WORDS GROWING WILD IN THE WOODS by Paul Zarzyski and LET’S FREE UP OUR VERSE by Wallace McRae

Here’s a double-header:

wallypaul2018jblxphoto © 2018, Jessica Lifland

WORDS GROWING WILD IN THE WOODS
by Paul Zarzyski

A boy thrilled with his first horse,
I climbed aboard my father hunkering in hip boots
below the graveled road berm, Cominski Crick
funneling to a rusty culvert. Hooking
an arm behind one of my knees, he lifted
with a grunt and laugh, his creel harness creaking,
split shot clattering in our bait boxes.

I dreamed a Robin Hood-Paladin-Sinbad life
from those shoulders. His jugular pulse rumbled
into the riffle of my pulse, my thin wrists
against his Adam’s apple—a whiskered knuckle
prickly as cucumbers in our garden
where I picked nightcrawlers, wet and moonlit,
glistening between vines across the black soil.

Eye-level with an array of flies, every crayon
color fastened to the silk band
of his tattered fedora, the hat my mother vowed
a thousand times to burn, I learned to love
the sound of words in the woods—Jock Scott,
Silver Doctor, Mickey Finn, Quill Gordon, Gray
Ghost booming in his voice through the spruce.

At five, my life rhymed with first flights
bursting into birdsong. I loved
the piquant smell of fiddleheads and trilliums,
hickory and maple leaf humus, the petite
bouquets of arbutus we picked for Mom.

I loved the power of my father’s stride
thigh-deep against the surge of dark swirls.

Perched offshore on boulder—safe from wanderlust
but not from currents coiling below—
I prayed to the apostles for a ten-pounder
to test the steel of my telescopic pole,
while Dad, working the water upstream and down,
stayed always in earshot—alert and calling to me
after each beaver splash between us.

I still go home to relearn my first love for words
echoing through those woods: I caught one!
Dad! I caught one! Dad! Dad!
skipping like thin flat stones down the crick—
and him galloping through popples, split shot ticking,
to find me leaping for a fingerling, my first
brookie twirling from a willow like a jewel.

© 1998, Paul Zarzyski
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission
(Originally printed in Blue-Collar Light (1998) and Wolf Tracks On The Welcome Mat (2003)

__________

LET’S FREE UP OUR VERSE
by Wallace McRae

Critics claim we write doggerel. To them that’s a curse
As we whittle our ditties in tired meter and
——————————————-……rhyme
Rhyming’s old fashioned—we’re stuck in the past.
Gotta strike for new heights to make our craft
——————————————-……survive

Besides.

How many rhymes can you unearth for “horse”?
We must find fresh pathways—carve out a new
——————————————-……route
Forego out worn metaphors—retire tired cliches
As unnumb cerebrums will uncover fresh
——————————————-……methods

Of retelling the tales of our untrampled West
Like Vess, Paul, and Linda we’ll leave all the
——————————————-……others
In the dust of the drags in their quest of the muse
We’ll ride at the point and no longer
——————————————-……employ

Those sound-alike words at the end of the line.
Our poems will sparkle, shimmer and
——————————————-……glitter
Ah! The critics will love us. We’ll be the rage
Academics will praise us as we mount a new
——————————————-……campaign

To convert the whole West to the joys of free verse
Oh, some will resist. They’ll grumble and
——————————————-……swear
As they cling to tradition, bog down in the mire,
Get rimrocked, rough locked, or caught in the
——————————————-……Gallagher electric fence.

But it’s “Root hog or die,” as the old-timers said
As reps with credentials sort the quick from
——————————————-……those who gather celestial ranges
——————————————- and are now gone but not forgotten.
Yes! Convert! You wranglers who once tangled with rhyme
‘Cause rhyming ain’t worth a tin Roosevelt
——————————————-……social program.

© Wallace McRae
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

 

Watch Paul Zarzyski recite his poem in a 2019 Western Folklife video.

