Hamlet: A Meaningful Madness

[ * It’s been many years since I first saw Hamlet, but I went and saw a local performance the other night and comments I overheard got me to thinking that I differ from the viewers who believe Hamlet was really mad. And here are my reasons. ]

 

There are many who believe Hamlet is genuinely mad throughout most of the play. Likewise, there are many who believe Hamlet begins by acting crazy, and then slowly descends into madness as events progress. Thus, I appear to be in the minority, since I don’t believe Hamlet ever loses his mental faculties. It is true that he gets emotional at certain times, but getting emotional and going bonkers are two different things.

I hold to my belief on this issue because of the following: at no time from the beginning of the play until the crazy antics of Hamlet begin does Hamlet show any inclination or weakness to warrant a belief in the alleged madness. Quite the contrary; when Gertrude asks Hamlet why he seems to take a particular stance to something as common as death (pertaining to the alleged long mourning period over his father); Hamlet admits his special inclination toward the particular over common. And Hamlet claims it with a very telling line: “These indeed seem, for they are actions that a man might play, but I have that within which passes show; these but the trappings and the suits of woe” – (1.2.83-86). In other words, prior to Hamlet seeing the ghost of his father, his mindset already dwells on how emotions or true motives can be hidden with pretend actions. And after the King and Queen exit Hamlet laments the situation, and shows his anger over how quickly his mother jumped into his uncle’s bed. Yet, we again see Hamlet’s tendency to hide his true emotions: “It is not, nor it cannot come to good. But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue” – (1.2.157-158). This same mindset is shown when Hamlet is made aware of the ghost by Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo, urging them to remain silent: “I pray you all, if you have hitherto concealed this sight, let it be tenable in your silence still” – (1.2.246-248). And immediately following the conversation with his father’s spirit Hamlet again swears them to secrecy. He also warns them not to be alarmed or give it away when they see him acting strange: “how strange or odd some’er I bear myself (As I per chance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on)” – (1.5.170-172).

Additionally, Hamlet’s character is clearly closer to his dead father (who is portrayed as a competent king, leader, and husband), not like his weaker uncle. That inherited strength, plus years of parental teaching, along with his new found singleness of purpose, and the multi-shown mindset of camouflaging his true motives leads me to conclude Hamlet never lost touch with reality. And since there is not a single dialogue or weak character trait attributed to Hamlet prior to the antics beginning, I see no reason to think Shakespeare had any such intent during the writing.

180 Days

Rejected at birth

like the runt of a litter

but it was a solitary birth

No bonding

Never taken to breast

no lips to nips

never tasted Mother’s milk

I still wonder why

How does an hour-old child

earn ostracism from his mother?

An aunt

thirteen

asked to play house

Surrogate mother

six-month sentence

till alpha mom returns

to her senses

or heart leak is dammed

Child

finally gets a homecoming

It is hard to feel connected

when you’re rejected

the first half-year of life

The bond that was made

with the aunt in eighth-grade

is severed

Familiar touch is gone

The unfamiliar

at times abrupt

at times timid

Silence

is profitable

when left alone

Solitude

seems better

than uncomfortable bonding

No affection

no rejection

Child wisdom

or wishful thinking

It’s hard to be a sage

wearing throwaways

at the ripe old age

of 180 days

© JW Thomas

Deceptions: Do the ends justify the means?

It is said, that “All is fair in love and war.” However, history suggests that the cliché should be, “All is fair in love, war, politics, and personal agendas.” In a system that is supposed to be “by the people and for the people,” the overwhelming evidence of scandal and controversy throughout the political arena, term-after-term, should dispel the myth of democracy being alive and well in the United States of America.

Gone are the days when honorable men would stand their ground, face-to-face, and fight their own fights. Gone are the days when truth, honor, and integrity were woven into men’s hearts like they were woven into the flag and sanctified with the anointed blood of patriots who sacrificed all for a glorious ideal. America has peaked, and now slides precariously down the shadowed side. The political system has failed, and it has created a chain-reaction, with far reaching effects, that will inevitably decimate this once great nation. All because of two predominant political tenants: “money buys power” and “absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

All the President’s Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, is a detailed journalistic retelling of the infamous Watergate fiasco. It is a look at pompous politics inspired by the aforementioned thirst for power, and energized with a mountain of money. In fact, hundred-dollar bills appeared to be the favorite flavor throughout the affair.

Five men were arrested at 2:30 am on June 17, 1972 for burglary. They had broken into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the executive office section of the Watergate hotel complex. Along with “a walkie-talkie, 40 rolls of unexposed film, two 35- millimeter cameras, lock picks, pen-size tear gas guns, and bugging devices” (p.15-16), almost $2300 dollars was taken from the five suspects:“Most of it was in $100 bills, in sequence” (p.16). And the Washington Post reporters would follow the money trail back and forth through the insulated web of conspiracy for the next two-years, all the way to the top levels of the White House.

“Insulated” was the primary defense; a solid foundation of legal loopholes and loyal flunkies to hinder all investigative attempts to reach the inner-circle of collaborators. Fortunately, for the American people, there is no honor among crooks. When the majority of conspirators saw their defenses unraveling their resolve caved, and they told their tales in attempts to ease the inevitable consequences. Unfortunately, for anyone still wishing to believe in right and wrong, by the time the scandal was over even Woodward and Bernstein sacrificed their integrity as an acceptable cost in pursuing the story. They both crossed moral and ethical boundaries, and were a mere breath away from felony charges on occasion. And they were willing to place the lives and reputations of others at risk as long as they met their deadlines, or got a new clue or piece to the puzzle. “Sloan wondered if newspapers weren’t a little hypocritical, demanding one standard for others and another for themselves; he doubted that reporters had any idea of the anguish they could inflict with only one sentence” (p.86).

