Yvonne Hollenbeck and Cowboy Poetry
By Robert Brooke, JOHN E. WEAVER PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH, UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA-LINCOLN
Featured on Yvonne Hollenbeck’s website is the title poem to her latest collection, Rhyming the Range. That poem illustrates two of the enduring themes of cowboy poetry as practiced in the last half century: a self-consciousness about the act of poetry writing, and a gentle tribute to the “vanishing west.” She writes:
It might seem quite unusual
and folks might think it strang
that anyone would write a poem
of life out on the range.
But it is a path to register
for other folks to see
a way of life that’s fading fast
and what it means to me.
Both of these themes are iconic for contemporary cowboy poetry. Writing in the year 2000, David Stanley explains in “Cowboy Poetry Then and Now”:
The belief that cowboy poetry is a vital means of expression of western ways of life, that it has political as well as aesthetic power, has meant that hundreds of poems throughout the tradition address the issues of a vanishing West – of the economic pressures on independent ranchers and cowboys and political tensions throughout the region. This awareness of poetry as speaking for an entire regional occupational group has led to a large group of poems that are highly self-conscious and that speak of the nature of memory, of the process of writing poetry, and of the mystery of making poems that can have effect as well as affect in a difficult world. (2000, p. 13).
Since 2000, of course, cowboy—and cowgirl—poetry has developed into a robust, important form of performance poetry, perhaps the Western, rural counterpart to the more-urban Slam Poetry. This form of poetry now boasts an established national convention, the yearly National Cowboy Poetry Gathering held in the dead of winter in Elko, Nevada (at a time when working ranchers could best get away from the home spread). This event is over thirty years old, originating in 1985. The 2016 Gathering listed over fifty distinct acts (Yvonne Hollenbeck was one). In the cowboy poetry world, the line between cowboy song and poetry is often blurred – traditionally the words to songs have been printed and memorized apart from the music, and pieces created as poems have later been set to music – so a fair number of the performers are musicians. An equal number are reciters: performers who speak aloud pieces others have written (much like the Poetry Out Loud contest for secondary students, except with a Western turn). The youngest reciter at the 2016 Gathering was 12-year-old Thatch Elmer of Bear River, Wyoming.
Besides the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, this form of performance poetry has a healthy array of local and state gatherings. For Nebraska, the most important is the Old West Days and Nebraska Cowboy Poetry Gathering, held for over twenty years in October in Valentine, Nebraska. The premiere online collection of poetry and schedule of events is available from the Western and Cowboy Poetry Music & More at the Bar-D Ranch, administered by the Center for Western and Cowboy Poetry in Lexington, Virginia. As that collection indicates, the various traditions of cowboy poetry reach back to cattle drive days in the 19th century, and reach forward to the political and aesthetic controversies of our own time.
Yvonne Hollenbeck’s poetry both fits into and extends this tradition. As her various awards indicate, her work has proved successful in both spoken word and musical form. She is adept at the traditional rhythm and rhyme of mainstream cowboy poetry. Yet her writing often emphasizes women’s experience in the ranchlands of the Great Plains. In “The Auction Sale,” for example, she focuses explicitly on the widow’s experience at the moment of auctioning the homestead. Her narrator leaves the auction to sit with the widow, and hears stories:
[She] told me how they came here when they were newlywed
and she pointed to a dresser and a pretty iron bed,
saying: “That was our first purchase, and that old cast-iron range.”
Then she started telling how things were, and how the West had changed.
Next she pointed to a feed bunk full of harness, nets and hames;
and in it were his saddles; she talked of horses he had trained.
In Hollenbeck’s hands, the traditional concern for the “vanishing West” is transformed into the personal experience of women at an auction, and into the sharing of lives. This, Hollenbeck points out, is the work of poetry – to articulate and ease the often painful moments:
She asked if I’d come visit her; of course, I said I would
but it seems I keep so busy and don’t do the things I should.
A lifetime full of memories were shared with me that day,
and I hoped that just by listening it’d helped her in a way.
In the poem, the auction is caused “cause she can’t stay alone,” a very gentle indication of the complicated life patterns facing ranch families, and ranch widows, in a time of declining rural populations and the rise of industrial agriculture. While other writers might focus on the widespread social patterns facing rural women (see for instance, Jane Greer’s essay “Women’s Words, Women’s Work: Rural Literacy and Labor”), Hollenbeck draws attention to the lived experience of these two women, the widow and the visitor. She works to give voice to this experience.
Elaine Thatcher, in her essay “Women and Cowboy Poetry,” names the importance of writing like Hollenbeck’s. Her words are an able description of the force of Yvonne Hollenbeck’s writing:
Women’s cowboy poetry has been growing in artistry and conviction, expressing the values of women who tend to both embrace and shatter traditional gender roles at the same time. It is a voice that is important to hear, both in the world of raising cattle and in the wider American scene. (246)
Center for Western Poetry and Cowboy Poetry, Inc. Cowboy and Western Poetry at the Bar-D Ranch. Center for Western and Cowboy Poetry. Web. Apr. 2016.
“Elmer, Thatch. Cowboy Thatch: The ‘Bear River Buckaroo’ Cowboy Poet. Web. Apr. 2016.”
Greer, Jane. “Women’s Words, Women’s Work: Rural Literacy and Labor.” In Kim Donehower, Charlotte Hogg, and Eileen Schell (Eds.), Reclaiming the Rural: Essays on Literacy, Rhetoric, and Pedagogy. (Urbana, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2011), 90-106.
Western Folk Life. National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Elko, Nevada. Jan. 30 – Feb. 4, 2017. Web, Apr. 2016.
Nebraska Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Old West Days and Nebraska Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Valentine, Nebraska in October. (2016: Oct 7-9)
Stanley, David. “Cowboy Poetry Then and Now: An Overview.” In David Stanley and Edith Thatcher, Eds., Cowboy Poets and Cowboy Poetry (Urbana, IL: Illinois UP, 2000), 1-18.
Thatcher, Elaine. “Women and Cowboy Poetry.” In David Stanley and Edith Thatcher, Eds., Cowboy Poets and Cowboy Poetry (Urbana, IL: Illinois UP, 2000), 238-46.