When we asked Paul Zarzyski to share his poem, he suggested that we pair it with Wally McRae’s poem and he also shared this account:

“McRAE” and “ZARZYSKI,” THE “PURT-NEAR” PERFECT RHYME

Wallace McRae and I first read our work together in the Student Union Lounge at the University of Montana in 1986—perhaps one of the earliest close poetic encounters of the wild-west kind between traditional rhyme-n-meter and free verse, between the literati and the “lariati.” The event inspired English Professor
Bill Bevis to write the following in his introduction to the poetry section of The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology (1988):

“One of the best readings I’ve heard in years was in Missoula, with Paul Zarzyski, modern poet and bronc rider, and Wally McRae, cowboy poet and rancher, sharing the stage. But while both poets were excellent and the shared reading a success, I
was also aware of how difficult it is for the ear to move from cowboy poetry to modern poetry….”

“The rest,” as they say, “is history.” Wally and I became fast friends and have orchestrated our stage presentations at dozens of festivals and gatherings over the decades, our “Paully-Wally-Doodle-All-The-Day” duets often including a hearty dose of (cow)poking fun at one another over our very different approaches to the page. When I’d proclaim, for example, that my poems do, in fact, rhyme, but “in the middle of the lines, rather than out on the ends,” Wally would counter, via his hilarious delivery of “Let’s Free Up Our Verse,” how silly such might sound to the cowboy poet’s traditionally trained, and superior, ear.

“How do I even know it’s poetry if it doesn’t rhyme?” he’d inquire.

“Hell, it’s jagged on the right, ain’t it?” I’d fire back, and then emphasize how I, at least, had never succumbed, as had he, to what I’ve dubbed “The Mister Ed syndrome”— rhyming “horse” with “of course.”

And so evolved—thanks to the Western Folklife Center and the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada—this symbiotic friendship fueled by our mutual love for recounting our narratives via musical words rendered into lines and stanzas, both rhymed-n-metered, and otherwise.

Wally McRae is a third-generation rancher, with a 30,000 acre cow-calf ranch in Forsyth, Montana. He was the first cowboy poet to be awarded the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is a recipient of the Montana Governor’s Award for the Arts, and has served on the National Council of the Arts.

In a conversation with him last year, he mentioned that he thought this poem was one of his best poems. He’s probably best known for his own least-favorite poem, “Reincarnation.”

This poem, “Let’s Free Up Our Verse,” appears in The Anthology; Celebrating 30 Years of Wrangling Words from the Western Folklife Center, edited by Charlie Seemann, published in 2014 in celebration of the 30th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Find more about Wally McRae at cowboypoetry.com.

The inimitable Paul Zarzyski defies description. Visit paulzarzyski.com for his bio, blog, and more.

This photograph of Paul Zarzyski and Wallace McRae is by respected photojournalist Jessica Lifland (Instagram), taken at the Western Folklife Center’s 2018 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where she is one of the official photographers. See her recently-posted 2020 Gathering highlights.

The subjects she has photographed for her Cowboy Poetry Project work-in-progress include Wally McRae, the late Elizabeth Ebert, Sean Sexton, Andy Hedges, Jerry Brooks, Waddie Mitchell, Amy Hale and Gail Steiger, Rodney Nelson, Henry Real Bird, DW Groethe, Doris Daley, Bimbo Cheney, the late Jack Walther, and others.

(Request permission for any use of these poems or photograph.)

THINGS OF INTRINSIC WORTH by Wallace McRae

wallyjbl_091707_Wally_0074lophoto © Jessica Lifland; request permission for use

THINGS OF INTRINSIC WORTH
by Wallace McRae

Remember that sandrock on Emmells Crick
Where Dad carved his name in ‘thirteen?
It’s been blasted down into rubble
And interred by their dragline machine.
Where Fadhls lived, at the old Milar Place,
Where us kids stole melons at night?
They ‘dozed it up in a funeral pyre
Then torched it. It’s gone alright.
The “C” on the hill, and the water tanks
Are now classified, “reclaimed land.”
They’re thinking of building a golf course
Out there, so I understand.
The old Egan Homestead’s an ash pond
That they say is eighty feet deep.
The branding corral at the Douglas Camp
Is underneath a spoil heap.
And across the crick is a tipple, now,
Where they load coal onto a train,
The Mae West Rock on Hay Coulee?
Just black and white snapshots remain.
There’s a railroad loop and a coal storage shed
Where the bison kill site used to be.
The Guy Place is gone; Ambrose’s too.
Beulah Farley’s a ranch refugee.

