Forget fistfights, gunfights, and the man in black. Real cowboys are sensitive souls, who live isolated lives and brood about the grim perils of free verse. So sensitive that 9,000 of them meet up each year in Elko, Nevada, for the Cowboy Poetry Gatheri...
nce a year, something stirs in a cowboy's soul; a pricking in the tips of his waxed moustaches, an itching in the toes of his high-top boots, and he hitches his banjo over his shoulder, gets in his pick- up and drives from Medicine Hat to the Rio Grande, across mountains, plains and desert, to Elko, Nevada. His mission? To listen to poetry. Poetry? Heck yes.

For ten years, this small gold-mining town has been home to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where for four January days and nights 9,000 ranchers and wranglers can put droughts and open-grazing rights behind them and rustle up a dream that will last them the rest of the year.

Ross Knox has been part of the Gathering since the beginning. A spry, middle-aged man with a brush moustache, he left his family ranch at the age of 16 to go cowboying and now packs supplies to the bottom of the Grand Canyon by mule - when he's not travelling the country giving poetry readings. Right now, a thousand cowboys are filing into an auditorium the size of the Hammersmith Odeon to hear him read his own work and recite turn-of- the-century classics by poets with such evocative names as Badger Clark, Curley Fletcher and Bruce Kiskaddon. ("I reckon the hosses all are here/I can see that T-bar blue,/And the buckskin hoss with the one split ear/I've got 'em all. Ninety two.'') But Ross isn't pacing the green room nervously, he's outside discussing the price of barley straw with fellow poets Jesse Smith and Joel Hayes.

How on earth did a cowboy start writing poetry? "I used to work up here in Nevada, used to spend a lot of time in cow camps, and when you're by yourself you have nothing better to do. I was writing poems long before there was such a thing as a poetry gathering. It was just nobody had heard 'em. I kept them suckers way back deep in the closet. Cowboys and poems - people'd look at you funny."

The man who outed those poems was the folklorist Hal Cannon, a big-hearted mountain of a man in dark suit, round glasses and a little felt hat perched on top of a frame that's six foot five in every direction. After months on the road and 1,500 letters to small-town news-papers, Cannon rounded up 28 poets and reciters who came together in Elko one winter's day in 1985 in what he planned as a one-shot attempt to arrest the decline of ballad recitation. Instead, he unleashed a cultural tornado which whipped through the hearts and minds of ranchers across the West.

Cowboys came out of the sagebrush from every direction. Here were folk who dressed like them, thought like them and loved the same poems: poems about livestock and wide open spaces, poems that served as models they'd like to live by, poems they could listen to in the company of others who know that it's all right to cry at the birth of a foal or the death of a favourite dog. "People try and make us believe we want something we don't want," says Tom, a portly Nevadan in poncho and shades, "but all anyone in the world wants is to look after their family, sing their songs, write their poems and mind their own business."

Or recite the old favourites. Doug Mefford is a gravelly voiced old mule-packer, "kind of a driftin' soul", who can sometimes be persuaded to declaim the ballads of Robert Service ("You know what it's like in the Yukon wild when it's sixty-nine below;/When the ice-worms wriggle their purple heads through the crust of the pale blue snow...''). Why write when you can recite, says Doug. "You don't have to hurry. It's all written and ready to go. Put it this way: if it's got a machine in it, I ain't too interested.'' But interested enough to pick up new poems in the old way: swapped in bars and bunkhouses, snipped from agricultural calendars and magazines, or culled from the Poem of the Month column in the Western Horseman, where Wallace McRae's comic classic, ``Reincarnation'', first saw the light of day in 1980:

The box and you goes in a hole,

That's been dug into the ground.

Reincarnation starts in when

Yore planted neath the mound

The red neon of Elko blinks a cheery greeting: poets welcome to cowboy country - but there's no room at the inn. Every bed in town is taken. ``You have to plan a year in advance," explains Steve, a young Bronx-born cowpoke who has just made the 15-hour drive down from Oregon. "The first year I had to stay in Battle Mountain, 72 miles away." Bill, a rancher and one-time rodeo-rider from California, is curs-ing himself. He was late booking next year's room at the coveted Stockmen's Hotel and now he's 15th on the waiting list. "My friends say I'm crazy to drive all this way for poetry, but they don't know how much fun it is."

