Cowboy Poetry vs Free Verse

Cowboy Poetry Week text from poster

In honor of National Cowboy Poetry Week (April 21-27, 2019), I am reprinting this blog, which was originally published July 30, 2012 on my website’s blog page.

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Recently [July, 2012] I presented a workshop at the combined annual meeting of the Dakota Cowboy Poets Association and the Western Writers Group, held at Slim McNaught’s house in New Underwood, South Dakota.

My workshop was With the Net Down: Do You Dare to Write Without Rhyme? Briefly, I discussed the differences between rhymed, metered poetry and free verse. Poets like myself, who don’t generally use rhyme, often hear Robert Frost’s statement that writing poetry without rhyme is like playing tennis with the net down. Many rhyming poets think that free verse just means the poetry doesn’t rhyme.

In fact, rhyme or the lack of it has nothing to do with defining free verse.

Free verse can be rhymed or unrhymed but its primary characteristic is that it has no set meter.

No set meter. That’s not the same as having no meter at all.

Here’s a fine and familiar free verse poem:

Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory,
For ever and ever. Amen.

Free verse. And when one person or a congregation is repeating those words, you can hear the rhythm.

I don’t want to repeat here everything I had to say at my workshop, let alone everything there is to say, about meter. The set acoustic pattern of a line of poetry is its meter or rhythm and may be measured in syllables, accented syllables, or both. Thus meter is often defined by the number of syllables in the line.

Most of us speak in iambic: collections of one unaccented followed by one accented syllable:

I’m GO-ing TO the GROcery STORE to-DAY.

That’s iambic pentameter: five iambic (da-DUM) feet.

Because we speak in iambics, we appreciate poetry that uses them. Blank verse is usually unrhymed iambic pentameter: five pairs of iambs. William Shakespeare and John Milton both favored this form.

Cowboy Poetry - Iambic Pentameter boots with label

But other kinds of feet exist: Pyrrhic is two unaccented syllables: da-da; Spondee two accented syllables: DUM-DUM; Trochee an accented and an unaccented (DUM-da) and so forth. Free verse has meter but not usually meter as regular as the conventional rhymed iambic pentameter pattern of cowboy poetry.

My favorite articles about cowboy poetry, including information about unrhymed poetry, appear at www.CowboyPoetry.com, written by cowboy poet Rod Miller. If you write poetry, rhymed or otherwise, you ought to read these. [link posted below]

As Rod Miller says, any good free verse poem uses the kinds of literary tools and techniques that elevate all good poetry to a level above ordinary writing:

“. . . tonal quality, word choice, allusion, onomatopoeia, metaphor, layered meanings, imagery, and such like. The lack of discipline offered by the absence of meter and the opportunity to cast aside rhyme do not give a poet free rein to be less than poetic, any more than strict adherence to rhyme and meter allow a poet to use otherwise ordinary language in creating verse.”

Most of us don’t live up to the high standards set by the best writers. I’ve never heard a rhyming cowboy poet better than Wally McRae or a free verse cowboy poet better than Paul Zarzyski. And plenty of bad poetry of every type finds its way into print.

We all want the same thing: to tell our stories and have people listen to and enjoy them.

In my workshop, I challenged the assembled cowboy poets and their spouses to write about a subject without trying to rhyme. Several people produced drafts that could turn into good poems of one kind or another.

The question and answer session turned into the most fascinating discussion I’ve had on the subject of poetry in years.

During the workshop, I’d read a couple of Paul Zarzyski poems as illustrations of fine free verse poetry.

Cowboy Poetry microphone -- pexels-photo-164829Cowboy Poet Robert Dennis of Red Owl, South Dakota, asked if all free verse poetry is meant to be read aloud.

“Because,” he said, “listening to what you just read, my brain just can’t keep up. I realize those are interesting words and lines, but there’s so much happening in the poem that I lose the meaning.”

I could see instantly what he meant.

Here’s a bit of Paul Zarzyski’s poem “On my Birthday, The Serpent–” that I read during the workshop. (I’m reproducing it here without his specific permission because it appears on his website and I think he’d approve of my using it in a teaching context and Paul refuses to use email so gaining his permission by mailing a letter to ask him could take weeks.)

disturbed from his moist coiled sleep in the cool
humus beneath the horse trough
triveted an inch off the ground
by mildewed boards–glides
between my feet. It has been
startled by water
hose thrashing the roof
over its head, brass nozzle
striking side-to-side
wildly under the sudden thrust–spigot
handle yanked up full.

Though I’d practiced reading those first lines many times, I still muffed “moist coiled.” The rest of the words are so filled with imagery, tone, alliteration and layered meanings that I had to read the poem several times to try to get the full meaning into my reading. The vivid, complex language had grown more fascinating with each reading.

But could someone hearing the poem for the first time understand it? Only after I’d read it several times did I really appreciate many of the nuances.

Cowboy Poetry reading a poem -- free-use-photo-unsplash-by-Cassidy-Kelley“So can it be,” Robert persisted, “that some free verse poetry should be read on the page and not performed?”