During the period that Nixon’s crew of misfits was busy little beavers attempting to dam up the leaks and arrest the scandal, Woodward and Bernstein were equally obsessed.

Their next move represented the most difficult professional –

unprofessional, really – decision either had ever made. They

were going to blow a confidential source. Neither had ever

done it before; both knew instinctively that they were wrong.

But they justified it (p.190).

 

And a FBI supervisor even told them the following:

 

“You realize that it’s against the law for one person to monitor

a call that goes across a state line,” he told them (p.190).

 

We also read how “Woodward wondered whether there was ever justification for a reporter to entice someone across the line of legality while standing on the right side himself” (p.210). The thought came to mind when he and Bernstein were attempting to get members of the Grand Jury to break their legally given oaths, and risk jail time, just to give them additional clues.

Another deception that permeated the media push to dethrone Nixon and his administration was the solidified portrayal of Republicans versus Democrats. The media, including the Washington Post and its reporters, downplayed, buried, or ignored the facts that Nixon’s misfits carried out similar attacks against other Republicans. And we see the identical agenda in All the President’s Men. There are two minor mentions of Nixon’s people going after his Republican opponents; such as the following: “The President’s forces had been out to wreck the campaigns both of the Democrats and of Nixon’s challengers within his own party – Representative Paul McCloskey of California and Representative John Ashbrook of Ohio” (p.133). But there was a conspicuous absence regarding any follow-up investigation pertaining to Republican targets, even though additional clues suggested Nixon’s people had used similar tactics in his earlier campaigns. And the Washington Post maintained a strict Republican versus Democrat perspective throughout the entire affair (as did most media forums).

Logically speaking, the only advantage to bury attacks on Republicans by Nixon’s crews is to enhance the liberal agenda – by deceiving the public into believing the only victims were Democrats. And it worked. That’s how I remembered it coming across back then. Not until I dissected their text – like they dissected the White House denials – did I realize the lack of follow-up in the investigation down the Republican path and earlier campaigns was intentional.

Spalding Gray used deception in a far different way than Nixon’s administration, the Washington Post, and Woodward and Bernstein. He allowed the facts surrounding the Cambodian situation to digest before composing his magnum opus, “Swimming to Cambodia.” He was not a journalist regurgitating facts; he gave birth to a truth based on emotion: similar to Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried. Gray did not report, he enlightened. He manipulated words to inflame the sensorial experience, provoke thought, and tug at the heart. He epitomized the contemporary version of the ancient storyteller: the oral tradition of passing on historical truths.

Nixon and his lackluster loyalists, the Washington Post, and Woodward and Bernstein all utilized deception to further their personal agendas, and to hell with anyone that got in the way. Yes, the paper and reporters came out smelling like a rose in the public’s perspective at the time. But the loss of integrity on the part of the Post and reporters is clearly evident. They were considered heroes for bringing down Nixon’s administration (a positive outcome to be sure). But they were actually anti-heroes, similar to Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, or any of Clint Eastwood’s characters in the days of the Spaghetti Westerns. On the other hand, Gray’s manipulation of the truth was not to deceive the public but to make the truth more palatable to digest.

 

 

© JW Thomas

Lure of the West: America’s nostalgic malady

Have you ever awakened one morning to realize you were born hundred-plus years too late? Personally, it’s an everyday occurrence. However, most Americans seem to feel a twinge of nostalgia from time-to-time, but they cannot express why, and they rarely take the time to dwell on the matter. Today’s living standard is too fast paced. So when they feel a sense of emptiness and loss without an easily recognizable cause they often pass it off and fail to decipher the source. And yet, the overwhelming evidence of their nostalgic malady bombards them a million times a day, from every angle, and from nearly every conceivable source. Media, publications, entertainment, and all forms of marketing and advertising, to name a few primary sources, inundate society with their efforts to ignite nostalgia and solicit customer response. Why? Because they pander to America’s sense of longing for what was; the West and Wilderness, and what it stands for – the hope of dreams and freedom. Thus, America’s epidemic of nostalgia, or nostalgic malady, is the lure of the West.

Most people who read Jack Schaefer’s “Shane” probably get caught-up in the nostalgic reminder of the wild and woolly west. They may relate to one of the characters more than others, or root for one over the others. And they will probably feel a rhapsodic elation when good conquers evil, only to feel a twinge of sorrow soon after at the departure of the lone hero. The old ways are dying out. Civilization of the once wild territory is another step closer to suffocating completion.

Edward Abbey’s “The Brave Cowboy” shows the civilized suffocation of the west nearing its death throes. The hero is now, at best, an anti-hero. Burns may have the same commitment to his beliefs as Shane but there are far fewer open spaces to carry on such a lifestyle and far less societal tolerance for those who do. And yet, it is still a nostalgic reminder at what America has lost, and what it needs to retain for any semblance of freedom in the “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.”