No one makes the pilgrimage to Elko lightly, 500 miles from Las Vegas in the freezing high desert; people are here because they want to be. Donna is a shy, homely office worker in her late forties from Winnipeg in Canada, on her first visit to the Gathering. "I've been saving a long time," she confides. It has taken her just under three days to get here, changing Greyhound coaches a bone-numbing six times. Tongue-tied and bashful, she doesn't linger in the bar like the other gatherees. It's the performances she's come for, and her tired eyes sparkle at the mention of her favourite poets and songwriters - Waddie Mitchell, Ian Tyson, Don Edwards and the close-harmony trio Sons of the San Joaquin. "Such deep, mellow voices," she whispers reverentially, "and they yodel just beautifully."

Randy Rieman stands ramrod-straight, a lone figure on stage for the opening address of the Gathering, his hat and handlebar moustache casting eerie shadows against the painted backdrop of starry skies and red mountains. All chattering stops as Rieman's melodious voice soars up in Badger Clark's ``Cowboy's Prayer'':

Make me as big and open as the plains,

As honest as the hoss between my knees

Clean as the wind that blows behind the rains

Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze!

Out West, ballad recitation (and ballad composition) has a long history, going back to the epic cattle drives of the 1870s. Conversation can wear a little thin out on the trail, but poems, poems you can listen to again and again. And listen to them they do, from nine in the morning till 11 at night, with four different performances at any one time, each packed to capacity. More than 70 featured poets (with carefully vetted ranching credentials) take their turn on the main stages while a hundred more cowboys sign themselves up for one of 20 open sessions.

And then they'll whoop it up all night, and still return at nine the next morning. Poet Paul Zarzyski - he's a bareback bronc-buster, too - is looking considerably paler than his hand-painted Fifties silk tie, but he bucks himself up: ``I've got the rest of my life to sleep. I don't want to miss any of it."

The after-hours life takes place upstairs at the Stockmen's Hotel where the strains of bluegrass music, trail ballads and Western swing form a dizzying cocktail, mixing with snatches of conversation on gun legislation and the evils of free verse, stirred by the crack of a trick roper's lariat. A tiny, white-haired old man in a ten-gallon hat shuffles up to a band of strumming cowboys - the great folk guitarist Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Woody Guthrie's protg, Bob Dylan's mentor, and a man who rarely misses a Gathering. A gang of tipsy teenage cowboys reel in from work at the local YP ranch and try to lasso themselves a cowgirl. As the night wears on, one little dogie breaks silently from the lustful herd, sidling up to the knot of old boys singing in the corner, pleading, ``Play an old song. Play `Little Joe theWrangler'."

``Little Joe'' was written in 1898, and it's the sort of ballad Cactus Smyth likes. The Gathering is 70-year-old Cactus's annual trip down from the mountains, and he's proudly showing off a photo of his new colt to anyone who'll look. Taking a plug of chewing tobacco, he lurches off on bow legs more comfortable with life in the saddle. "So many damn people here, I need to walk." He's seen everything change. His town's a ghost town now; that didn't stop them changing its name. Used to be Wild Horse; now, prosaically, it's Andrews.

Tradition is a big deal up here. Ranching communities are under threat from developers, environmentalists and harsh economics, but the Gathering gives cowboys a new confidence. "The Gathering is a reinforcement of our ranching heritage and values," says one old-timer. ``Everyone says it's dying out, but you can come up here and see that it's not."

Hal Cannon gazes over his demesne like a genial frontier preacher, watching his herds scatter and spread from one show to another. He can't help but smile at what he has created: "Isn't that a beautiful sight? Where else do you see 800 hats in one place? There's so much beauty. I love the beauty of the traditional."

Beauty there is in abundance: as any cowgirl will tell you, the cowboy is a dandy. But this is not Nashville and these are not rhinestone cowboys - for most of the men here there's just a slight souping-up of their work clothes, freshly washed and ironed (at least at the beginning of the week). Gradually, I learn to pick out the defining differences - jeans tucked inside his boots mean a buckaroo's from Nevada, a feather in his hat signals Montana. Paula, the owner of Capriola's, Elko's famous Western outfitters and saddlemakers, lovingly points out her favourite silver spurs and belt tips, relieved to see traditional designs in favour again. "People shouldn't change," she says firmly.