But things are booming. We’ve got this new school
That’s envied across the whole state.
When folks up and ask, “How’s things goin’ down there?”
I grin like a fool and say, “Great!”
Great God, how we’re doin’! We’re rollin’in dough,
As they tear and they ravage The Earth.
And nobody knows…or nobody cares…
About things of intrinsic worth.

© 1989, Wallace McRae
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

During Cowboy Poetry Week, no poem was more commented upon or shared than Montana rancher Wally McRae’s “Things of Intrinsic Worth.”

Watch a powerful presentation in a 2014 film from The Montana Experience: Stories from Big Sky Country, directed by Carly Calhoun & Sam Despeaux.

A comment with the film explains, “Wally and Clint McRae struggle to save their ranch amidst the encroaching forces of coal production. The McRae family settled in Montana in the 1880s to raise cattle amongst prairies of the Tongue River Valley. The McRaes knew the intrinsic worth of the land and unspoiled waters of the Tongue River. Wally McRae and his son Clint continue the old family traditions. But now, the McRae’s ranch sits at the epicenter over a battle that pits powerful corporate influences against the protection of public health and the environment, and the future of the climate.”

Another moving recitation of the poem is captured in WESTDOCUMENTARY, a feature-length documentary work-in-progress by H. Paul Moon.

Wally McRae was the first cowboy poet to win a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Their bio tells, “Wallace McRae was born in 1936, the son of a second-generation rancher from the Rosebud Creek area near Colstrip, in southeastern Montana. McRae’s family ranch is bordered on the east by the Tongue River and lies just north of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. Both of his parents were born and raised on Rosebud Creek, and his family has raised sheep and cattle in this region since 1885.”

The author of several books of poetry and an outstanding collection of stories, Stick Horses and Other Stories of Ranch Life, Wally McRae is reluctantly known for his modern humor classic, “Reincarnation.” He often says it is his least favorite poem.

He was a regular participant at the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and other events, but now he has retired from performing. Find more of Wallace McRae’s poetry and more about him in our feature at cowboypoetry.com.

Wallace McRae relishes being known as “The Cowboy Curmudgeon.” You can share this post, but please don’t otherwise use his poem without permission.

This photograph of Wallace McRae is by respected photojournalist Jessica Lifland (Instagram) as a part of her Cowboy Poetry Project. Her art so often captures the character and spirit of her subjects. Others she has photographed to date include include the late Elizabeth Ebert, Sean Sexton, Andy Hedges, Jerry Brooks, Waddie Mitchell, Amy Steiger and Gail Steiger, Rodney Nelson, Henry Real Bird, DW Groethe, Doris Daley, Bimbo Cheney, the late Jack Walther, and others.

Jessica Lifland is one of the official photographers for the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Find her recently-posted 2020 highlights  and other gathering photos and her Cowboy Poetry Project photos at her site.

(Request permission for sharing this post or photograph.)

REINCARNATION by Wallace McRae

wallyboot
© 2012 Betty K. Rodgers

REINCARNATION
by Wallace McRae

“What does Reincarnation mean?”
A cowpoke asked his friend.
His pal replied, “It happens when
Yer life has reached its end.
They comb yer hair, and warsh yer neck,
And clean yer fingernails,
And lay you in a padded box
Away from life’s travails.”

“The box and you goes in a hole,
That’s been dug into the ground.
Reincarnation starts in when
Yore planted ‘neath a mound.
Them clods melt down, just like yer box,
And you who is inside.
And then yore just beginnin’ on
Yer transformation ride.”

