Teaching Guide with excerpt, Cowboy Poets
Filmmaker Kim Shelton Copyright Date 1988
Excerpt Running Time 14 minutes
American cowboys have been writing poetry for more than a century. Wally McRae, a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow, is a cowboy poet from southeastern Montana. This excerpt portrays McRae, family ranch life, and neighbors' resistance to a giant coal corporation.
Cowboy culture, poetry, American West, strip mining, cultural and environmental conservation, family, fathers and sons, land ownership, ranch life, neighbors.
Use one of these quotations to spark discussion.
Who's going to tell our story?
I can't leave these sheep, they're the only thing I own in the whole world.
I think that the kind of poetry you write a lot of times depends upon where you come from, not only philosophically but geographically as well.
If there's one rule in the cowboy code, it dictates that we be hospitable.
Coal development...has made our cowboy culture that much stronger.
The ritual of branding is a renewal of our whole culture.
Our concerns [about mining] were more cultural or social than environmental and, finally, long-term economic. What are we going to be left with?
1. Read the first stanza of Wally McRae's poem "The Leasehound" aloud. Ask students how the poet renders the mining company representative in contrast cowboy culture in just a few lines. The derogatory title; clothing such as a leisure suit and shoes that have laces, unlike boots; smells of talcum and liquor; the vastness and altitude of the region.
A sharpie in a leisure suit,
With eyelets in his shoes
Who faintly smelled of talcum
And a little less of booze,
Drove into my neighbors' yard
And gingerly got out,
A little gimpy from the drive,
The altitude, and gout.
Students can read the entire poem in the film transcript at www.folkstreams.net/film,39. Ask them to discuss McRae's use of imagery and irony. The filmmaker used photographs and paintings by Charlie Russell in the film to illustrate the hardships of cowboy life. How would students illustrate this poem?
2. Cowboy poetry is often about everyday life and can be in simple meter as well as free verse. McRae uses poetry to tell "our story" of opposition to strip mining and passion for cowboy culture. Assign students to write a poem in the style of cowboy poetry. Like McRae, they might choose a theme about cultural conservation, the environment, or daily life. How would they illustrate it?
3. Invite students to research cowboy poetry, poets, and gatherings and find a poem to memorize and recite in class (see Resources). Other occupations such as logging and fishing also have poetry traditions that they can research.
4. From movie westerns to the Marlboro Man, cowboys are recognized internationally as symbols of the United States. Ask students to think about the appeal of the cowboy image and then write a short essay or poem about this image. What does the cowboy say about our country? Wally McRae describes the importance of the "cowboy code," which includes hospitality. What values are important to students? Ask them to write down three that make up their personal code on an index card or notepaper and then choose one about which to write a poem to share in class.
Use supplementary contextual materials on Folkstreams.net such as the film transcript and cowboy poetry essay.
Astroth, Kirk. Spurrin' the Words. Montana 4-H Center, 2004. Order this study guide, including a CD featuring several poets, from www.montana4h.org.
American Folklife Centerwww.loc.gov/folklife features the online collection Buckaroos in Paradise and the Summer 2006 issue of Folklife News on cowboy poetry.
Smithsonian Folkways Recordingswww.folkways.si.edu includes cowboy poetry
Western Folklife Center www.westernfolklife.org sponsors the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, NV, each January. Smaller gatherings happen across the West.