Creating a Cowboy Poem: How Buzzards Turned into Priests

vultures2010

Vultures on a neighbor’s barn.


In honor of National Cowboy Poetry Week, April 19 to 25, I’m looking at how I created one of my few rhyming poems, “Priests of the Prairie” (2004).

My first intention was to write a poem about vultures— or as we call them here, buzzards— in the style of Robinson Jeffers. Jeffers wrote free verse similar to that written by Walt Whitman, and narrative poems in traditional blank verse. Here, for example, is a segment of Jeffers’s poem “Vulture”

And presently it passed again, but lower and nearer, its orbit narrowing,
I understood then
That I was under inspection. I lay death-still and heard the flight-feathers
Whistle above me and make their circle and come nearer.
I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward staring. I said, ‘My dear bird, we are wasting time here.
These old bones will still work; they are not for you.’ But how beautiful
he looked, gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light
over the precipice.

Since Jeffers died in 1962, I should make clear that I was not imitating his poem; I had not read it until I went looking for examples of his verse to include in this essay. I like the central idea of Jeffers’ poem, however: the poet tells the buzzard he’s not available yet.

Often, as soon as I start writing about a subject, I realize I don’t know nearly enough. So I started this poem with research into vultures to supplement what I had learned in 60 years of observing them on this prairie.

Here are a few of my notes:

— nest in cliff overhangs, rocky cavities, badger holes!!
— Bank hollows, caves, tree cavities, abandoned buildings, among rocks; nest sites always dark and well concealed; no actual nest is constructed– eggs laid on substrate
— 2 eggs, rarely 1 or 3; dull to creamy white with various-sized spots and blotches of pale and lighter brown; incubation 38-41 days
— young birds will disgorge their food or bite when approached
— long wings allow them to soar
— groups often seen in high spots with wings spread wide in the sun

I love the idea that they may nest in badger holes, and will have to pursue that thought sometime.

Then I wrote “are vultures in the Bible?” showing that my mind had already decided on a religious connection with the poem.

The answer is yes; I found several references in my Cruden’s Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments, and looked them up in the Holy Bible Helen Painter gave me in 1953 when I joined the church. In Chapter 11 of Leviticus, for example, the Lord lays down The Law to Moses, telling him what the children of Israel may not do if they want to stay in His good graces. Among those rules is that they should not eat vultures— or ravens, owls, nighthawks, swans, pelicans, storks, herons or bats.

Since I had no intention of writing poetically about eating vultures, I went on to Job 28:7, a lovely and mysterious passage: “There is a path which no fowl knoweth, and which the vulture’s eye hath not seen.” This is a terrific metaphor for the search for knowledge, clearly written by someone who understands vultures. If a vulture can’t see the path from his vantage point, it’s hard to find. Ornithologists had wondered if, since a vulture’s sense of smell is so acute that it can track the odor of rotting flesh in only a few parts per billion of air, there might not be a corresponding decline in its eyesight; if you can smell your food, maybe you don’t need to see it. In a fascinating study in 2013, however, it was determined that the vulture’s eyesight is “very good.” The folks who created Job already knew that. I abandoned the Bible as a source of insight into vulture habits.

On my drive to Windbreak House from my home in Cheyenne, WY, on September 21, 2000, I thought for hours, following connections without any regard to their relevance. I jotted a few words on a yellow tablet in the passenger seat of my vehicle.

— enfold you in his black and feathered cloak
— sharp beak severs connections to the world, slices sinew
— words for priesthood he calls: father, clergy, ministry, cloth, eminence, reverence, confessor, pilgrim, holy orders, consecration, ordain,
— black cloaks spreading, blotting out the sun
— to settle in a circle, a choir
— warm flesh to cold, chill, snow, icy eyes?
— truth, soul
— rending of garments and gnashing of teeth
— CHECK REVELATIONS

I was narrowing my focus, strengthening the religious connotations for the poem.