That idea had never occurred to me but I think he’s right. Some poetry that I’d call excellent would be extremely hard to understand if you only heard it once. Only after many readings and thoughtful pondering can the reader grasp the meaning.

Should such poetry be read aloud? Probably not if the poet’s primary aim is to be understood. Audiences who listen to Zarzyski, though they may not understand the entire meaning of a poem, are thoroughly entertained by the explosive, dynamic presentation.

Poetry is far older than writing. No one can be sure precisely where the art began but it probably arose as spells spoken or chanted in early societies to promote harmony and good harvests. Ancient societies such as those in Greece and Rome made poetry part of religious rites. Later it became the way to transmit and recall the stories of a civilization’s struggles and victories. Traveling troubadours in later societies were often singing or reciting news events; rhyme and meter helped everyone remember the stories.

So the cowboy poet who recites stories of his daily life is considerably closer to the true origins of this ancient art than the academician who lards his lines with italicized words and loads on footnotes to explain all the references.

Cowboy Poetry man at mic -- pexels-photo-2114760-by-Kevin-Bidwell

When I mentioned my discussion with Robert to publisher Nancy Curtis [High Plains Press, Glendo, Wyoming], she added another element.

Some poetry that sounds terrific when read or recited aloud is not well written; the images may be cliched or the rhythm rough. Part of the magic lies in the poet’s performance. Poets who regularly entertain audiences may be more interested in making the story entertaining than in making it conform to any “rules” of poetry.

Meanwhile, some poetry that is technically excellent isn’t enjoyable to listen to or is too complex to reveal its meaning when read or recited aloud. A solitary reader might appreciate the meaning but an audience just doesn’t have time during one hearing.

Logically, then, the poetry that has the best chance of resounding in the minds of audience members is that with strong rhythm and rhyme: those familiar elements that allow the audience to become part of the story. This is one reason cowboy poetry has become so popular.

Conversely, free verse poets who plan to recite their work before audiences should consider whether or not their work can be understood when recited. Rather than simply distributing gorgeous language and long lines across the page, we free verse poets need to spend more time studying those many methods of using meter in order to create poetry rhythmic enough to satisfy the audience’s love of regularity and make memorable lines.

Robert said in a later conversation, “I do enjoy the good stuff,” just as he enjoys the best rhymed poetry. And sometimes as he works on a poem, he added, he gets “caught up in the rush to share it before it’s at its best. Kind of like showing off your new baby instead of your college graduate!”

And perhaps we need to relax and allow poetry created to be performed to be judged by a different standard than poetry created for deeper study. I am not ready to trade flamboyant cowboy performers for fellows in three-piece suits reading footnoted masterpieces of obfuscation.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2012 and 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Cowboy Poetry Week poster by Shawn Cameron for www.CowboyPoetry.com

If you are at all interested in Cowboy Poetry, the website to visit is www.CowboyPoetry.com where you will find poems, blogs, history, stories, cds to purchase, and current events all relating to western poetry, new and old, rhymed and not– including webpages about the poetry of Slim McNaught, Paul Zarzyski, Robert Dennis, Rod Miller, Wally McRae, and Linda M. Hasselstrom (and many more).

This poster from CowboyPoetry.com celebrating Cowboy Poetry Week, features art by Shawn Cameron. Find more of her western art at her website www.ShawnCameron.com

The essays by Rod Miller about Cowboy Poetry, mentioned in my blog, may be found on the CowboyPoetry.com website by clicking here.

 

Poetry in the Schools

Poetry Out Loud: Local

Last month I donated my skills to a couple of educational events as a way of giving thanks for some of the generous help I received from teachers in this rural area.

February 25th, the Hermosa Middle School teachers invited me to speak to the sixth, seventh and eighth grade students about writing.

When I attended the Hermosa School, it was a two-story red-brick edifice. Visitors strolled up the concrete walk and steps, past the swings that clanged against their poles in the slightest breeze. I’d wave at Henry Bale, the janitor, if he stuck his head out of the office beside the basement furnace, and climb another set of stairs to the classrooms. That old building has been replaced by a modern facility. Most of my time there lately has been spent in the kitchen of the gymnasium, serving food for various charitable events.

Hermosa School 2016--3-3

This time I hefted a crate of my books and walked up to the double doors at the main entrance. I grabbed the door handle and pulled.

Locked.

At that moment, I recalled with a shock every headline about school violence I’ve read in the past few years. Of course, Hermosa cannot assume that it’s immune.

Just inside, a receptionist asked my name, then unlocked the doors and let me into a small foyer, facing a second set of locked doors. I identified myself, and she looked at a list on her desk before unlocking the second doors, then called me into the office to sign in and receive a visitor’s badge. I understand the necessity for these precautions, but find them terribly depressing. The school, however, was light and pleasant, with busy classrooms and smiling students and teachers.

