Cowboys and couplets at home on the range

THE image of the cowboy, a rugged individual on a horse battling the harsh American frontier, seems incompatible with the more refined sensibilities of poetry. It is difficult to imagine a modern-day Wordsworth waxing lyrical about sitting round the ranch fire with a bowl of beans.

But for three days each winter, Elko, a small mining town in the middle of the Nevada desert, is invaded by almost 10,000 wild westerners for a three-day jamboree of poetry, music and story telling in the United States' biggest celebration of the cowboy tradition.

And cowgirls too.

She buttons her shirt and slides on her boots, fastens her chaps and ties her wildrag of crimson, and then to add some finishing touches, she brushes her hair and puts on her Stetson . . .

Thus wrote Monique Lidell of Big Bend, Texas, in her poem Identity, performed at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering, now in its ninth year.

It is a little known fact, but the unlikely pairing of cowboys and couplets is based on a long recitative tradition which is increasingly being recognised as an indigenous American folk art.

The sentiment is cloying, the imagery simple. The meter of the poetry is said to imitate the sound of horses' hooves.

J. B. Allen, a rancher from Texas who still works for cowboy wages, is one of the leading traditional cowboy poets. ''I started writing down the stories the old timers told me and I didn't want to forget. Then I just started writing down the things I sawaround me.'' Humorous verse, a slapstick array of digestive problems and accidents also figure prominently in the tradition.

''Poetry ain't nothing but entertainment'' points out Ben Aitken, who edits American Cowboy Poet magazine and penned lines such as these: He squatted on his boot heels, his posterior was exposed and bare. He did not see that rattler lyin' coiled under there.

Elko is the sort of town where they sell shotguns in the grocery store, between the chewing gum and the moustache wax. For a poetry convention, practically every seat in the 1,500-cowboy auditorium, several large conference rooms and the high school auxiliary hall is filled.

Cowboys wear their hats indoors. From the back of the auditorium the view is of a sea of wide brims and tall crowns extending down towards the stage. When a poem finishes the silence is broken with genuine applause while all around cowboy hats bob up anddown like corks.

Although much of the cowboy poetry being written today remains locked in the cowboy tradition, the society in which cowboys live has changed rapidly over the past generation.

Cattle raising, once the dominant economic activity over large parts of the American West, is under threat from many directions.

The politically powerful environmental movement blames ranchers for wrecking the land, nutritionists claim beef is unhealthy, and meteorologists blame cows for the methane which is helping deplete the ozone layer.

Increased grazing fees cut into profit margins. Young people riding off-road vehicles cut up the land, hikers leave gates open, and herds of elks introduced for hunters damage fences.

But awareness of the cowboy arts is flourishing as cowboys and ranchers increasingly come together to exchange ideas and poems.

As poet Ed Brown said: ''There were many of us writing, but we sure didn't show our poetry to anyone until the Elko gathering started.'' John Dofflemyer, editor of Dry Crik Review, the leading publication for cowboy free verse said: ''We were just so pleased to find out there were others like us. Gatherings like Elko have given us a connection which we never had before.'' While much traditional cowboy poetry now being written is a simple eulogy to the lifestyle, many of the better works are exemplified by the angry environmentalism of poets such as Wallace McRae, a Montana rancher.

Other poets are moving away from rhymed and metered verse into a more challenging free verse style, such as that published by Dry Crik Review.

''A lot of traditional poetry was composed to be recited. It sounds good as spoken verse but on the page it's really bad. By printing poetry we have helped raise the standard,'' Dofflemyer said.

Younger poets like Shadd Pietal, a former rodeo star from North Dakota, started writing through modern poetry he studied at college.

Many other strands of cowboy culture are now being presented at Elko. There is a growing number of female writers re-examining the contribution of women in ranching.

Other traditions from the old west are also represented. The vaqueros, Spanish speaking cowboys who worked the ranges in the southwest, have contributed a legacy of songs and story telling which is being rediscovered and documented.

American Indians also find cowboy poetry culture is one of the few forums for writing about their own cultural experiences. Hank Real Bird, a Crow Indian and one of the foremost poets, writes about the challenges facing his people. ''I write poetry as a reality check,'' he said.

While the poetry and song is now made up of increasingly diverse elements, so the poetry gathering is beginning to find space to address the direct threats to the culture.

Panel discussions, video screenings and workshops take on a range of topics varying from environmental action, architectural preservation and ranch photography.

But if the substance of the gathering is getting increasingly serious, the poetry gathering belongs to the growing audience that is intent on having a good time.

''I just took a few days off to enjoy the party,'' said a cowboy from Arizona. ''It's the quiet time of year for ranchers so it's a chance to meet up with old friends and swap a few lies.''