Elkwater-based cowboy poet Phyllis Rathwell speaks about Tradition and the Cowboy Way
By Tim Kalinowski
There is a music in the greatest and smallest of things on the prairies and up on the mountainsides, and there is a rhythm which underlies it all.
Often those most in tune to that rhythm and that music are those who work closest to the land. Speak to a lifelong cowboy for 10 minutes, ask him about God, and he will say the closest he can get to describing what that means is they way he feels while on his horse among his herd out on the land as dawn breaks over the nearby hills.
In this same manner, that old cowboy might be able to give an approximation of what it means to be living the Cowboy Way, but he will usually defer to the poets to fill out the details more precisely.
And what better poets to undertake such an enterprise than those similarly immersed in the Cowboy Way— the cowboy poets?
Elkwater-based cowboy poet Phyllis Rathwell has been letting the rhythm of the land run through her work since she was a young girl growing up on a mixed farm/ ranch near Tompkins, Saskatchewan. She is a distinguished member of The Alberta Cowboy Poetry Association, and her works have been featured on CBC, Spirit Of The West, and in various magazines including Canadian Cowboy Country.
Rathwell recently spoke to Ag-Matters about her inspirations and what it means to live and write about the ranching way of life.
“Cowboy poetry captures the stories and tales of the rural way of life, and presents them in rhyme and meter, in a cadence that brings the audience along to experience the story in a unique way,” she says.
“For me, the rhyme and meter are absolutely necessary, like a lope on horseback, they carry the tale. Each poem is a story, a way of sharing an experience, and may or may not be literally true, but good cowboy poetry is always entertaining. The audience knows BS when they hear it, they know if the poet is authentic or not, often just by a turn of phrase or terminology. Good cowboy poetry will make you laugh or make you cry or make you think.
“There are several reasons to love cowboy poetry,” she adds. “I love the words, the flow of them, the tale well told. I would be remiss if I did not admit that I love the applause, too. Any performer does. And, I love the gatherings, (For me, it is like going to a family reunion, if you actually liked everyone in your family.) There is a camaraderie among the performers, and the audience members… I met my darling husband Larry at a gathering in Chinook, Montana.”
According to Rathwell, humour also plays a part in her work, and most cowboy poetry performers use it some form to create a strong rapport with their audiences.
“’City Cowboy’ is one of my oldest poems,” she explains, “this was written after a day of considering the many ways a kid (my city nephew) could get hurt on a ranch. We had spent the day gathering, he was somewhat saddlesore, and I hated to leave his side for fear he would get hurt. He was so enthusiastic, but totally unaware of any danger.”
My nephew from the city spent the summer on the ranch
He had yearned to be a cowboy an’ thought this’d be his chance
He stayed out in the bunkhouse (that’s what real punchers do)
An’ he learned to play some poker, an’ to spit, an’ swear, an’ chew
My sis would not be happy with the habits he’d acquired
But set on punchin’ cows, he trailed the guys we’d hired
He tried his luck one Sunday, stayin’ on a rank ole steer
The guys had helped him out some, gave him pointers an’ some gear
He didn’t last eight seconds, (tell the truth, not even four)
But it took the Doc ten stitches, (or maybe it was more)
He said, “Don’t worry ‘bout the scar, my ma, she won’t be stressed
Makes me look more western, like a cowboy IQ test!”
He tried his skill at ropin’, went and dallied up his thumb
I hoped the cast’d slow him down, cool his cowboy fever some
He tried one-handed milkin’, said he saw it on TV
Shoulda had instruction, Angus ain’t a dairy breed
Scared to call my sister, I tried to think up a good fib
‘Cause he got a concussion, bruises an’ a broken rib
His luck seemed to desert him, if cowboyin’ was his goal
Sprained his ankle in the pasture steppin’ in a gopher hole
The ol’ boss cow trampled him (he got too close to her calf)
I hoped he’d notice soon, a cowboy’s life ain’t fun by half
He slipped right off the hayrack, a bale landed on his chest
The guys went right on pickin’, to give him a little rest
He hung in there for weeks an’ weeks. It really made me tense.
He finally packed it in the day he peed on the ‘lectric fence!
If humour is one leg of the stool when it comes to writing effective cowboy poetry, honest performance and sincerity is another.
“I want the audience to know me as a real, authentic ranch person, someone who has lived and loved and worked this life,” says Rathwell. “Most of all, I want the audience to laugh, to cry, to feel something. I love to see a wife elbow her husband and nod because she has experienced the same thing I have. Sometimes I’ll see a smile or nod or recognition as something in a poem touches a chord in the listener. I try to paint a picture with words, I hope they see the colours and shades and nuances of that picture.”
