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What Is Cowboy Poetry?

Cowboy poetry is a heartfelt American tradition, weaving tales of the frontier, cattle drives, and the wild West through rhythmic verse. It captures the essence of a bygone era, reflecting the hardships and joys of rural life. This art form is alive, celebrating the enduring spirit of cowboys. How does it resonate with our modern sensibilities? Join the conversation.
Misty Amber Brighton
Misty Amber Brighton

In the late 1800s, cowboys in the western United States gathered around the campfire at night, telling cowboy stories, making up tall tales, and singing. These orations soon came to be known as cowboy poetry. In the beginning, cowboy poets merely communicated orally. Modern incarnations are both written and oral. Some common themes to this poetry include cattle drives, the Wild West, horseback riding, ranch life, and other things common to cowboy life.

Although cowboy poetry traditionally took on many different forms, modern poetry is more strictly defined. Most experts in this field agree that this type of poetry must contain rhymes. It should also be in verse form and written by an individual who has extensive knowledge of the cowboy lifestyle. The poetry itself should reflect the work of a ranch hand as well as western United States culture.

A cow.
A cow.

Many poems are written and recited around a campfire by workers on cattle ranches. This type of cowboy poetry is created by modern cowboys in keeping with western tradition. They are typically impromptu, often being created on the fly. These informal poems are typically never published or recited in a formal setting.

Other people may recite cowboy poetry as a form of entertainment. Normally, these events are open to the public. Some events are large gatherings held in convention halls, while others are small affairs held in restaurants, libraries, or saloons. Formal recitals are also sometimes given for tourists who visit dude ranches.

A cowboy hat.
A cowboy hat.

People who recite cowboy poetry as a way to entertain others normally try to make it a memorable experience for their spectators. This is often done by dressing in western apparel, including boots, spurs, and bandannas. The poetry recital can also be accompanied by western music or skits depicting cowboy stories.

There are many different themes to cowboy poetry. Some may be humorous, while others are romantic. Poems could also be tragic in nature, dealing with issues such as death or disaster. This type of poetry can be literally interpreted in some instances or it might contain satire or metaphors.

Cowboy poetry focuses on cowboy life.
Cowboy poetry focuses on cowboy life.

Cowboy poetry may be published or unpublished. There are dozens of volumes containing this extemporaneous composition, and many can be found at public libraries throughout the United States. Many books contain a compilation of poems and cowboy stories from a variety of authors, but some renowned cowboy poets have published entire volumes of their personal compositions.

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Discussion Comments


Cowboy poetry is often very entertaining. It's usually insightful and gives the listeners or readers a glimpse into the life and philosophy of the working cowboy. They're not as common as they were 100 years ago, but many things have not changed for the cowboy, so the poetry is still relevant.

Some of my favorite cowboy poets are Baxter Black, Waddie Mitchell and Red Steagall. Singer Michael Martin Murphey might even be grouped with the cowboy poets now, even though he got his start in pop music. Their poetry is unique and uniquely American in content, form, philosophy and thought.

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    • A cow.
      By: Margo Harrison
      A cow.
    • A cowboy hat.
      By: Michael Flippo
      A cowboy hat.
    • Cowboy poetry focuses on cowboy life.
      By: outdoorsman
      Cowboy poetry focuses on cowboy life.
    • Some cowboy poetry is of a romantic nature.
      By: Sascha Burkard
      Some cowboy poetry is of a romantic nature.
    • Cattle drives are a common subject of  cowboy poetry.
      By: John Sfondilias
      Cattle drives are a common subject of cowboy poetry.