When reading Abbey’s essay “The Great American Desert” I find no revulsion in his elongated lists of animate and inanimate obstacles. His mention of a half-dozen rattlesnake species reminds me of some excellent meaty meals eaten beside a jabbering camp fire keeping me company with its heated and impassioned speech. And his talk of bugs brought the pungent reminder of protein rich insect stew that had me using my tongue and toothpick (splinter) in an improvised strategic attack to round-up, spear, and eject the hard shells of certain species that are as bothersome as the kernel skins when eating popcorn. In fact, there were only two reminders in that essay I could have done without: how the wilderness/freedom is disappearing, and the grimacing and torturous recollection of kidney stones.

In Abbey’s “Freedom and Wilderness, Wilderness and Freedom” essay the perspective of wilderness in the eyes of a child, found among the discarded landmarks of civilization was just as nostalgic as the desert piece. Where he saw wilderness in the waterfront “with its decaying piers and abandoned warehouses… the houseboats, the old ferry slips, the mildew-green cathedral of the Erie-Lackawanna Railway terminal,” I found it in the massive landfills, the equally odoriferous refineries that seemed to perpetually be run with skeleton crews who never seemed to cross our path (no matter how many times we scaled the fences), the over-grown fields that somehow escaped the various building booms, and eventually, come summer, on the reservation when I visited my mother’s family. And, ironically, my sixth-grade class was the last class the school sent to camp for a week. So, unlike every class thereafter, I was introduced to hootenannies, Snipe hunting, sloppy smores, ghost tales around the camp fire, and panty raids that most citified kids no longer had a chance to enjoy: unless their families took them.

In John Steinbeck’s “The Leader of the People,” nostalgia permeated the piece. The grandfather’s need to recall the past was the conflict that drove the story. And, like the fore mentioned writings, the piece resonated with me, sparking my own nostalgic reverie. I easily related to the grandfather theme. My maternal grandfather, a Native American, learned the White man’s ways in order to build-up his own ranch. My paternal grandfather, with only a fifth-grade education, came from Wales to New York after WW1, and then slowly worked his way across the country to Utah. Upon arrival, he worked hard until he could afford a farm, kept it going, and equally bought and operated a successful restaurant. Although the grandfather in Steinbeck’s story makes a statement a couple of times that I don’t fully agree with.

Jody tells his grandfather that he wants to hear his stories and his grandfather replies, “Of course you do, but you’re a little boy. It was a job for men, but only little boys like to hear about it.”

It is obvious that the nostalgic pull of the West draws more than little boys; though I must admit my love for the West and the wilderness did begin at a young age. But each of the aforementioned stories and essays were written by adults with an interest in the West and for readers with similar interests. That’s the point, many Americans have a nostalgic need to find a substitute to enrich their lives and validate their striving like the pioneers of old.

Nearly every child learns about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Christopher Columbus, Johnny Appleseed, Daniel Boone, Davey Crockett, and dozens of other real or imagined characters during their time in American schools. Over half of all television shows and movies directly or indirectly employ the many traits attributed to the Westward Spirit of America’s pioneer movement: the lure of adventure, seeking new land, conquering hostile territory. And stories would be rather dull without standard characters like the mysterious lone hero, the gambler, prospector, outlaw, banker, ranchers and homesteaders, lawman, town drunk, sexy ingénue’, corrupt politician, and various others that grace the pages of Old West history. Even the fascination with all things Native American is in direct response to how they were treated, survived, and now thrives.

Unfortunately, the west is now populated. There is only a small portion of wilderness remaining, compared to what was. And the desires to seek adventure, treasure-seek, or find an open space to explore and settle must be pacified, by most Americans, through inadequate substitutes. Although a select few have found it in ocean exploration, inventive exploration, or the “final frontier” – space exploration. But the majority of Americans are relegated to the temporary fix: books, movies, or interesting getaways like Knott’s Berry Farm, the Grand Canyon, Wild West Stunt Shows, and Dude Ranch cattle drives.

Personally, I think Americans who remain ignorant to the cause of their nostalgic malady might be the lucky ones. Those of us who understand the nostalgic malady, and who may not be in a position to continually pacify the urge with a healthy fix, most likely suffer more over the acknowledged loss; even if we may have called it something different over the years. And yet, there is a satisfaction in the knowledge, for it drives us to enjoy those wonderful wilderness moments when we can, and to take pride in personal traits that reflect those of our adventurous forefathers and westward heroes.

 

 

© JW Thomas

Counterculture Comparison

Counterculture: irreverence to the status quo. Patti Smith raging nonstop at a god and belief system she professes not to believe. Monty Python’s lampooning the mythological birth of Britain. Mel Brooks satirizing the equally myth-laden rugged individualism of the American West: steeped in the Westward Movement, civilization, progress, prejudice, and establishing a nation. Counterculture: outlet for the rebellion – wanted or needed – by the disenchanted, disillusioned, socio-political outcasts, and rebels (with or without a cause) to revolt against the man, the powers that be, the establishment.

Blazing Saddles was originally penned in 1971 under the title Black Bart by Andrew Bergman. The original script was optioned by Warner Brothers. The premise was simply to play 1874 as if it was 1974, with a black sheriff. Warner Brothers green-lighted the production of the film, and chose Alan Arkin to direct, and James Earl Jones to handle the lead character. Unfortunately, for Arkin and Jones, but fortunately for movie-goers, the Hollywood stars were cosmically unaligned and the original production disappeared into the black hole of disappointed dreams.

