and $30-a-day ranch hands. There were poets who traveled performing for cattlemen's conventions and there were greenhorns who'd never recited to anyone except a bored cow and the receptive desert sky. And they all, or almost all, tipped their 10-gallon hats to the ladies.

The youngest was 20, the oldest invited 83, but the 120-odd poets who gathered for three days in the Nevada town—pop. 8,758, elevation 5,063—had a couple of things in common: cows, horses and an appreciation for the spoken word. This was no homage to the "vanishing cowboy," but a celebration of a vital present firmly rooted in a century of tradition.

I've told 'em to folks
From both near and far
And they seem to enjoy them
Wherever they are.

But most of my poems
Are special you see
Because they're about things
That have happened to me.

By day the 400 fans gathered for the free event at the Elko Civic Auditorium & Convention Center to hear the poets recite, to enjoy some cowboy music and attend various scholarly lectures, like "Cowboy Poetry—the First Hundred Years."

By night they mingled with the sagebrush bards at the Stockmen's Motor Hotel & Casino and tried their luck with the hotel's 232 one-armed bandits. Fueled by huge Basque dinners, red wine and whiskey, the conventioneers drank, laughed and cried. In the wee hours, poets and fans gathered in hotel rooms swapping stories and killing tequila. Colorado versifier Baxter Black, 40, honored one such gathering by performing his soon-to-be-classic mock-ballad, Honky Tonk Asshole, Get Your Ass Out the Door, but the conventioneers spent more time concocting couplets than crooning. Says Nyle Henderson, 31, a Colorado colt breaker, "I've been in quite a few cow camps and around a lot of camp fires and I can't hardly remember anybody who ever played a guitar. But there's always several guys who know some poems and stories."

Forty-two poets were invited to the conference—all expenses paid—and almost 80 more showed up to recite at the numerous open sessions. Although some shy poets needed the liquid courage of four or five Budweisers before they could get a holt on the convention hall stage, once they got there, they shone like coyote eyeballs in the desert moonlight. "It was better," said one of the organizers, "than anyone could have imagined."

The idea of having the convention occurred in 1978 to Dr. Jim Griffith, the director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona. He and other academics wanted to create a showcase for what Utah cowboy expert Hal Cannon calls "one of the last unexplored areas of Western folklore." Armed with $45,000 in grants in 1983 from the National Endowment for the Arts and $30,000 from various Western organizations, Griffith and Cannon began rustling up saddle-hardened lyricists. They wrote letters to small newspapers and cowboy publications. Other folklorists visited some 200 ranches throughout the West seeking word-of-mouth recommendations, since most cowpuncher poets are so far unpublished. Utah State University plans to add more cowboy poetry to its collection sometime this year.

From being bucked down
To gettin' in a fight.
Despite all my trouble
I come out all right.

Now they may not have a moral
Or any such thing.
But they do have a rhythm
That does kinda ring.

Why do cowboys pen poetry? Explains Griffith, "Composing is a way to fill the long hours on the range. Not necessarily to produce poetry. It seems it's simply satisfying." A Nevada ranch hand adds, "I just write them 'cause they come into my head and I have to get them out."

Nyle Henderson, who claims he was such a bad student that until graduation day, he thought his name was 'Wrong Again,' agrees. "I wait and soon it comes after somethin's happened, like a horse I've known, an experience I've had or someplace I've been. I'll get to thinkin' about it while I'm out there ridin' alone and the next thing I know, a poem comes to me. An' that about sums it up."

The profession that claims John Wayne as one of its own insists it has produced more poets than any other. Asks Guy Logsdon, an Oklahoma folklorist, "Can you imagine a convention of IBM poets?"

And if they no more
Than make someone smile
Well then to me,
It's all been worthwhile.

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