Escorted to the classroom by two of the students, I arranged my books on a table and waited while the assorted students filed in. I haven’t been in a grade school classroom for years, but the faces, the slouches, the nervousness, the tentative smiles and the chatter were all familiar. I quickly identified several species of student that have inhabited every classroom I’ve ever seen: The Mouth, the Girl Who Always Raises Her Hand, the Shy One, the Hair-Flipping Gum Chewer, The Stud (yes, even in eighth grade), and others.

After introductions, I slammed into my poem “Make a Hand,” which involves sweeping gestures and a certain amount of yelling. Things quieted right down.

Hermosa School visit 2016--2-25Now that I had their attention, I explained to them that almost everything that interests them is a story— TV programs, the news, poems, gossip. I mentioned various jobs I’ve held, and showed them the books I’ve written that have been published, explaining that every book contains what I know about this neighborhood and the stories of its people. Publishing, I told them, is hard work; I submitted my first book to 26 publishers before it was accepted by the 27th.

I read them “Where the Stories Come From,” and we talked about ranch work; many of them are growing up in ranching families. After I read “Looking for Grandmother,” I asked, “Who peels potatoes at your house?” Several boys and girls raised their hands and proved they knew what they were talking about by describing their potato peelers, or knives. We discussed what the poem means, and how you can tell what my emotions about my grandmother are. I read them “Beef Eater,” and asked them what it meant. To my delight, several of them understood the joke of the poem: you are what you eat.

They asked intelligent questions, and then told me they have to write their biography for the classroom. So I gave them a formula for writing a poem that I’ve found effective: writing one line of action, one line that’s a quotation, one line of physical description, and then repeating each of these, ad infinitum, in any order, until you have built up enough details from which to write a poem, a biography, or another kind of story.

Here’s the poem I once wrote using that formula. And I told them that the poem is dedicated to my uncle, Harold Hasselstrom. They recognized his name, because their gym is named for him.

“What do you suppose he did, to have the gym named after him?” I asked.

“Died!” yelled someone.

True, but that’s not all he did; he was devoted to education because he didn’t have time for much of it in his life, and he served for many years on the school board, even though he didn’t have kids.

 

Uncle

He sips coffee
thick hands wrapped around the cup.
“This generation ain’t got no corner on violence.”
His sunburned hands, cracked and broken, clench into fists.
“You’d be surprised how many fellas
turned up in their own wells
in the Dirty Thirties.”

The drought was less severe, he says,
here where ranchers did not tear the sod with plows.
Most families had enough to eat.
His battered hands fixed fences,
drove the teams swathing hay,
paid out worn bills for the land of those who left.

Now they call him a land baron.
“Quitters,” he says. “They gave up.
But someone had to stay—
and that took guts. Men like that
had hot tempers, and did
their own law-making.”

© 1993, Linda M. Hasselstrom

 

Poetry Out Loud: Statewide

My second school project of the month was to serve as a judge for the Poetry Out Loud competition, in which students recite memorized poems.

Again I was struck by the profound changes in how these things are done in these modern times! I didn’t have to travel to another town and sit uncomfortably in a school auditorium to watch as the contestants stumbled in for their performances.

POLlogoInstead, I received by email lists of the contestants, information on judging, and directions to www.poetryoutloud.org, where I could watch a representative sample of performers.

Each contestant had submitted a video. Judges would watch each video while judging students on details of their performance such as physical presence, voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, and evidence of understanding of the poem. I knew who the other judges were only from their addresses on the emails we’d received, and we had no opportunity to consult one another. I chose a time to gather my materials, direct my computer to a YouTube channel dedicated to the performances, and began to listen.

Again, this was familiar territory. I participated in contests like this in grade school, I think, and certainly in high school, back in the dark ages when it was called Oral Interpretation. Memorizing the poem was relatively easy, and my parents were encouraging. Standing alone on a stage in front of judges in a darkened auditorium was hard, but I knew it was “good for me.”

Watching these videos, shot variously in classrooms, against blank walls, and other locations, I was impressed. The twelve participants included students of varying ethnicities from high schools both large and small, and some who are homeschooled. Each of them deserves praise for their hard to work to memorize the poems, and the courage to stand up and recite it. Dedicated teachers and others encouraged these young scholars, and took time to videotape the performances.

While I did both these jobs, I was thinking of teachers who encouraged me when I was an awkward adolescent— people like Elsie Enders of Hermosa, Ed Hartman of Custer, Hazel Heiman and Josephine Zamow of Rapid City— and offering them my thanks in the only way left to do so.

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

 

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Here’s where to find my poems mentioned in this blog:

“Make a Hand” and “Where the Stories Come From”
Bitter Creek Junction (2000, High Plains Press; Glendo, Wyoming)

“Looking for Grandmother”
Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, with Twyla M. Hansen (2011, The Backwaters Press; Omaha, Nebraska)

“Beef Eater”
Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land (1991, Fulcrum Publishing; Golden, Colorado)

“Uncle”
Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom (1993, Spoon River Poetry Press; Granite Falls, Minnesota)

 

© 2016, Linda M. Hasselstrom