Mel Brooks was given the directorial nod, along with carte blanch; and he and four other writers (including Bergman) rewrote the script with the intent of retaining the original concept, while creating a parody of every western they could recall. And, as if on cue, Brooks and his producers continually fielded a slew of suggestions by the studio brass and their legal beagles. Brooks wanted Richard Pryor (who was part of the writing team) to play the sheriff. But Pryor’s well-known unreliability made the studio heads rotate like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist. The studio suggested Flip Wilson and Brooks suggested where they could go. And on-and-on it continued throughout the entire production schedule. There were fights over language, inappropriate words, blatant sexual overtones, prejudicial intonations, and even conflict over how loud the bean eating cowboys should fart.

What happened to carte blanch? It appeared to be rescinded when the powers that be discovered how irreverent the picture was to the powers that be. The picture does, in fact, target a variety of stereotypes through its (intentionally) offensive humor and sight gags. However, the predominant goal was to target prejudice. In a special features interview, Harvey Korman claimed the script dealt with “the whole absurdities of what prejudices are all about.” And in the same feature Brooks states the following:

The engine that drove Blazing Saddles was hatred of the Black.

It was race prejudice. Without that the movie would not have

had nearly the significance to force the dynamism, and the

stakes that were contained in the film.

 

And similar prejudicial absurdities were targeted with the absurd humor in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

The British ensemble utilized the disparity and conflict evident in a monarchy confronted with a more parliamentary or democratic view. And, similarly to Blazing Saddles, which parodied the westward movement that expanded America, Monty Python selected medieval times and the mythological foundation of Britain through King Arthur’s Camelot. Then add a generous supply of irreverent religious humor as the third driving force to move the story forward at the blistering speed of a human trot and the film is encapsulated.

I did find it odd that they only blasted Catholicism (a favorite of the Irish). There were no blatant attacks on the Church of England; after all, it was a counterculture inspired production. I would like to know if they met with a multitude of studio suggestions like Brooks had to deal with.

Patti Smith, on the other hand, though a counterculture icon, is found wanting in my opinion. Yes, she used her forked-tongue to poke holes in various establishment mainstays over the years, but the same tongue betrays her. Her ranting and raving at the establishment, and especially toward faith, was merely an outlet for her rebellious nature. She nurtured her personal demons born out of anger, and carried on her personal war because she loved it; not for any altruistic intention to help others by changing the status quo. Her addictive personality appeared to crave the endorphin rush of rebellion, just as much as her confessed addictive need for sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll.

Lack of space hinders going into all the anger issues, but let’s deal with one of her predominant themes, God and faith. It is a theme seen in well-over half her material. And we’re given a glimpse into the origin of this anger in several poems; but predominantly in “Grant.”

but for my father the irrevocable alien, there is nowhere to go,

unaccepted by the real world and betrayed by the divine, he has

plunged into a state of atrophy. a trophy a stationary prize. it is

the junky becoming the junk the dreamer the dream. it is the

masterpiece himself. a / trophy. (p.86-89)

The above poem and others show Smith’s hallowed love for her father: daddy’s little girl. She proclaims her father, in the arms of God, is “the golden one” (p.88), and “truly” believes that “there is no one closer to god then my father” (p.89), and she needs “no other source but the word of my guardian” (p.87). And when he hurts she hurts. His betrayers are her betrayers.

Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll tore away Smith’s inhibitions. She found her voice, a voice she can use to vent her anger at the “divine” that betrayed the father she professes to be god-like. And the anger filled the void of lost faith. But the god of anger, similar to her other addiction gods, is never satisfied. She must howl like Ginsberg in an effort to appease, like we see in “Oath” (p.7):

Jesus died for somebody’s sins

but not mine

So Christ

I’m giving you the good-bye

firing you tonight

I can make my own light shine

 

And Smith claims to want responsibility for herself.

 

my sins my own

Adam placed no hex on me

I embrace Eve

and take full responsibility

for every pocket I have picked

But simple common sense sees through the mask. Killing off the god of her father (whom she compared him to) while equally venting against the rest of the establishment (in other works); including society’s laws, is a self-professed act to be “free.” And freedom defined by the counterculture icon includes freedom from morality. In other words, if there is no god, no laws, and no morality they are freeing themselves from responsibility. They are not embracing responsibility, and neither is Smith. There is no personal responsibility in anti-heroism. In The Denial of Death, psychologist Ernest Becker states the following:

We are living a crisis of heroism that reaches into every aspect

of our social life: the dropouts of university heroism, of business

and career heroism, of political-action heroism; the rise of anti-

heroes, those who would be heroic each in his own way or like

Charles Manson with his special “family,” those whose tormented

heroics lash out at the system that itself has ceased represent a

greed heroism” (p.6-7).

 

The heroism spoken of in the above passage is the heroics relating to self in each individual mind. It is the reason individuals like Manson see themselves in a positive light, no matter how the rest of the world views them. And it is no different for those of the counterculture who revel in the rebellion and anger, seeking personal freedom (without God, laws, or morality), with no personal responsibility.

The counterculture seen in Blazing Saddles and Monty Python and the Holy Grail are simple acts of spotlighting deficiencies in the status quo that need to be addressed and changed. Neither film advocates the extreme counterculture view angrily expressed throughout Smith’s work. It is a major difference that cannot be overlooked or underestimated. Countercultural activism for change, like the films or marching to the White House, is commendable. Counterculture that thrives on rebellion, revolt, anarchy, or in Smith’s case, accepts and proudly claims freedom of responsibility for various criminal acts against others is pure unadulterated bullshit. And I wave my hat at it like Slim Pickens in the cowboy campfire scene, only to realize that this stink is solid and it is here to stay.