“In a while, the grass’ll grow
Upon yer rendered mound.
Till some day on yer moldered grave
A lonely flower is found.
And say a hoss should wander by
And graze upon this flower
That once wuz you, but now’s become
Yer vegetative bower.”

“The posy that the hoss done ate
Up, with his other feed,
Makes bone, and fat, and muscle
Essential to the steed,
But some is left that he can’t use
And so it passes through,
And finally lays upon the ground
This thing, that once wuz you.”

“Then say, by chance, I wanders by
And sees this upon the ground,
And I ponders, and I wonders at,
This object that I found.
I thinks of reincarnation,
Of life and death, and such,
And come away concludin’: ‘Slim,
You ain’t changed, all that much.'”

© Wallace McRae
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

It’s the 19th annual Cowboy Poetry Week, and we’re sharing the best of the best.

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Wallace McRae, third-generation Montana rancher and National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellow penned this modern classic. The NEA comments that “Reincarnation” is, “…a poem destined to outlive him; it has already become part of oral tradition and is recited by cowboys around the country who have never met the author.”

See a fun video of Wallace McRae and Paul Zarzyski performing “Reincarnation” at the 2009 Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Wallace McRae will tell you that “Reincarnation” is his least favorite of his poems. For a wonderful look at this complex man, watch a recent Western Folklife Center video in which he “… tells a true story about Northern Plains ranching, with a moving tribute to a
neighbor.”

For another aspect of his work, view his presentation of his stirring poem, “Things of Intrinsic Worth,” performed in 2013 and a part of WESTDOCUMENTARY, a feature-length documentary work-in-progress by H. Paul Moon.

Wallace McRae has retired from public appearances. Find more of Wallace McRae’s poetry and more about him in our feature at CowboyPoetry.com.

Wallace McRae relishes being known as “The Cowboy Curmudgeon.” You can share this post, but please don’t otherwise use his poem without permission.

Idaho photographer and filmmaker Betty K. Rodgers caught this image of Wallace McRae’s boot in 2012 at the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Betty and Ken Rodgers are the creators of the award-winning film, Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor about the men of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marines during the 1968 siege at Khe Sanh in the Republic of Vietnam, in which Ken served. The film is available for streaming at amazon.com. Find more about it at bravotheproject.com, where there is an engaging blog.

Their latest project, I Married the War, tells the stories of the lives of combat veteran spouses, from WWII through today. It is in final editing stages.

(Request permission for the use of this poem or photograph.)

 

OUTRIDERS AT THE END OF THE TRAIL, by Wallace McRae

wallyjbl.jpgphoto © Jessica Lifland; request permission for any use

OUTRIDERS AT THE END OF THE TRAIL
by Wallace McRae

They contemplate their town-boot toes
As they stand around and mill.
They check the south horizon,
‘Cross the tracks above the hill.

Their suitcoats hint of mothballs,
Their Levis are clean and creased.
They speak of grass or cattle
But never the deceased.

Some have shook the Gov’ner’s hand,
And one’s been in the pen.
Crooked legs define the bronc hands,
Cropped-off thumbs the dally men.

Their spring-toothed necks are throttled up
In silky black wild rags.
Their faces scored like flower-stamps
On well-worn saddle bags.

They’ve come early to the funeral home,
Yet don’t want to go inside.
There’s no comfort in a breathless room
Or words of “eventide.”

They somehow share a secret bond
As each one recollects:
Together. Separate. Silently.
Each pays his last respects.

You’ll hear no keening to the vaulted skies,
But the good hands know when a good hand dies.

© Wallace McRae
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without permission

Wally McRae is a third-generation rancher, with a 30,000 acre cow-calf ranch in Forsyth, Montana. He was the first cowboy poet to be awarded the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts and he is a recipient of the Montana Governor’s Award for the Arts.

He’s probably best known for his own least-favorite poem, “Reincarnation.”

In his book, Cowboy Curmudgeon and other poems, Wally McRae notes this poem is “Dedicated to the memory of my uncle Evan D. McRae.”

Find more about Wally McRae at CowboyPoetry.com.

