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D a n a G io ia Is W r o n g a b o u t C o w b o y P o e t r y B a r n e y N e l s o n Dana Gioia, named head of the National Endowment for the Arts by George Bush in January 2003, calls cowboy poetry part of a “massive cultural revolution,” a “shift from print culture to electronic media,” and he’s predicting “the death of the text” (“Disappearing” 21, 23, 29). The public has yawned at academic poetry, he says, either as it is taught in literature courses or produced by creative writing classes, and so several “new bohemian” groups have broken away to revive poetry outside academia: cowboy poetry, rap, poetry slams, and performance poetry (see Gioia, “Note toward a New Bohemia”). Their popularity, he says, proves that the love of poetry is not dead, just the love of the poem on the page, and that poetry now “resembles entertainment more than art” (“Disappearing” 37). He says these new forms of poetry have wrestled the genre from the clutches of the academic elite back to the working classes. Gioia obviously has his thumb on the pulse of American art. He’s right about the boredom and rebellion, but he’s wrong about the rest. Cowboy poetry has always been written down. One of my personal treasures is a handwritten copy ofa poem an old cowboy had saved, folded in an envelope, for over sixty years. He gave it to me not long before he died because the poem described a good cowpony named “Barney.” I’ve never heard it recited. Before the first poetry gatherings, most people familiar with cowboy poems had read them rather than heard them. Bruce Kiskaddon’s poems had been read and clipped from The Western Livestock Journal or one of its calendars or memorized from his books. E. A. Brininstool, Bill Chittenden, Badger Clark, Curley Fletcher, Henry Herbert Knibbs, and even Charlie Russell had published their poetry. A t one of the early Elko gatherings, folklorists assembled a huge collection of old cowboy poetry books. Ranch bookcases usually contained several volumes, and many have now been reprinted. Many of the “anonymous” poems recited at the early gatherings have since been traced to published authors. Yet today cowboy poetry is consid­ ered “folklore,” captured from the “oral tradition,” and Gioia predicts “the death of the text.” This sounds like another version of the “dying W e s t e r n A m e r ic a n L i t e r a t u r e 40.4 ( W i n t e r 2006): 404- 22. B a r n e y N e l s o n 4 0 5 cowboy,” who has been dying for one hundred years, yet there are prob­ ably just as many cowboys today, probably more, than there were one hundred years ago. Someone horseback looks after all that “empty” space travelers pass through on their way from San Antonio to Los Ange­ les, Bozeman to St. Paul, and Cheyenne to El Paso. And if you count the number of “cowboys” who have magically appeared since the poetry gatherings began, the population is definitely on the increase, as are books featuring cowboy poetry. The popularity with readers is phenom­ enal. I’m not sure what the figure is today, but in 1991 one reviewer said Hal Cannon’s first anthology, Cowboy Poetry: A Gathering (1985), had already gone through seven printings and sold over forty thousand copies (Preston 11). A recent e-mail from Gibbs M. Smith’s publicity department said that their records go only as far back as July 1995, but Cannon’s first book has sold thirty thousand copies since then. So by adding an estimated three thousand copies for each of the missing four years, the book has probably sold at least eighty-two thousand copies. That text, for one, does not seem to be dying. Gioia’s assertion that cowboy poetry “emerged entirely outside estab­ lished literary life and [was] initially developed by individuals marginalized by intellectual and academic society” is another myth...


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