Cowboy Poetry

An Oral-Tradition Recounting the Old and New West

 

When discussing the West, old or new, and the topic of an oral-tradition arises, most people automatically think of the Native Americans. It was the preferred method for tribes to pass down their history and beliefs, predominantly in the form of stories. Thus, many folks are surprised, even today, to learn that the common hardworking cowboy – the ones who rarely rated representation in dime novels – likewise recorded their history, traditions, and lifestyle (though not exclusively) through the oral-tradition of cowboy poetry and repeated retellings around campfires, the bunkhouse, rodeos, fairs, and any other location cowboys congregate.

For nearly two-centuries cowboy poetry has survived almost exclusively in and around ranching communities. Cowboy poetry is often presented in the standard four-line ballad format with rhymed couplets, similar to that utilized by other nineteenth-century poets like Rudyard Kipling. And the poetry is infused with a unique language inherent to cowboys, and never done justice by wannabes. And, though cowboy poetry is found in written form, the medium is rooted in the oral-tradition of performance in both the old and new west. And, more often than not, that performance took place not on a stage, but in a bunkhouse, around a campfire, or on horseback. In Cowboy Poetry: A Gathering, Hal Cannon claims cowboy poetry allows “the cowboys to speak for themselves, as they celebrate the huge sky, the rodeo, busting broncos, the cattle drive that still goes on, the land, and the life and the times of people who continue, spiritedly, to live that cowboy life” (Cannon). Cowboy poetry, the best of it anyway, gives you the same sensory input attributed to the Westward Ideal. The language, as Cannon states, “reflects light and smell and open places, hard times and soft evenings, a language coded with insider’s words, special phrases and meanings, and shared values” (Cannon).

You cannot remove the Westward Ideal from cowboy poetry. The unknown and unsung founders of the art form were men and women who came west. They lived the adventure. They pioneered. They homesteaded. They toiled and struggled, fought and died, to not only cut-out a place for themselves, but a way of life. And it became a way of life that is cherished and feared, praised and chastised, ridiculed and romanticized, depending upon a person’s perspective.

Cowboy poetry had traversed the West for nearly a century before pioneer folklorists John Lomax and Howard “Jack” Thorp compiled collections of poetry and songs straight from the horse’s mouth, so-to-speak (Cannon). Songs of the Cowboys, by Thorp, came out in 1908, and Lomax’s Cowboy Songs and other Frontier Ballads was published two years later. And it would be another nine years before the next edition was published: Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cowboy Camps, again by Lomax. There would then be over two-decades without a serious attempt to compile collections representing the cowboy poet. Why the delay? Perhaps it had something to do with the honest look at cowboy life conflicting with the Hollywood image spewed forth through mass-marketing, like the Saturday serials at matinees. Cowboy poetry, though often humorous, is predominantly introspective; a far cry from the train-robbing, cattle rustling, town shoot ‘um up adventures in the William Hart and William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy) style westerns. However, the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, both singing cowboys, seemed to inspire new interest in cowboy fare. The new interest, spearheaded by folklorists Austin and Alta Fife would span the 1940s thru 1960s. From then until the present several individuals have taken the reigns to insure that both the oral-tradition and written collections of cowboy-inspired and cowboy-created poetry are published and performed in various venues. No doubt, the ranching communities will continue to pass on the tradition from generation-to-generation; but it is good to know others have taken up the reigns as well. And, while the tradition continues unabated, it does not mean that cowboy poetry has never changed.

The nineteenth-century cowboys, accustomed to half the year spent on cattle drives, created poetry that reflected the loneliness in relation to the beauty of the vast natural lands crossed and re-crossed. Whereas, contemporary cowboy poetry is more likely to reflect or yearn for the Old West while lamenting the loss of the open spaces in the New West. Although, a fair amount of both the old and new cowboy poetry is injected with blistered humor, cactus comedy, or saddle-sore wit. The cowboy life is a hard life at best, but without humor it would be downright unbearable. Allen McCanless had his poem “The Cowboy’s Soliloquy” first published in 1885, and it is an excellent example of low-key humor blended with the love of the cowboy life and the West, as you can see in the first few stanzas:

All day o’er the prairie alone I ride,

Not even a dog to run by my side;

My fire I kindle with chips gathered round,

And boil my coffee without bein’ ground.

Bread lacking leaven’ I bake in a pot,

And sleep on the ground for want of a cot;

I wash in a puddle, and wipe on a sack,

And carry my wardrobe all on my back.

 

My ceilings the sky, my carpet the grass,

My music the lowing of herds as they pass;

My books are the brooks, my sermons the stones,

My parson’s a wolf on a pulpit of bones.

And the following few stanzas from “The Dude Wrangler” by Gail Gardner shows, in a humorous way, the contempt old-style cowboys feel toward the New West invention of the Dude Ranch:

Sez he, “I’m afraid that there ain’t nothin’

That you can do to save my hide,

I’m wranglin’ dudes instead of cattle,

I’m what they call a first-class guide.

“Oh I saddles up their pump-tail ponies,

I fix their stirrups for them, too.

I boost them up into their saddles, and

They give me tips when I’m through.

“It’s just like horses eatin’ loco,

You can not quit it if you try.

I’ll go on wranglin’ dudes forever,

Until the day that I shall die.