Buzzard/priest images:
— his symbol: curve of beak and talon, curve of earth and eyeball, belly, cheek, nostril
— bald as a Pope
— whisper of rough cloth or smooth wings
— hands hidden in sleeve: claws in feathers?
— click of rosary: beak on bone
— play on HABITS

Once I reached the retreat house that day, I wrote more notes, this time focusing on what I know of buzzards from watching them clean up dead cattle in our pastures for years.

– Head turns to focus eye
– beak vivid yellow, know they’re dipped first in the eye of a dead calf
– soaring in spirals down the field, up over trees, past buildings, always with that steady regard of the ground, never flapping
– Wingtips splayed like fingers
– never flap in breeze too light to stir the fine hair on a baby’s head.
– They soar, bare, wrinkled necks hidden
– shoulders hunched.

Three days later, I began to carve some rough lines from my notes.

Brother Buzzard circles overhead, feathered cloak
shining in the sun, the air so sweet and clean
beneath his wings he rises over fluffy clouds and mountain peaks.
He drifts above the stink of diesel trucks, the SUVs,
the sporty jobs and family vans, above the asphalt deaths,
the stink of twisted ropes of flesh along the interstates.

His eyes see to eternity, and beyond.Until he spirals downward past the clouds,
calling others of the priesthood to worship at the feast.

This version had some interesting details, and I liked some of the rhythm, but it focused on what the buzzard saw, rather than the bird’s actions.

The poem soared around my head for days, while I considered the possibilities of making its rhythm iambic pentameter. This is the most familiar of the cowboy poetry rhythms, some say because it echoes the sounds of a horse walking.

One iambic foot is “ta DUM”, consisting of one unaccented and one accented syllable. As I aimed for a smooth tempo, another version of the poem landed on paper on July 4.  By this time I’d decided that I wanted to use iambic, but not iambic pentameter—5 iambic feet to each line—because it is the very most common cowboy poetry format. In my draft, each line had seven iambic feet—until I reached the last line.

BROther BUZZzard LEADS a CLOIStered LIFE when HE’S at HOME. (7 feet)
He pairs for life and builds a nest secluded in some hollow (7 feet)
deep within a rocky cliff. Mrs. Buzzard lays (7 feet)
two eggs, creamy white with blotches. Brother Buzzard shares (7 feet)
the incubation chores, but every afternoon he sits (7 feet)
in sunshine with the others of his kind to preen and spread (7 feet)
his mighty wings, his feathered cloak of black (5 feet)

I liked the rhythm, but noted on the draft that the poem was “less interesting.”

I printed the poem out, and kept it near my computer, sometimes moving it to the dining room table while I ate, or putting it beside my bed so I could read it first thing in the morning. Keeping the poem close to me meant my subconscious mind would work on the poem even as I conducted a retreat and ate and slept and conversed like a normal person.

Doing more research, I had discovered that “to meet in choir” meant “to settle in a circle.” It’s unlikely that many of my listeners or readers will know this fact, but the term “choir” adds to the religious mood, and is correct, which pleases me greatly.

More lines began to emerge. These, however were not in iambic pentameter but in dactyl: DUM da da DUM da da, a meter that resembles a horse cantering instead of walking.

WHISpering PRACtical PRAYERS for the DEAD,
the BROtherhood MEETs in CHOIR

That’s a long line, with seven dactylic feet, so I read the line aloud to be sure that in a performance I could complete it in one breath.

Girdled in righteousness, bony backs straight,
they gather at high noon to pray.

This line, too, has seven dactylic feet. But could I find a word that made sense and rhymed with “choir”?

In order to decide how to revise the line, I had to remind myself why the buzzards are gathering. I vividly recall when I found my favorite heifer dead, with a half-dozen vultures standing on her corpse feeding. Of course— the buzzard-priests are not just devouring the dead animal, but celebrating a funeral! So I changed the line.

Girdled in righteousness, bony backs straight,
circling the funeral pyre.

To be strictly accurate, funeral pyre means combustible material burned to celebrate a death, but the rhyme makes sense in context.