This photograph of Wally McRae is by popular photojournalist Jessica Lifland (jessicalifland.smugmug.comInstagram) as a part of her Cowboy Poetry Project. Other subjects to date include Sean Sexton, Andy Hedges, Jerry Brooks, Waddie Mitchell, Amy Steiger and Gail Steiger, Rodney Nelson, DW Groethe, Elizabeth Ebert, Henry Real Bird,
Doris Daley, Bimbo Cheney, Jack Walther, and Bill Lowman.

Jessica Lifland is one of the official photographers for the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Find her gathering photos and her Cowboy Poetry Project photos here.

(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem and photograph with this post, but any other uses require permission.)

LET’S FREE UP OUR VERSE by Wallace McRae

wallyjbl_091607_Wally_0040lo

LET’S FREE UP OUR VERSE
by Wallace McRae

Critics claim we write doggerel. To them that’s a curse
As we whittle our ditties in tired meter and
——————————————-……rhyme
Rhyming’s old fashioned—we’re stuck in the past.
Gotta strike for new heights to make our craft
——————————————-……survive

Besides.

How many rhymes can you unearth for “horse”?
We must find fresh pathways—carve out a new
——————————————-……route
Forego out worn metaphors—retire tired cliches
As unnumb cerebrums will uncover fresh
——————————————-……methods

Of retelling the tales of our untrampled West
Like Ves, Paul, and Linda we’ll leave all the
——————————————-……others
In the dust of the drags in their quest of the muse
We’ll ride at the point and no longer
——————————————-……employ

Those sound-alike words at the end of the line.
Our poems will sparkle, shimmer and
——————————————-……glitter
Ah! The critics will love us. We’ll be the rage
Academics will praise us as we mount a new
——————————————-……campaign

To convert the whole West to the joys of free verse
Oh, some will resist. They’ll grumble and
——————————————-……swear
As they cling to tradition, bog down in the mire,
Get rimrocked, rough locked, or caught in the
——————————————-……Gallagher electric fence.

But it’s “Root hog or die,” as the old-timers said
As reps with credentials sort the quick from
——————————————-……those who gather celestial ranges
——————————————- and are now gone but not forgotten.
Yes! Convert! You wranglers who once tangled with rhyme
‘Cause rhyming ain’t worth a tin Roosevelt
——————————————-……social program.

© Wallace McRae, used with permission

In a recent conversation with Wallace McRae, he mentioned that he thought this poem—which takes on free verse—was one of his best poems, and he gave us permission to share it.

Wally McRae is a third-generation rancher, with a 30,000 acre cow-calf ranch in Forsyth, Montana. He was the first cowboy poet to be awarded the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is a recipient of the Montana Governor’s Award for the Arts, and has served on the National Council of the Arts.

He’s probably best known for his own least-favorite poem, “Reincarnation.”

Wally McRae has a poetry collection, “Cowboy Curmudgeon and other poems, and a collection of stories, Stick Horses and Other Stories of Ranch Life. This poem, “Let’s Free Up Our Verse,” appears in The Anthology; Celebrating 30 Years of Wrangling Words from the Western Folklife Center, published in 2014 in celebration of the 30th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

Find more about Wally McRae at CowboyPoetry.com.

This photograph of Wally McRae is by popular photojournalist Jessica Brandi Lifland (Instagram). It is from her Cowboy Poetry Project with subjects to date who also include Waddie Mitchell, Amy Steiger and Gail Steiger, Rodney Nelson, DW Groethe, Elizabeth Ebert, Henry Real Bird, Doris Daley, Bimbo Cheney, and others.

Jessica Lifland is one of the official photographers for the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Find her gathering photos at her photo blog.

(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem and photograph with this post, but any other uses require permission.)

OUTRIDERS AT THE END OF THE TRAIL by Wallace McRae

wallyjbl_091707_Wally_0074lophoto of Wallace McRae © 2015, Jessica Lifland, request permission for any use

OUTRIDERS AT THE END OF THE TRAIL
by Wallace McRae

They contemplate their town-boot toes
As they stand around and mill.
They check the south horizon,
‘Cross the tracks above the hill.

