Art of cowboy poetry

By Dick Mason, The Observer April 08, 2013 12:29 pm


Cowboy poet Lonnie Shurtleff promoted poetry and music of the West during his tenure as an artist in residence at Greenwood Elementary School last week. Chris Baxter/The Observer
Cowboy poet Lonnie Shurtleff promoted poetry and music of the West during his tenure as an artist in residence at Greenwood Elementary School last week. Chris Baxter/The Observer
 Lonnie Shurtleff - YouTube

Artist-in-residence introduces students to form of verse unique to the West 

by Dick Mason /The Observer

Lonnie Shurtleff makes the art of creating cowboy poetry seem as easy as savoring a fresh sourdough biscuit prepared over a campfire.

Poems about running cattle and wild horses, timeless bonds with family and horses flow from Shurtleff as easily as the Colorado River winds through the West. There is also an extemporaneous quality to Shurtleff’s skill for he can seemingly take any combination of randomly selected words and quickly create cowboy poetry verse.

Greenwood Elementary School students observed this and more all last week while Shurtleff introduced them to the art of cowboy poetry while serving as artist in residence.

Students learned about an art form which conveys the essence of what it means to be a cowboy.

“It (cowboy poetry) describes the day-to day life of people who live our western heritage,’’ Shurtleff said.

He added that the art form is meant to promote the poetry and music of the western heritage. 

The western heritage Shurtleff speaks of is one of traditional values he wants people of all ages to embrace. He cites his parents as classic examples of those who espoused such values. Shurtleff said his father’s word and a handshake were forever bonding. 

“A handshake was as good as a contract...If he gave you his word, he would do what he said he would or die trying,’’ Shurtleff said.

The La Grande poet grew up in the Owyhee country of Nevada where he helped his father run wild horses and in the Baker Valley where he helped his family run cattle. 

Shurtleff, in some of his works, discusses his childhood. One is a poem that he made into a song, “Growing Up Wild in the Old Owyhee.’’ The first six lines read: 

I still remember the year fifty one

Chasing those mustangs in the hot July sun

Out in the desert when I was a child

When there weren’t any fences and the horses ran wild

Out through the rimrock and Juniper tree

Growing up wild in the old Owyhee

Shurtleff believes anyone can become a cowboy poet. However, those with ranching backgrounds and anyone who has grown up in western rural areas like Northeast Oregon have a head start. Shurtleff said people who have never lived on a ranch or ridden a horse have more of an innate understanding of cowboy culture than they may know.

“When you live here, you have a western legacy, rather you realize it or not,’’ Shurtleff said.

 Throughout his week at Greenwood, Shurtleff recited such verse so easily that he makes it seem that writing it is simple and ordered. The reality is that crafting cowboy poetry can be a struggle. 

“Sometimes you are throwing ideas at paper like paint on a wall until something sticks and you see relationships,’’ Shurtleff said.

Shurtleff’s presentations as an artist in residence at Greenwood was sponsored by ArtsEast. Based in La Grande, ArtsEast provides about 30 artists for its artist-in-residence program to schools in 10 Eastern Oregon counties. 

Shurtleff had Greenwood students give writing cowboy poetry a try and was impressed with the potential a number of students displayed, noting they could create verse which needed almost no editing or restructuring. 

“In every class, there were some students for whom the words fell out of their heads altogether,” Shurtleff said.

Shurtleff, who moved to La Grande with his wife Pat five years ago from Weston, said all poetry fills an innate need shared by all people. 

“As human beings we all have an intense desire to communicate our feelings,’’ Shurtleff said. “If poetry wasn’t with us, someone soon would invent it.’’