Pacific Standard - At the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, readers and writers celebrate the lyrical beauty of rural existence.
Cowboy poetry goes as far back as the late 19th century, when herders were known to recite original poems sitting around their campfires at night. Those poems mimicked the popular verse of their day, at least in form—they never veered into free verse, and they featured a singsong rhythm. Cowboy poetry continued for the next 100 years or so in this fashion, confined to fleeting performances in hushed fields, until 1985, when a group of folk historians used a small grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to create the Gathering in Elko with a simple purpose: to bring together men and women who craved poetry that valued and found beauty in their rural existence.
The enthusiasm is palpable in Elko; it harkens back to a time when mainstream America was still enamored with poetry, says poet and Texas Tech University artist-in-residence Andy Wilkinson, also a Gathering attendee. There are many reasons for the decline of popular interest in the art form in the early 1950s, chief among them the dawn of the Television Age and a spike in funding and tuition to universities as a result of the G.I. Bill—the latter of which swelled liberal arts departments' budgets considerably. The institutionalization of poetry in the ivory tower brought with it a new perception of the art form in Americans' collective consciousness: People began thinking of poetry as a craft that was created only for other poets, rather than for the casual reader. In 1992, just 17 percent of Americans reported reading a work of poetry within the year; by 2012, that figure had dropped to 6.7 percent.