Their dusty black tunics hang flat on their bones
as shoulder to shoulder they stand

Whoops— rhythm and rhyme both fell apart in the next line:

from tonsured heads erect on scraggly necks
to bony ankles backs to the sun they

By now, I had begun to realize that I might be able to construct the poem with some respectable rhymes, and began thinking of it as an homage or thanks to The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where I’d been invited to perform several times. So I concentrated on making the rhythm perfect and the rhymes logical. If a poet intends to rhyme, the standard is very high. To remind myself of the best, I read the poetry of Wallace McRae. Writing poems is not a competition, but if you plan to write and recite the poem in exalted company, I think it’s smart to read the very best.

My work on the poem after this consisted of changes that would seem minute if I reproduced all the drafts. Over and over I read and recited the poem, beating out the rhythm on the steering wheel as I drove, or on my desk as I typed. I looked at my rhyming dictionary and wrote lists of words that might fit the meaning of the poem. As I worked, I also discovered some humor that seemed to fit the occasion.

I think the finished poem carries considerable poetic weight, portraying accurately how a group of buzzards looks gathered on the 80 pound body of a dead newborn calf, and the philosophical humor of a rancher who knows the sight represents loss of nine months of a cow’s life as well as the year’s profit from her at the sale ring.

Priests of the Prairie

Whispering practical prayers for the dead,
the brotherhood meets in choir.
Girdled in righteousness, bony backs straight,
circling the funeral pyre.

Their dusty black tunics hang flat on their bones,
shoulder to shoulder they stand.
Tonsured heads wobble on scraggly necks
as they pray in the pastureland.

From out of the West, the priesthood has come,
cloaks shining black in the sun,
to gather around this altar of flesh
until their communion is done.

Their eyes see forever– and somewhat beyond;
eternity, and a square meal.
The Brothers of Buzzard are worshipping lunch,
devouring the finest of veal.

(c) 2004, Linda M. Hasselstrom

The poem was first published in Cowboy Poetry: The Reunion, Gibbs-Smith, in 2004, and I have read it several times since then in Elko, home of The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. I enjoy beginning to read the poem in a deep voice with great solemnity. Almost immediately, I catch audience attention because the dactylic rhythm suggests humor rather than seriousness, and thus contrasts with my tone of voice and attitude. On the final stanza, I gesture to the sun from which the priesthood descends– and intone the final two lines with a smile.

But there’s more. Re-reading these drafts and writing these comments, I’ve noticed some lines and ideas that didn’t make it into the final poem. I gave up on writing about the bird’s actual life, but those details are significant, since the bird forms an important role in prairie ecology, cleaning up carrion. I’m fascinated again by the phrases:

– warm flesh to cold
– bald as a Pope
– click of rosary: beak on bone

Since I look forward to the arrival of vultures every spring, I don’t doubt that I may write more about them. And now I’ve reminded myself that I have these unused notes, my subconscious mind has already begun working on what else I might say about vultures. This is surely another good reason to keep early drafts of poems. On a computer, it’s too easy to rewrite without saving those drafts, but it’s equally easy to date and save them. I’d forgotten those images, and have rediscovered them only because I looked up the poem’s early drafts to write this commentary.

That’s how poetry develops. I can’t show you every step I took, or create a set of rules that will lead you to your own rhyming poem, but remember it’s important to read the kind of poetry you want to write, and then set your standards high. Revise again and again and again. Save each draft, and carry the newest with you to read as you wait at stoplights or for meetings, so the lines will begin to reverberate in your subconscious mind where so much of the work of poetry occurs. I think of those depths as a deep mine where I occasionally hear the clink of a miner’s pick as my brain finds the gold of a new piece of writing.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2015, Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

My Writings About Vultures:

“Priests of the Prairie” appears in the book Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet with Twyla M. Hansen (The Backwaters Press, 2011).

My previous writings about vultures include an essay simply titled “Vultures” appeared in Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, Inc., 1991) pp. 193-201, and was reprinted in that winter’s edition of a wonderful magazine I still miss, Northern Lights.

