The Poet's Perspective
Jerry Brooks is one of Utah’s most revered cowboy poets, but the Western life is an adopted one for the New England woman, who grew up obsessed with Westerns on TV. After moving to Chicago for a couple years, “I went insane and gave away everything I owned, bought a ’65 Rambler 220, headed west, and Utah is where I ran out of money in 1978. I went to work in the underground coal mines and been here ever since.”
She was introduced to cowboy poetry via old retired ranch wives who lived in south Sevier County and Piute County where she was working, although she had “never heard it as a defined genre of poetry.” When she started reading it, though, she realized she remembered a lot of the songs and verses from her childhood TV obsession. Soon, she was writing her own, and reciting favorites at gatherings across the West.
In Brooks’ view, appreciation for cowboy poetry is indeed growing, but not so much from the support of rural Utahns, because “the arts are not a real big deal in rural Utah. We’ve tried gatherings all over the state, and Heber’s the only one that can keep going. It’s too bad, because the people living in rural Utah, they can’t take off to go to a gathering [far away]. They’re too busy actually living the life.”
Rather, she believes it’s part of a “back to our roots” movement by urbanites similar to the one she witnessed back in the ’60s.
“When people get older, they have a career and they’re not happy beating their head against the wall for a 9-to-5 job, and they get to thinking, ‘What happened to my life?’” Brooks says. “You look back at what you loved when you were younger, and you start backing up and getting some perspective on what you’re doing to yourself. I think that has a lot to do with it, getting back to an appreciation of what we loved as kids.”
When Brooks recites, it’s a transfixing experience, her cadence and creative emphasis on certain words helping create a vivid visual in the listener’s mind. At the Heber gathering this year, she was featured in multiple showcases, and she found, once again, a surprisingly fresh audience for what she does.
“When I’m doing a reading, and I ask how many people are there for the first time, it still amazes me how many people are just discovering it! It’s incredible to me,” Brooks says. “I tell these stories just assuming people know what I’m talking about, but it’s all new for some people. How that’s happened, and how it’s been perpetuated, I don’t know.”
The gatherings are part of that perpetuation, of course. But people are exposed to cowboy poetry in other ways, too.
Take Jeff Carson, an American Fork native who moved to Heber about 30 years ago and started writing and reciting cowboy poetry about 13 years ago.
Most of his time spent performing poetry comes in the form of corporate gigs, where he’s hired to be the entertainment at conventions in Heber, Park City, Salt Lake City and beyond. Picture a room full of corporate drones—realtors or software salesmen—being regaled with tales of freedom, nature and life on a horse, and you can imagine more than a few being attracted to the lifestyle Carson describes in his work.
In fact, before he experienced the Heber gathering himself, Carson thought he hated all poetry, a feeling that went back to his high school days. But, Carson says, “I came to this gathering, and what I realized was, this isn’t poetry. This is storytelling with rhymes! And I thought, ‘Man, this stuff is great!’”
Carson writes and recites his own work for the most part, and his first effort was an example of the new directions cowboy poetry has taken through the years. While still dominated by classic tales of life on the range, issues of the modern cowboy have entered into the lexicon, too. I’ve heard poems addressing Internet connections on rural homesteads, and subdivisions of vacation homes decimating old ranches.
For Carson, it was anger at the Heber City Council years ago that inspired him to first try his own hand at cowboy poetry.
“There were developers coming into town, and they were kind of running roughshod over the city,” Carson recalls. “And, of course, you can’t fight City Hall, but I got so damned mad, I wrote a poem about it and sent it to the paper. That was my kickoff into doing poetry, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Back to the Future
While Brooks is always finding new cowboy-poetry fans at her performances, and Carson has tapped into the corporate market to expand the possibilities of where cowboy poetry can thrive, there is still concern over its future.
Hal Cannon, for one, is worried that most of its performers are getting too old to keep going for much longer.
“I’m hopeful there are more young people who are going to enter and take it in their own direction,” Cannon says. “That’s one concern I have, that a lot of the performers are my age or older. I look at traditions like bluegrass—that has attracted a lot of young people. I’m sort of hoping for a generation of young people interested in the West and poetry to emerge and take it over.”
He notes that at the Elko gathering, they try to book young musical acts to offset the older performing poets, and they’re always sure to host some events that aren’t too expensive, like free dances “where young cowboys and their girlfriends can come out.”
Look around the crowds at November’s Heber gathering, and there are plenty of young people in the audience. Many are there with their parents, and a love of the traditional Western arts will inevitably be passed down between generations in some families.
Among the performers, too, there are positive signs that the form can survive. Brenn Hill is in his early 30s, grew up in Hooper and has become a nationally renowned Western singer/songwriter while keeping his base in Utah. Skylar Harwood is a shy teenager who was a featured poet at this year’s Heber gathering.
Maybe Jerry Brooks is right, that more people will discover a love for the gritty prose capturing what life in the West once was and, in some rural places, still is.
But with the ranching life largely disappearing from the American landscape, cowboy poets might find themselves reciting to just themselves, their horses and their fellow ranchers out on the range.
Just like they were when Hal Cannon first found them, and for a century before.