Example poetry

Baxter Black, who elevated cowboy poetry to folk art, dies at 77

Baxter Black, the nation’s best-known cowboy poet, whose witty, big-hearted verses about cowpokes, feedlots and sweeping vistas elevated the western doggerel tradition to art popular, died June 10 at his home, a ranch outside of Benson, Arizona. He was 77 years old.

The cause was leukemia, said his wife, Cindy Lou Black.

It’s worth pausing to ask why cowboy poetry exists in the first place. Cowboys, after all, aren’t well known for their communication skills. Yet the genre flourishes; over 100 cowboy poetry festivals are held each year, and peripatetic Mr. Black has often been featured as the main event.

A slender reed with a handlebar mustache the size of a mop’s head under a gray Resistol hat, he modeled himself as a sort of Will Rogers of the high plains. He seeded his writing with a mix of gentle humor and folk wisdom wrapped in tight rhyme and loose meters, as in his poem “Take Care of Yer Friends”:

Friend is a word that I do not pronounce.

Although used and abused, I still love the sound.

I save it for the people who have done well with me

And I know I can count on him when needed.

It’s not Wordsworth, but Mr. Black didn’t claim to be a genius. Cowboy poetry, he said, began as a way to stave off boredom on the trail and to communicate stories between men who have rarely deciphered a book, and persists because it appeals to those who might be intimidated by the formal verses.

And, he says, cowboy poetry is fun. Forget the allusions to immortality; Mr. Black’s poetry has delved into things like horse manure, the harms of vegetarianism and the benefits of artificial preservatives:

One day I’ll just be sitting in my rocking chair on the porch, and everyone will say I look great,

for I will be so well preserved that no one will know that I am dead, unless they read my expiration date.

His playful verses were contagious; newspaper profiles often featured headlines like “Poem on the Beach” and “Write It, Cowboy.” More than one have declared him the American “poet lariat.”

Although Mr. Black, a former rodeo rider and large animal veterinarian, identifies primarily as a poet, he was even more prolific as an essayist and radio commentator. His weekly column, “On the Edge of Common Sense”, appeared weekly for 40 years in more than 100 newspapers. His weekly radio show, “Baxter Black on Monday,” was heard on approximately 150 stations.

If people outside the rural West knew his name, it was probably for his multiple appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and his years as a guest commentator on NPR, where he specialized in manipulating light of its cosmopolitan listeners.

Mr Black has written more than 30 books, including poetry, fiction and children’s literature, which have sold around two million copies, his wife said. He also released several audio recordings of his work – particularly popular media among his fans, which appeared in his tapes on long trips across the Great Plains.

Writer Calvin Trillin, himself accustomed to the occasional verse, called Mr Black “probably the nation’s most successful living poet”.

Baxter Ashby Black was born on January 10, 1945 in Brooklyn, where his father, Robert, served in the Navy.

Robert had a doctorate in veterinary science, and after the war he took his wife, Theodora (Ashby) Black, Baxter and his three brothers to a series of university positions. He eventually landed at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, where he was named dean of the school of agricultural sciences.

Robert Black became well known on the competitive breeding circuit, judging events across the South West, an activity that quickly caught on with his son. In third grade, Baxter had his own cow, and in college he had his first horse. In high school, he was president of his local chapter of Future Farmers of America (now the National FFA Organization).

“Agriculture, or being close to the land is a good way to put it, I’ve always been there” he told musician Andy Hedges for his “Cowboy Crossroads” podcast in 2021. “There are things a parent can give a child that no one else can.”

After Robert Black died of a heart attack in 1960, Theodora Black returned to school for a master’s degree and then worked for the state of New Mexico. His boys also got jobs; Baxter worked on ranches and earned extra money as a bull rider.

He attended New Mexico State, but his wife said after three years he was accepted without an undergraduate degree into Colorado State University’s Doctor of Veterinary Science program. He graduated in 1969.

Along with his wife, Mr. Black is survived by his brothers, Bob and Steve; his son Guy; his daughter, Jennifer Cubbage; and four grandchildren.

Hired by a ranching company in Idaho after college, he found himself on the road, traveling from ranch to ranch checking on cattle. Along the way, he picked up stories and jokes, and he quickly discovered he had the skill to tell them to the next group of listeners.

In 1980, he moved to Denver, where a pharmaceutical company hired him to introduce its drugs to breeders and other veterinarians. Finding the work tedious, he began peppering his presentations with some of the stories he had picked up over the years.

As a result, he was invited to conferences not to talk about drugs or cows but just to talk. When his employer fired him in 1982, he gave up veterinary medicine.

Most of his audience was people who could relate to his stories from the ranch, groups like the North Carolina Cattlemen’s Association and the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association. He traveled the growing circuit of cowboy poetry and began to attract the attention of the national media, which found his local wisdom irresistible.

Noticing the lack of rural West news in national coverage, in 1988 he recorded a poem about a Yellowstone wildfire – “Lightning cracked across the sky like veins on the back of your hand — and sent it to NPR headquarters. A few days later, a producer called, asking if they could shoot it and if he had more. His commentary would air regularly for over a decade.

Mr. Black distinguished between his “frightened” audience in the West and his “generic” audience on NPR and elsewhere.

“There’s a lot of stuff that’s too loose to air on National Public Radio, like talking too much about cow poo,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2001. “For example, I can drag someone in the poop, but not slap someone with it.

He maintained a busy schedule, making up to 150 appearances a year, until the mid-2010s when dementia began to undermine his public speaking. But he continued to write. He filed his last column in December 2021.

“I consider myself very lucky to be a part of the wonderful world of horse sweat, soft noses, close squeals and twilight on the track,” he wrote. “I like to live a life where a horse matters.”

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