Another buzzard poem, “A Venue of Vultures,” was published in my poems with Twyla M. Hansen, Dirt Songs, 2011.  Listen to me read it in a recording made by Barry Wick in June, 2013: http://www.windbreakhouse.com/files/Venue_of_Vultures_by_Linda_Hasselstrom_EQ_Selection_2_Vol_up.mp3

National Cowboy Poetry Week:

April 19-25 is the fourteenth annual National Cowboy Poetry Week. The best history of the art form I know is “A Brief Introduction to Cowboy Poetry, or Who’s the Guy in the Big Hat and What is He Talking About?” by Rod Miller on http://www.cowboypoetry.com.

He exposes the myths and traces the truths of this mostly oral, lyrical, often-rhyming form, mentioning its earliest and best practitioners. He notes its rediscovery in 1985 by folklorists and its subsequent leap to prominence in modern-day America. On the same website, he asks, “What, exactly, is this cowboy poetry?” and answers:

“The simplest answer is probably to say it’s poetry that springs from the workaday world of the cowboy. (More on that later.) But that’s too simplistic an answer to encompass what cowboy poetry was, let alone what it is, never mind where it’s going.”

If you are a would-be cowboy poet, this should be just the beginning of your study of Rod Miller’s comments on the form.

If you are already a cowboy poet, you could probably still learn from reading Rod’s series of articles on the website.

If you are a scoffer who sneers at the galloping rhythms and sometimes hobbled rhymes, you should read the articles to understand that not everything you hear recited as cowboy poetry is the best the form has to offer. Look for the work of South Dakota’s first Poet Laureate, Badger Clark; read Wallace McRae. Look for others that measure up to the standards those writers set. And don’t miss the work of Paul Zarzyski; not all good cowboy poets use rhyme.

For a more complete discussion of rhythm as it relates to cowboy poetry, see Rod Miller’s essays “The Rhythm Method” and “Are You All Talk and No Trochaic Tetrameter?” at the cowboypoetry.com website. That will give you a start, but in order to write poems with smooth rhyme and rhythm, you need to practice. (Find all of Rod Miller’s essays mentioned here at www.cowboypoetry.com/rmwhatis.htm.)

If you’re interested in keeping track of where cowboy poetry is going, attend The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, always scheduled for the last week in January. In 2016, poets, artists, and musicians from the Northern Plains will be featured. You can learn more about the Gathering, hear recordings, and buy tickets at www.westernfolklife.org.

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2 thoughts on “Creating a Cowboy Poem: How Buzzards Turned into Priests

  1. This afternoon we spent a half hour watching two buzzards who had landed on the only south-facing roof in the ranch yard, and one of the few without a tin roof. They spread their wings, and stand with their backs to the sun. Authorities say this behavior warms them and may also discourage parasites. Both then folded their wings and seemed to almost lie down on the roof. Eventually they flew off and began circling the ranch yard, followed by a hawk which seemed to be chasing them–from a safe distance.
    How do you recognize a buzzard in flight? They can soar for a long time without flapping. And if you look at the ends of those long wings, you will see that the feathers are spread like the fingers of a hand.

  2. 4/23/2015
    This morning the two turkey vultures were in the ranch yard, perched on a post rack, backs to the morning sun and wings spread wide. As we got closer, we could see the light shining through the outer edges of each wing. The buzzards turned their heads to look at us, but did not fly as we tried to get close enough for a photograph. After awhile, they closed their wings and sat, still with their backs to the sun. Then one flew—and Cosmo, the fearless Westie, galloped after it, but turned back when the bird lit on a fence post and stared down at him.
    I wonder if the vultures will find a good nesting spot near here. They typically nest in rock crevices or caves in cliffs, which we don’t have, but we do have some nice limestone ledges not far away. They also have been known to nest in thickets, mammal burrows or fallen trees, or abandoned hawk or heron nests and empty buildings. They aren’t much for architecture; they scrape out spots in soil or leaves or lay legs amid scraps of rotting wood. We have an abundance of big fallen cottonwoods and old hawk nests in the area, so maybe we’ll see more of them. There’s even a dead antelope not far away, though most of his flesh has already been eaten by a golden eagle and the coyotes. Turkey vultures are one species that has been thriving in recent years.

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