Their suitcoats hint of mothballs,
Their Levis are clean and creased.
They speak of grass or cattle
But never the deceased.

Some have shook the Gov’ner’s hand,
And one’s been in the pen.
Crooked legs define the bronc hands,
Cropped-off thumbs the dally men.

Their spring-toothed necks are throttled up
In silky black wild rags.
Their faces scored like flower-stamps
On well-worn saddle bags.

They’ve come early to the funeral home,
Yet don’t want to go inside.
There’s no comfort in a breathless room
Or words of “eventide.”

They somehow share a secret bond
As each one recollects:
Together. Separate. Silently.
Each pays his last respects.

You’ll hear no keening to the vaulted skies,
But the good hands know when a good hand dies.

© Wallace McRae
This poem should not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission

Wally McRae is a third-generation rancher, with a 30,000 acre cow-calf ranch in Forsyth, Montana. He was the first cowboy poet to be awarded the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is a recipient of the Montana Governor’s Award for the Arts, and has served on the National Council of the Arts.

He’s probably best known for his own least-favorite poem, “Reincarnation.”

In his book, “Cowboy Curmudgeon and other poems,” Wally McRae notes this poem is “Dedicated to the memory of my uncle Evan D. McRae.”

This photograph of Wally McRae is by popular photojournalist Jessica Lifland (http://jessicalifland.smugmug.comInstagram) as a part of her Cowboy Poetry Project. Her subjects to date include Waddie Mitchell, Amy and Gail Steiger , Rodney Nelson, DW Groethe, Elizabeth Ebert, Henry Real Bird, Doris Daley, Bimbo Cheney, and others.

Jessica Lifland is one of the official photographers for the Western Folklife Center’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Find her gathering photos at her photo blog.

 

OUTRIDERS AT THE END OF THE TRAIL by Wallace McRae

wallyjlwatermarkphoto by Jessica Brandi Lifland

OUTRIDERS AT THE END OF THE TRAIL
by Wallace McRae

They contemplate their town-boot toes
As they stand around and mill.
They check the south horizon,
‘Cross the tracks above the hill.

Their suitcoats hint of mothballs,
Their Levis are clean and creased.
They speak of grass or cattle
But never the deceased.

Some have shook the Gov’ner’s hand,
And one’s been in the pen.
Crooked legs define the bronc hands,
Cropped-off thumbs the dally men.

Their spring-toothed necks are throttled up
In silky black wild rags.
Their faces scored like flower-stamps
On well-worn saddle bags.

They’ve come early to the funeral home,
Yet don’t want to go inside.
There’s no comfort in a breathless room
Or words of “eventide.”

They somehow share a secret bond
As each one recollects:
Together. Separate. Silently.
Each pays his last respects.

You’ll hear no keening to the vaulted skies,
But the good hands know when a good hand dies.

© Wallace McRae, used with permission
Wally McRae is a third-generation rancher, with a 30,000 acre cow-calf ranch in Forsyth, Montana.He was the first cowboy poet to be awarded the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

In his book, Cowboy Curmudgeon and other poems, Wally McRae notes this poem is “Dedicated to the memory of my uncle Evan D. McRae.”

Texas Hill Country poet and writer Linda Kirkpatrick suggested this poem. She comments, “When I began writing cowboy poetry I studied the classics, paying close attention to the subject matter, the rhyme and the meter. I hope that beginning writers study this poem. It should be read and pondered. It is just beautifully written.”

This outstanding photograph of Wally McRae is by photojournalist Jessica Brandi Lifland, used with permission, from her “Cowboy Poets” project. See more of her photos of Wally McRae here.

Others photographed for her “Cowboy Poets” project include Amy and Gail Steiger, Rodney Nelson, Henry Real Bird, Jack Walther, Bimbo Cheney, Waddie Mitchell, Doris Daley, Jerry Brooks, Elizabeth Ebert, D.W. Groethe, and Bill Lowman. Find the photographs here.

(Please respect copyright. You can share this poem and photograph with this post, but any other use requires permission.)