While You’re Up
Four little words I’m sick of, that make me roll my eyes
Aren’t foul or all four lettered, but they sure antagonize
I’d like to start a campaign to eliminate the phrase
“Honey, while you’re up”- it’s making me half crazed
“Honey, while you’re up could ya just turn up the heat?
And while you’re doin’ that , could ya fix something to eat?”
“While you’re up I’d like a coffee”, “Can ya find the new phone book?”
“I think I heard a car pull in, while you’re up, just take a look.”
It isn’t just inside the house, it can happen anywhere!
If I turn and look toward the barn, it’s, “Honey, while you’re there
Can you fetch me my new lariat? An’ I’ll need the calving chains
Some boluses an’ ‘lectrolytes”…it gives me a real pain.
In harvest if I’m haulin’ wheat, it’s “While you dump that load..
Could you make me lunch and check the bulls…there’s one out on the road.”
In the middle of the night, too…I can’t escape, no how
It’s, “Honey while you’re up, could ya run out an’ check the cows?”
“While you’re up just switch the channel” “While you’re up there grab my hat”
“While you’re there, I’ll need a pencil, and adjust the thermostat”
Oh, I don’t see any end to this, and when the pearly gates I’ll see
I’ll likely hear his far-off voice, “While you’re up there, pray for me.”
The third leg of the cowboy poetry stool has to be a strong, underlying sense of nostalgia for a bygone Western era tempered with the thought that some of that past tradition carries on into the present day. Sure, this thought goes, we may have thousands of head of cattle on ranches today, we may use quads instead of horses, and much of the hard work of selling the cattle gets carried out by a computer instead of with a face to face exchange of views and a handshake, but we are still tied to this land, and we know where we come from.
Rathwell credits legendary cowboy poets S. Omar Barker, Bruce Kiskadden, Badger Clark and Sonny Hancock as her greatest inspirations in that regard.
“Their poems are kept alive, being retold on stage,” she says. “I love that these are retold, and refer to those who recite them as ‘Keepers of the Classics’”.
“Cowboy poetry really is an old art form,” Rathwell states, “dating back to the trail drives after the American civil war. The long hours of solitude cowboys experienced gave them time to perfect their story, so they could tell it well around the campfire. Some of the best cowboy poetry was written years ago, tales of real cowboys doing real cowboy stuff.”
But it is all about taking those traditions and making them your own, she says, and finding ways to bring them into your own life.
Rathwell’s devastating poem “The Coyote’s Call” shows how those traditions carry on in the hearts and minds of those who stay true to them today.
The Coyote’s Call
I’d ride along when my Dad checked cows, and I’d try my best to keep up
He was the top dog of our domain, while I was a runty young pup.
He’d tell me of all nature’s wonders, as we’d ride and look over the herd
Of glaciers, rivers and land forms, I’d try to soak up every word
Dad knew all the names of the flowers, and signs Mother Nature hung out
Seasonal change, each inch of the range, he spoke quiet with never a doubt
He could read the sky in a quick glance, foretell the oncoming day
Knew cycles and habits of creatures, and shared this in his quiet way
One day we noticed an old cow, she’d somehow missed out on the cull
Humped up, hollow eyed, staring distant, she gazed past us with eyes that were dull
“What’s the matter with her?” I cried out, Dad shook his head and I recall
His quiet regret as he told me, “She’s hearing the coyotes call.”
I grew up and followed my own path, busy mother and teacher and wife
Raised kids, crops, and cows, and when time allowed, I’d ponder the cycles of life
When my Tess horse was getting near thirty, I knew, but still tears had to fall
“Let her go,” dad said, as he patted my head, “She’s hearing the coyotes call.”
They called me from out of my classroom, I prayed as I ran down the hall
That this would just be a warning, a heads up, a near miss, close call
I got to the hospital quickly, held his hand as we watched the night fall
Dad smiled as he looked past my tear streaks, “Girl, I’m hearing the coyotes call.”
Well, at our age we’ve all had some heartache, death’s part of the cycle for all
But I hope we find peaceful acceptance, when we hear the coyotes call
And I know my Dad will be waiting, standing patient beside Tess’s stall
I won’t hear a choir or a trumpet, I’ll just hear the coyote’s call.
Phyllis Rathwell’s latest collection of poems is called “Range, Riders and Rhymes.” Her performance CD “2Lazy2 Ranch” is also available. To order either or both email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can next catch Rathwell, and various other cowboy poets and performers, on stage at The Alberta Cowboy Poetry Association’s Wild Wild West Event Centre Showcase on April 10 in Calgary. See eventbrite.ca for ticket details or call 403-317-4918.