So I drawed my gun and throwed it on him,

I had to turn my face away.

I shot him squarely through the middle,

And where he fell I left him lay.

I shorely hated for to do it,

For things that’s done you cain’t recall,

But when a cowboy turns dude wrangler,

He ain’t no good no more at all.

 

And the sentiment portrayed regarding dude ranches and dude wrangling still hold true today among traditional cowboys. Traditional cowboys on legitimate ranches may have switched from trail-driving cattle across neighboring states to shoehorning them into cattle cars, but any “cowboy” who wrangles dudes and two-legged fillies instead of legitimate stock are looked upon as if they have a contagious terminal disease.

The drastic change from Old West to New West was felt more acutely by cowboys than almost any other profession. Although a small percentage have diligently strove to maintain the traditional ranch and cowboy life, most cowboys, from the beginning of the twentieth-century onward, have had to alter their lifestyle. Individuals like Curly Fletcher, one of the earliest rodeo promoters, believed he could celebrate the cowboy life through public events: which included cowboy poetry recitals (Fletcher). Other individuals, like Bruce Kiskaddon, overwhelmed by the frustrating changes to his beloved cowboy lifestyle, “quit the ranch in 1925 and spent the rest of his life reminiscing through poetry the life loved and gone” (Cannon 2).

Unfortunately, for the traditionalists, a slew of outsiders who never roped a doggy, notched an ear, or smelled the scorched fur while branding a calf; saw the potential for financial gain. And it did not take long for reality to succumb to the New West romance for Old West legendary lore in mythical proportions. The ideal overtook the truth. Traditional cowboying became immersed in all facets of western lore. Billy the Kid and the Cowboys, a faction associated with the Lincoln County War, took precedent over the solitary life on the open range. The quick-draw artist gained favor over the traditional cowpoke, which normally carried a gun for protection against snakes and wolves, or to ward off cattle rustlers. In fact, the traditional cowboy was relegated to bit parts and extra work in most film, stage, or media representations. Unless, of course, it was a cowboy elevated to mythical hero or legendary villain. And, on occasion, the traditional cowboy was slotted for comic relief; most often in the role of hapless sidekick: Gabby Hayes to William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy, and Pat Buttram and Andy Devine to Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. And the wit and wisdom of the traditional cowboy was often dispensed in a humorous fashion, such as the following tidbits from Don’t Squat With Yer Spurs On by Texas Bix Bender:

 Never take to sawin’ on the branch that’s supportin’ you, unless

you’re bein’ hung from it.

Never kick a fresh turd on a hot day.

Never miss a good chance to shut up.

 

A smart ass just don’t fit in the saddle.

 

And from Don’t Squat With Yer Spurs On II:

 

The best way to set a record is to be a good ways off from any tape

measures, scales, or witnesses.

You can’t weigh the facts if you’ve got the scales loaded down with

your opinions.

 

If you want to liven up a conversation just say the right thing the

wrong way.

 

If you ain’t pullin’ your weight you’re pushin’ your luck.

 

And the cowboy humor is often served with a deadpan expression; as if to say, “I’ve survived grizzlies, wolves, and rattlers, why would a gag make me giggle?”

Yep, the traditional cowboy is a peculiar sort, and they are happy just as they are. So don’t ask them to willingly change, because if they do they pay a price. They pay a price that mirrors the loss of the Old West, the loss of a lifestyle, a loss they lament. Baxter Black describes one version of the lost lifestyle in the following poem:

A Time to Stay, A Time to Go

Ya know, I got this ranch from my daddy,

He came here in seventeen.

He carved this place outta muscle and blood;

His own and his ol’ perchion team.

I took over in fifty

And married my darlin’ in May.

Together we weathered whatever came up.

She had what it took to stay.

Last winter we finally decided

We’d pack up and leave in the spring.

The kids are all grown and city-folk now;

We never raised them to cling.

 

Oh sure, I wished they’d have wanted

To ranch and carry it on,

But they did their part, I thank ‘em for that,

And they chose. Now all of ‘ems gone.

The last thirty odd years we’ve collected

An amazing number of things!

Bonnets and bottles, clippings and letters,

And Dad’s ol’ surcingle rings.

We’ve spent the winter months sorting,

Our hearts would ache or would jump

As we looked at our lives in trinkets we’d saved,

Then boxed up or took to the dump.

We cried sometimes in the attic,

I’m not ashamed of the truth.

I love this ol’ ranch that we’re leavin’.

We gave it the strength of our youth.

I love this ol’ woman beside me,

She held me and stayed by my side.

When I told ‘er I’s thinkin’ ‘bout sellin’,

She said, “Honey, I’m here for the ride.”

The new fellers movin’ in Monday

Are nice and I wish ‘em good luck.

But I’d rather be gone, so Ma, get yer stuff,

I’ve already gassed up the truck.

Lookin’ back over my shoulder

At the mailbox, I guess that I know

There’s a time to be stayin’, a time to be goin’,

And I reckon it’s time that we go.

 

And in the following poem by Ernie Fanning, we see another version of loss; not just a homestead, but a vast amount of range:

The Vanishing Valley

Out on a Nevada mountain

While lookin’ for his stock,

A cowboy stopped to rest his horse

A-top a big rimrock.

And as he sat and looked

At the valley floor below,

He asked himself this question:

Where the hell did the valley go?

