Here’s a double-header:

wallypaul2018jblxphoto © 2018, Jessica Lifland

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)


by Wallace McRae

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


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

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

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

To convert the whole West to the joys of free verse
Oh, some will resist. They’ll grumble and
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:


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.)