On the frontier where John Keats meets John Wayne

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The Independent Online
COWBOYS are sensitive souls. When they are not herding up or moving on the cattle, they are gazing at the sky writing poetry.

And last week a group of cowboy (and cowgirl) poets was brought to Britain by the Arts Council-funded UK Year of Literature and Writing.

In one of the more eclectic mixtures of physical and spiritual prowess, art centres along the East Coast have seen the cowboy poets mix lassoing displays with recitals of love poety - as often as not for a horse.

If the horse was one constant muse, the sky, the grass, the cattle and loneliness were others.

Cowgirl Sue Wallis gave full vent to the frustrations of life on the range with "Coyote Bitch":


I feel like a Coyote Bitch

(in heat)

Do not annoy me, tempt me or toy with me

I have been lonely too long.

Cowboy poetry is not new. Ranchers and wranglers have been writing it and reciting it since the epic cattle trails of the 1870s. Every year a festival in Nevada devoted to the genre sees them gathering for an orgy of rodeoing and reciting.

Judith Palmer, of the UK Year of Literature and Writing, says the range - "no pun intended" - of verse is wide and part of a grand tradition which has been all but ignored in Britain.

If the styles employed can be eclectic, so are the lifestyles of the poets who will continue their tour of Britain this week.

Sue Wallis is a cowboy manager, cow-buyer, coal-miner, legislative lobbyist, and mother. Randy Rieman had to break in 36 horses this summer before coming on tour. Rod McQueary is a rancher and screenwriter who served in Vietnam and whose searingly honest poems are said to mark a turning point in cowboy poetry.

Then there is Paul Zarzyski, the "Polish hobo rodeo poet", a bareback rider with a collection of hand-painted silk ties who, according to Ms Palmer, writes "with comic verve and arresting sensuality". Zarzyski himself merely says that he relishes "the jumping beautiful kick of words out in the open". One of his pieces declares:

I'm Zarzyski, rhymes with whisky,

I tell her - a lover, a fighter,

A Polish bareback Bronc rider

And these Copenhagen kisses jump and kick

Higher than ol' moonshine himself.

On Friday night at the Blackfriars arts centre in Boston, Lincs, the scene was memorable.

Sue Wallis, in black embroidered cowboy suit, long brown skirt with branding marks, and lilac blouse with a large silverbrooch of a bucking bronco, stepped onto the stage at the converted 13th-century Cistercian monastery - the oldest place ever to have hosted cowboy poetry.

She was joined by Zarzyski, clutching his rodeo bareback rigging, growling around the stage, his love poetry emanating from beneath a big black moustache.

He said afterwards: "I think of my poems as rodeo poems because I'm enamoured by the way one can make the language jump and kick like a good bronc.

"I used to take notes when I was on the trail and put things together in the wintertime. I spend a lot of time on horseback and that is always an inspiration.

"But the biggest inspiration is the West. The country's wide open. There are wonderful sunsets and beautiful landscapes."

Randy Rieman, still a working cowboy, said he was keen that the world woke up to the 150-year-old tradition of cowboy poetry.

He recites some of the classic cowboy poets such as the 1930s poet Bruce Kiskaddon:

Most of all you boys have rode hosses like that

He wasn't too thin but he never got fat

The old breed that had a moustache on the lip;

He was high at the wethers and low at the hip.

His ears always up he had wicked bright eyes

And don't you furgit he was plenty cow wise.

Judith Palmer, who decided to bring the poets over after attending the Nevada Festival in January, said: "Cowboy poetry is ignored all over the world, even in America. But it has enormous verve and humour and the language is rich and has Spanish influences. There is a great sincerity and openness about it."

There is also, it seems, some sociological comment emerging. A new cowboy poem by Linda Hussa reads, in its totality:

Why do women love horses?

Because they're kind, unfailingly kind.

Why do horses love women?

Because they are kind, unfailingly kind.

Why do men love women?

Because they are kind, unfailingly kind

But why do women love men?