Whatever happened to the fields of spuds

And the onions that the old degos use to raise,

And where have gone the lush green meadows

Where the fat cattle use to graze?

For as he sat and looked down

Through the smog in the shimmering summer’s heat,

What filled his vision most

Were mounds of steel and gray concrete.

And he knew there was no way to slow,

Much less halt,

The spreading of the buildings

And the ribbons of asphalt.

He could still remember when every man

In the valley helped pull his neighbor’s load,

When Kietzke Lane was nothing more

Than a gravel country road.

When they drove fat cattle from the Humphrey lots

to the shippin’ pens at Stanford Way.

Oh yeah, Cowboy,

But that was yesterday.

Well the cowboy stepped across his horse

And he started to the valley floor below,

And once more he asked himself a question:

Why the hell did this valley have to go?

 

Summary:

 

The words of the cowboy poets, most of them traditional cowboys, reflect the golden years on the open-range, the frustrated jeers during the old-to-new west transition, and the lamenting tears for a substantial loss of a cherished lifestyle. It is an art form steeped in oral-tradition and, for the most part, unspotlighted performance that has successfully been passed from one generation to the next within the ranching communities. And even though the art form has seen some mainstream success in the last few decades the majority of traditional cowboy poetry continues to ride the range in rural communities. And the art form, with few exceptions, continues to perpetuate the lifestyle of the traditional cowboy.

In parting, enjoy one last look at the spirit of the traditional cowboy.

A Cowboy’s Prayer

By Badger Clark

Oh Lord, I’ve never lived where churches grow.

I love creation better as it stood

That day you finished it so long ago

And looked upon Your work and called it good.

I know that others find You in the light

That’s sifted down through tinted window panes,

And yet I seem to feel You near tonight

In this dim, quiet starlight on the plains.

 

I thank you, Lord, that I am placed so well,

That you have made my freedom so complete;

That I’m no slave of whistle, clock or bell,

Nor weak-eyed prisoner of wall and street.

Just let me live my life as I’ve begun

And give me work that’s open to the sky;

And make me a pardner of the wind and sun,

And I won’t ask a life that’s soft or high.

 

Let me be easy on the man that’s down;

Let me be square and generous with all.

I’m careless sometimes, Lord, when I’m in town,

But never let ‘em say I’m mean or small!

Make me as big and open as the plains,

As honest as the hoss between my knees,

Clean as the wind that blows behind the rains,

Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze!

 

Forgive me, Lord, if sometimes I forget.

You know about the reasons that are hid.

You understand the things that gall and fret;

You know me better than my mother did.

Just keep an eye on all that’s done and said,

And right me, sometimes, when I turn aside,

And guide me on the long, dim, trail ahead

That stretches upward toward the Great Divide.

 

Works Cited

 

Bender, Texas Bix. Don’t Squat With Yer Spurs On! Salt Lake City. Peregrine Smith Books. 1992 Print.

Bender, Texas Bix. Don’t Squat With Yer Spurs On! II Salt Lake City. Peregrine Smith Books. 1997 Print.

Black, Baxter. “A Time to Stay, A Time to Go.” On the Edge of Common Sense. Denver. Coyote Cowboy Co. 1983. Print.

Cannon, Hal. Cowboy Poetry: A Gathering. Salt Lake City. Peregrine Smith Books. 1985. Print.

Cannon, Hal. New Cowboy Poetry: A Contemporary Gathering. Layton. Peregrine Smith Books. 1990 Print.

Clark, Badger. “A Cowboy’s Prayer.” Sun and Saddle Leather. Boston. Chapman & Grimes. 1942 Print.

Fanning, Ernie. “The Vanishing Valley.” Cowboy Poetry. Salt Lake City. Peregrine Smith Books. 1985. Print.

Fletcher, Curly. Songs of the Sage. Los Angeles. Frontier Publishing. 1931. Print.

Gardner, Gail. “The Dude Wrangler.” Orejana Bull. Prescott. Prescott Printing. 1980. Print.

McCanless, Allen. “A Cowboy’s Soliloquy.” Cowboy Poetry. Salt Lake City. Peregrine Smith Books. 1985. Print.

The Tour (short story)

Treerock, surrounded by peaceful countryside, is the largest village within the region of sector twelve, on the continent of Usah, on the planet Raeth. Acquiring its name from the unique combination of both cave and treetop dwellings used by the inhabitants. A contrasting, yet symbiotic balance appearing to permeate wherever one looks. Soft curves next to hard edges, high towers beside subterranean abodes, primitive methods combined with the technologically advanced: human with alien.

 

At the center of town there are two commanding structures. One built among a large stand of evergreens, with the lower section used by the governing body, or tribal council, and the upper tiers allocated for the chieftain alone. The other, just a stone’s throw away, the Spiritual Contact Chambers, fashioned within a vast ornate cave.

 

As is the norm, there is little activity in and around the council house. Nobody really cares to know how the township is run, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the day-to-day pursuits of its citizens. A common social ailment found in nearly every community in the universe.

 

In contrast, a crowd can be seen gathering at the decorative entrance to the Spiritual Contact Chambers.

 

Museum, gallery, archive, and amusement center: separate establishments combined to fulfill a single purpose, the presentation of the peculiar topics of the spirit world.

 

The large double doors open. An individual dressed in pale yellow robes, with shimmering symbols of academic achievement adorning the breast and sleeves, strides out to address the waiting crowd. He is tall, gangly, with a dome shaped head; normal characteristics of anyone born on Silo, a mere ten light years away from the Dog Star. And even without the rather strange looking spectacles he’s wearing, or the radiant adornment, there is a scholarly air about him.

