Arizona is an interesting place, one that many people understandably want to visit, and I have the great fortune of calling home. It’s a place of incredible variety: in a few hours time you can sit among the cool pine trees, hike to over 12000 feet in elevation, go boating, or bake in the desert. It boasts a history, ancient from the numerous native americans who have lived here for centuries. The culture is heavily influenced by the strong Hispanic population. It’s a state with huge population growth, especially in the capital city, Phoenix. And it has a rich cowboy culture that is still present today.
It is not unusual to see western garb being worn throughout Arizona; ranching is still an important industry here, and it’s influence can be seen in businesses, entertainment and day-to-day life. Rodeos happen here, some are even weekly at local restaurant honky-tonks. It’s a way of life, one with simple but strong values for the land, hard work, independence, the support of friends and family. This has preserved a cowboy culture, born of yesteryear but living on today.
When we think of cowboys we think of horseback riding, cattle drives, rodeos, ranches. But did you know that cowboys are also known for their poetry? Born when cowboys would entertain each other with stories and songs around a campfire after a day’s work, poetic forms were used to help the sometimes illiterate workers to remember their contribution.
Today, while most authors are cowboys or have some connection to that world, the criteria has more to do with the themes and style of the work, rather than with it’s author’s profession. Often romantic, but realistic, these poems are stories about values, lifestyle and work. They might be about people; current day heroes, or memories of those long gone. The value and beauty of the land and landscapes around them, despite the harshness of the life they lead.
“Old time” country music is related to cowboy poetry. You’ll recognize the rhyming couplet style set to guitar music.
There are several annual Cowboy Poetry Gatherings in the western US and Canada; we’re fortunate to have a popular gathering in Prescott, Arizona, about an hour and a half north of Phoenix. Events are held for three days. During the daytime, entry is free on a first come first serve basis to multiple locations rotating through a variety of performing artists. Each evening a lineup of performers present to paid theatre-goers. I was fortunate to attend the last evening of this year’s gathering last Saturday night.
As with many traditional activities, this art form suffers fear of dwindling over time to more contemporary pursuits. This year’s final evening started with recitations by the winners of a 4th grade cowboy poetry contest in Prescott. Trained by a combination of their teachers and a couple of cowboy poets, these kids are the future of this art form. What a joy to see them share their talent, and hear their tales!
If you need another reason to visit Arizona, or if you’re here, looking for something different to do, I strongly recommend a visit to the Arizona Cowboy Poets Gathering. You will hear poems, and songs, and some of the corniest jokes you’ve heard in years. And the stories, well they’re all “true”! You’ll be moved to tears, laugh out loud, and will recognize yourself in many of the words.