The Elko Convention Center looks like just about any convention center in small-town America: It has harsh fluorescent lights, ghastly cream-colored walls, and a beige-and-gray carpet that seems especially effective at masking stains. On this winter morning, however, the center is alive with an unusual scene, even for rural Nevada: a sea of about 8,000 bobbing cowboy hats. At this moment, several hats are gathered around Paul Zarzyski, a 66-year-old man with a bristly handlebar mustache that covers his upper lip and extends down to his jowls. He looks like someone who's spent years of his life working the rodeo circuit—which he has. Now, he's talking excitedly about meter and onomatopoeia and synesthesia and other poetic devices.
Zarzyski is one of the country's preeminent cowboy poets and an honorary guest of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, an annual event that brings together poets, musicians, and folklorists in Elko, a mining town of 20,000 on the northeastern edge of Nevada. To a good many of those in attendance, Zarzyski is a celebrity. Some folklorists claim the renown that poets command here is reminiscent of earlier times, when being a poet was a way of living, not a job title, and poetry was written for the masses, not other poets.
First, a simple point: A cowboy poem is any poem written by a cowboy. (That wasn't always the case: Cowboy poems used to rhyme, always.) And a cowboy poem doesn't have to be pastoral, though it often is.
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.
A take on a different—but for many, ordinary—existence is what makes people like Zarzyski so important to poetry, Wilkinson argues: In his own small way, Zarzyski is re-democratizing the craft. "Here [are] people doing poetry for the reason we should all be doing poetry, which is because we have to, not because it's our job description," Wilkinson says.
It's unlikely that cowboy poetry is poised to change the direction of the American literary establishment. Though the Gathering is in its 34th year, today's most celebrated poets still come out of the traditional MFA track. But in a poetry landscape often perceived as exclusionary, the cowboy poets offer a different—and older—vision of what the craft can be, and whom it can serve.
With the sun outside beginning to set, I spot Zarzyski onstage, reciting another of his poems, this one a fond recollection of a particularly stately horse. The room is silent, the lights are dimmed, and the air is heavy with the winter cold and the smell of tobacco. There isn't an empty chair to be found.