Amidst the whiskers and stetsons, a curious figure stands out in multicoloured Guatemalan knitted hat and jacket, mustard yellow trousers and an elaborate turquoise Navajo necklace over his red check lumberjack shirt. Tall, pale and clean-shaven with piercing blue eyes, this Siberian cowboy tiptoes through the snow towards the convention centre: Yevgeny Yevtushenko may come from a different gold-mining frontier but, like many a cowboy, he learned Burns and Kipling from his father's recitations. "I'm only surprised I've never been here before. It is right place for me," purrs the charmer, one of the small scattering of non-rancher poets ever invited to Elko.

Yevtushenko's filled football stadiums from Moscow to Mexico City, but Elko's largest theatre is already reserved for Hank Real Bird, the Crow poet, and his show ``In Praise of the Horse''. Still, 600 curious souls squeeze their way into the Cowboy Coffeehouse for a taste of Yevtushenko, peanut butter pie and cowboy poetry's choicest literary talents, Paul Zarzyski, Buck Ramsey and Linda Hussa.

Yevtushenko takes the stage, crouching like a cougar, before he pounces into the audience. Stroking and cajoling his way down the aisles, he lifts a cowgirl's glasses to plant a plump kiss full on her lips. The audience love the people's poet, rising, hats aloft, to give him one of the Gathering's longest ovations. Relief for Yevtushenko: he can still work a crowd; "This gives me energy. I live on the earth not in vain.''

We've taken the floor for the chicken scratch dance at the Elks Club, where five moth-eaten elk heads stare out from a spiral of blue and gold streamers. Lee looks on bemusedly, as if he's stumbled on to the set of the wrong movie. It's not surprising; he's a private investigator, tailing a man who's dancing with the wrong woman. But the Elko spirit prevails, and his job is temporarily forgotten. "Can we be penpals?" he asks. "I could start a short story and send it to you, then maybe, like, you could write a poem and I'll continue it and send it back. Could we do that?" Is no one immune to poetry fever?

Today, there are 150 poetry gatherings each year, from Pincher Creek to Great Pike's Peak, and it seems that everyone's writing. Cowboy poetry is big business, and contract-wielding record company talent-spotters are close at hand. Warner Brothers have launched the new Warner Western label: Waddie Mitchell, a handsome, auburn-haired buckaroo poet, was one of the label's first signings, and he now spends 300 days a year away from his ranch on tour. Cowboy poets can barely keep up with the demand for performances at Texan dance halls, small-town ranch managers' suppers, and Seattle comedy clubs.

Not that everyone is happy with that state of affairs. Ray Lashley is a traditional reciter with a three-hour repertoire of classic verse which he memorises while mending fences or working stock. Snorting like one of the Appaloosa horses he raises, he airs his scepticism: "Just because you're a cowboy doesn't mean you're a poet. Only a lot of people haven't discovered that yet."

But a cowboy's gotta move on, and, in growing numbers, poets are leaving the security of the home range and heading out West to run with a wilder, Hollywood, herd. Ranchwomen's voices are joining with other trailblazers to explore a more intimate terri-tory, leaving rhymed tales of the unrideable bronc and the unropeable steer behind. ``Every- body wants to put cowboy poetry in a neat little box," growls Paul Zarzyski, one of the modernists, "but this year shows that's never gonna be possible.

"But heck," he goes on. "Cowboy poetry is as much about friendship as about folk art, or tradition, or entertainment." Ross Knox looks around him at the sea of turquoise shirts and emerald green silk bandannas. ``I've made the best friends in my life here," he gulps. He's right; addresses are being swapped faster than bullets at high noon, bewhiskered faces are breaking out in smiles and men who really are men are linking arms and slapping each other on the back. "It's like a big, big family reunion," declares Waddie Mitchell. "Only everyone likes each other."

As Randy Rieman has it:

Still, you know that you're lucky

To have this new friend

Who shares your same love of the land,

For horses and cattle,

For life in the saddle

And nights underneath a clear sky.

A sameness of spirit that goes beyond words -

We share that, my new friend and I.