 

He motions to the people.

 

“Calm down gathering,” he begins. “We’re ready to proceed with the walk’n’talk. Let me welcome you to the Spiritual Contact Chambers: Temple Sector Five. I am Tinboon, your relater.” And to be a relater within these walls is far more than simply being a tour guide, for each must complete years of formal education on the supernatural. And even then only those with multiple degrees, specialized certification, and the highest marks are considered. In other words, Tinboon is a walking, talking historian on spiritual phenomenon.

 

The group is ripe with anticipation as they slowly follow Tinboon through the entrance, into a hallway, heading toward the first of many chambers.

 

“As you know,” Tinboon continues, “it has been ten-plus-ten full revolutions since any recorded spirit contact has occurred. And although the High Order has harnessed the supernatural through inter-dimension maneuvers, we still have a vast history of pre-unexplained to delight you with.”

 

As the tour makes its way into the first chamber the vast collection of exhibits atop pedestals, freestanding, hung, or in holographic form spark the usual reaction: oohs and ahhs, finger-pointing, and numerous mumblings. The first sightings always inspire fascination.

 

Dead center is the representation of the infamous Gondobangle Incident; four massive Andorians were said to have massacred the entire village while possessed. And what they did after killing them is unspeakable. Thus, thankfully, the representation shows the event as it is unfolding, not the aftermath.

 

At the rear of the group a funny looking couple is comically awestruck beyond the norm, a fact evident to those around them.

 

“Do not be antsy my friends,” Tinboon announced. “Come. Come. There’s plenty of room.”

 

“Ooh, Geezbot, look at it all,” exclaims the awestruck wife. “And you wanted to remain indwelling to fix the hydro-brackets.”

 

“Fine!” Geezbot replies, unable to take his eyes off a particularly sexy image of spirit vixens holographically projected before him. “Jus’ keep a future focus on who forced me to come here when the hover fails and leaves yer’ kapooty stranded on the way to the slopsty.”

 

“My maternal is not a slop-eater!” his wife snaps back, while slugging him in the arm in an attempt to pull his attention away from the ethereal vixens.

 

It didn’t work.

 

“Now, now gatherers,” Tinboon begins, attempting to regain control of the group. “Let us recollect our agreements to remain unspoken until questions are solicited.”

 

Geezbot and his mate, both originally from the Violet Moon of Loctiown, turn the usual shade of lavender over their embarrassment at being singled out.

 

“It is the hope of the High Order,” Tinboon continues, “that such exhibits, though often chilling to view, educate the populace to the dangers of self-spiritual experimentation. Only through unity, a collective with the High Order as headship, can such dangers of nega-spiritual contact be avoided.”

 

If anyone in the crowd would have been spirit-touched, or better yet, spirit-born, they would undoubtedly have felt the sudden presence of negative spiritual energy begin to seep into the chamber in its present plasma-like form. But with the ban on the fore mentioned self-spiritual experimentation there are very few spirit-touched. And it is more than likely that no one here has even heard of an actual spirit-born in many spans of time.

 

Such a pity, for the plasma continues to ooze forth from the walls, still unnoticed by the gathering.

 

Tinboon directs the group to gaze at a large wall graph.

 

“This chart,” he states, “shows the peak and valley totaling of recorded spirit contact; beginning with the estimates taken from the Word of Olahey up to the spirit wars and onward to the complete inactivity of today.”

 

A few individuals within the group slowly begin to catch a glimpse here and there of things that just might not belong: a vapor, a smell. Did something over there really move? But there wasn’t enough evidence at the moment to truly be sure.

 

Professional, as always, Tinboon continues without missing a beat.

 

“During the eight-dash-nine plus ten-oh spans of hundreds,” he stipulates while pointing to the graph, “you can see the maximum accumulation of contacts.”

 

But while their relater remains unaware, as if on auto-pilot with his monologue, the demeanor of others within the gathering are now beginning to change as rapidly as the surrounding exhibits.

 

The ooze now pours forth, and individuals begin reacting to odoriferous emanations and both hot and cold wafting of air.

 

Loud static pops begin to increase in quantity and decibel, followed by groans, moans, and what some might recollect as eerie whispers. And finally, bizarre specters gather after their transformation.

 

Yet Tinboon continues.

 

“We will take each span of hundreds from Day Star Zero,” which he directs his pointer to, “up to the present as we traverse the chambers.”

 

“Excuse me Mister Tinboon, sir,” Geezbot cautiously interrupts.

 

Tinboon, a precise fellow, is irked by the interruption, now that he’s in his groove, and shows it as he turns to face the group.

 

“But is that normal?” Geezbot continues, gesturing to a particularly large and gruesome spectral transformation occurring just to the rear of the gathering.

 

If Geezbot or any of the other tour participants were expecting Tinboon to jump into a scholarly prose in order to explain away the unexplainable situation evolving before their very eyes — even those with more than one set of eyes — their expectations were immediately dashed as a high-pitched, girlish scream sprang forth from the relater upon seeing the apparitions. And, as the saying goes, “all hell breaks loose.”

 

Wailing, shrieking, howling, and cackling: specters wreak havoc on both animate and inanimate. And, sadly for those on the receiving end, it is not a brief episode.

 

 

© JW Thomas