Cowboy poetry gives students an opportunity to participate in a tradition started on the long cattle drives in the late 1800’s.  It is simply narrative poetry with a western theme, but the poem must be recited, as well as written.  This special category gives students the opportunity to use their writing, research, and verbal presentation skills and be eligible for the highest cash award in the Booth Museum’s Writing Through Art Literary Competition.

History of Cowboy Poetry

Cowboy poetry is as old as cowboys themselves!  Cowboys honed their poetry on the cattle trails from Texas north to Kansas and beyond.  It’s likely that after spending many hours in the saddle with just a horse and cows for conversation, their thoughts tended to flow in verse.  The movement of horses and cattle probably added to the rhyme and meter in their poetry.  For lack of better things to do after a hard day on the range, cowboys of the Old West would sit around the campfire at night and entertain one another with poems, tall tales known as “windies,” or just plain good ol’ stories.  This was the birth of American Cowboy Poetry, as we know it today.

Poetry tends to be easier to memorize than prose so it was natural for cowboys who might have been illiterate and certainly couldn’t carry heavy books with them to commit their literature to memory.  It is usually a form that has strong meter and rhyme. Reciting cowboy poetry from memory is still considered the appropriate way to present it.

The art of that spoken verse was flavored by a blend of British, Irish, Scotch, and Welsh crossed with Mexican, African, and Native American lingo.  Even more nationalities melted into the mix during the gold rush.  This language mix could have influenced cowboy language and spelling style such as “crick” for creek and “git” for get.  There are cowboy poems of love, lies, and hilarity, as well as those of tragedy and heroism.  Some poets write of true events and inspiration while others figure that sticking too close the truth will spoil a good story.  Most will also have stories of favorite horses, dogs and old friends in their collections.  Cowboy poetry is the art of telling stories about events that happen in everyday activities.  Contrary to popular belief, cowboy poetry does not need to only be about the Old West.  These poems may also deal with contemporary issues, such as the rural West’s struggle to adjust to the rapid pace of technological change in the United States or the changing role of women in the world of cowboys.

Tips specific to writing Cowboy Poetry

Read Cowboy Poetry and books/articles about the Old West and the cowboy lifestyle. Your poem should be correct from a historical standpoint, so some research will be necessary if writing about an event in history.

Select a topic or theme.  Choose something with which you have a close personal connection and/or a great interest.  Cowboy poetry writers are not limited to the artwork posted on Booth Museum’s website.

Collect Words.  Keep a word bank in a journal or on note cards.  It will be especially helpful to note elements of western dialect and western vocabulary.  One helpful website is to find old west legends, lingo and phrases.

The most important part of writing cowboy poetry is conveying your message to the reader using original images and ideas.  Your are painting a picture with words.  For examples of imagery try

Recitation of Cowboy Poetry

The top three finalists in the Cowboy poetry division will be invited to recite their poems from memory at the Museum’s annual Cowboy Gathering on Saturday, March 11, 2017. Finalists must participate in this phase of the contest to be eligible for cowboy poetry prize money.

The additional effort in memorizing and presenting the poem publicly is the reason for the higher amount of prize money.


Doris Daley Cowboy Poem – “Light the Way Home”

Elizabeth Brown

Joel Hayes

Tom Kerlin

Jim Scott

Additional sources for writing poetry – excellent source for cowboy poetry – favorite poets and poem – on-line rhyming dictionary – more rhymes – on-line Merriam Webster dictionary; all kinds of lists, games, etc.