Editor’s Note: In the last week of January, Jay Nordlinger attended the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nev. Here are the first three parts of his journal: I, II, and III. The journal concludes today.
In the Western Folklife Center, some high-school students are reciting poetry — mainly others’, but one girl recites her own. (All the students are girls, at least while I am present.) The poems are not exactly light little ditties. The first one is by Ha Jin, no less. The very first line speaks of “grief.” The second poem is by Ernest Hilbert, an American born in 1970:
Maybe you’ve heard about this. Maybe not.
A man came home and chucked his girlfriend’s cat
In the wood chipper. This really happened.
One of the students is a girl named Masha, who originally comes from Moscow — not Idaho but Russia. Her poem is by Elizabeth I, or attributed to: “On Monsieur’s Departure.” Just think of it: a Russian girl at a cowboy festival in northeastern Nevada channeling a 16th-century British monarch. Only in America.
• Let me pause for some pronunciation: There are all sorts of ways of pronouncing “poem” — “poetry,” too, but I’m mainly thinking of “poem.” I hear “poim” here sometimes (to rhyme with “coin” with an “m” on the end). When I was a kid, I think I said “pome,” to rhyme with “home.”
• On the edge of town, I see the below sign:
You will see a sign like this anywhere in America, no matter how remote. Earnest, hard-working, go-getting — may I say that Gujaratis are among the most natural Americans?
• I see a T-shirt that says “If music be the food of love, swing on.”
• Outside a casino, there is a banner. It shows a handsome, smiling miner, face neatly smudged. Boy, he couldn’t be happier. The banner reads, “THANK YOU LOCAL MINERS!” That’s nice. Like they’re thanking war veterans or something. “COME STRIKE IT RICH WITH OUR $10 E-CASH AND $10 BAR COMP THANK YOU BONUS.” Ooh, a thank-you bonus! “JUST BRING YOUR MINING BADGE TO GUEST SERVICES.” Yeah, just bring your badge, and watch your fortune roll in!
Bastards, bastards, enticing others to blow their money, and with it, possibly, their lives. This is nasty, sulfuric stuff.
• Well, I’ll give you something pleasanter — the boots around town. This pair is in front of the courthouse:
An almost psychedelic one:
• I wonder if you know the Cowboy Commandments — they’re the Ten Commandments, but rendered in cowboy language. No. 10 (about coveting) is, “Don’t be hankerin’ fer yer buddy’s stuff.”
• A star of this show — a star of the Elko gathering, and of cowboy poetry generally — is Paul Zarzyski. Maybe not your typical cowboy name, but there you go. Also, Zarzyski is from Wisconsin, which is not your typical cowboy place — but, again, there you go. Zarzyski has a very musical ear. His poems make sense, rhythmically and so on, and he reads them very well — musically.
The guy is funny, too. If I have understood him correctly, he has always been afraid of the man in the gray flannel suit — i.e., a normal civilian boss. What he is not afraid of is grizzly bears, cougars, and the like: “anything I can see before it eats me.”
• Earlier in this journal, I quoted some poetry etched into an Elko sidewalk. Here’s another snatch, by Rod McQueery, an Elko native:
So if you make the poems and jokes
To entertain these western folks,
Who herd the cows and tend the sheep,
For their sake, keep it light
And take the laughter for your pay,
Because right now tears are cheap.
• In the house tonight — at the Western Folklife Center — is the governor of Nevada. He is Steve Sisolak. His wife, Kathy, is also introduced, described as “the first Chinese-American first lady in American history.”
• It was Hal Cannon, apparently, who came up with the idea of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, all those years ago. He’s in the house — with his trio, the 3hattrio. (Really.) They are from Virgin, Utah, and they perform what’s billed as “American desert music.” One of their songs is about “dust devils.” It is positively demonic, and almost mesmerizing. The hair on the back of your neck stands up.
• A later session is called “Bull-slingers, Braggarts & Blowhards.” Onstage is Sourdough Slim, a.k.a. Rick Crowder. “I’m glad to be here,” he says. “Of course, as an accordion-playing yodeling cowboy in the 21st century, I’m glad to be anywhere.” He sprinkles his act with funny jokes. I especially appreciated this: “I’ve often thought to myself, ‘You know, I’d kind of like to be the last man on earth — just to find out if all those women were lying to me.” His delivery, and even his look, are almost Fieldsian, as in W.C. Though I’m not sure Fields played the accordion or yodeled or danced or twirled a lariat (all at the same time, as Sourdough Slim does for his grand finale).
• In my hotel, you see the Code of the West — I mean, printed out. There are ten items, like the Commandments. The first is “Live each day with courage.” In the middle is “When you make a promise, keep it.” At the end is “Know where to draw the line.”
• Early in the morning, in the breakfast room, the hostess asks, “Does anyone have a poem?” A young man speaks up: “I don’t have my hat with me, but I do have a poem.” Yes, you’re allowed to recite one without wearing a cowboy hat. “I’ll read a poem by a poet you probably all know here: Wild Bill Shakespeare. This is very brief — Sonnet 51.”
Nice (and unexpected).
• On my way back to Salt Lake City, I pass the exit for Beverly Hills — Beverly Hills, Nev. That, too, is unexpected. I also stop for another jamocha shake. That is the least unexpected thing in the world.