The most important thing in life, my father taught me, is to make good money. He was a child of poverty, and I think what he really meant was that the most important thing in life is to fit in. Having a stable middle-class income would have allowed him to do that. But I was young and didn’t think much about fitting in. In fact, I spent most of my childhood reading. It also never occurred to me that I might not be able to make a living. And so I became a poet.
I spent ten years working in the Poetry in the Schools program in Washington State, Alaska, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming. I went from school to school helping kids write poems. Once, in Miles City, Montana, I was trying to get across to a group of sixth-graders the power of our senses — as well as the dislocation and excitement we feel when we do something out of the ordinary. So I asked them to lick a tree.
One of the bigger, tougher boys looked hard at me and said, “Are you famous?”
“I want to know if you’re famous.”
We’d had a lesson earlier in the week on oxymorons, those paired opposites, like “burning ice,” “jumbo shrimp,” and “compassionate conservative.” I thought I’d make a joke and let myself off the hook at the same time, so I said, “ ‘Famous poet’ is an oxymoron.”
“Oxymoron, my ass,” the boy said. “No bullshit. Are you famous or not? ’Cause if you’re not, I got no time to be out licking trees.”
You’re not like us is what he meant. And if you’re not famous — i.e., rich — then we don’t have to be like you.
His comment jolted me. After ten years as an itinerant poet, I began to think about both money and fitting in. In addition to doing residencies in schools, I’d been working for my father-in-law as a ranch hand. I loved that work, both for the sweating, heaving labor and for the connection it gave me to Wyoming and to my wife’s family. My father-in-law wanted to pay me for my work, but I refused, saying I couldn’t take money from family. For me, accepting money would have severed the connections the work created.
Still, I had to eat, and so, in addition to my other work, I traveled around Wyoming on behalf of the state humanities council, giving talks to adult audiences about contemporary literature. At these talks, people often asked me about “cowboy poetry.” I’d never heard any cowboy poems until I’d come to Wyoming, and when I did hear them I thought they were simply bad poetry — the idealized, sentimental stuff of Hallmark cards or Christmas specials. I didn’t say this, though. I knew that people liked these poems, and I feared that my criticism of them would be taken as snobbishness.
As I heard more cowboy poetry, though, I came to admire if not its language then its ethic. Cowboy poems often addressed ordinary life in small towns or on ranches in the arid, interior West. They spoke of self-reliance and autonomy, the dignity of physical work, caring for your neighbors (whether or not they were your friends), respecting the past, protecting the land, and being part of a community. I admired these values even though the poems left me cold.
I mentioned my feelings to a friend, but he wasn’t buying it. “You’re an elitist,” he said. “No matter how hard you try to deny it, you’re looking down your nose at people.” Cowboy poems give people pleasure, he said, because they affirm that ranch life is as worthy as any other life. That’s a big deal at a time when fewer and fewer people can make a living ranching and nobody in the state or federal government cares if every ranch goes under and beef ends up being manufactured in a lab out of soy paste and shark fins and shipped directly to Wal-Mart superstores. Then my friend pointed out that cowboy poems are often funny, because ranch life is hard, and people want something that makes them laugh. “Fuck the great poems,” he said. “Ask yourself what counts in life and who’ll stand by you when push comes to shove, and then see if you can separate poetry from an ethic.”
By the time my friend was finished talking, I was pissed off. I’m a working-class guy (it’s tempting to cite my credentials), and every day I feel as if someone from the polite, upper-class writing establishment is going to tap me on the shoulder and say, “Keep moving. You don’t belong here. You’re an imposter. You’re not one of us.” By calling me an elitist, my friend was putting me in a group that I’d never been able to join and simultaneously denying me entry into a group to which I wanted to belong.
One day in Rock Springs, a small town in southwest Wyoming, I was giving one of those state-sponsored talks on literature, and I read a poem by Gary Snyder titled “Hay for the Horses.” In this poem, two men — one young and one old — are unloading a truckload of hay and stacking it in a barn. It’s hot and dry. The men are sweating. Hay gets down their shirt collars and into their boots. They take a break, and the older man says, “I first bucked hay when I was seventeen. / I thought, that day I started, / I sure would hate to do this all my life. / And dammit, that’s just what / I’ve gone and done.”
I love this poem. It’s about ranch work; it’s easygoing; it has an older man imparting wisdom to a younger one; it imagines a better, simpler past; it’s funny; and it isn’t hard to understand. It feels like a moment from real life, earned and lived. I asked the audience, “Is this a cowboy poem?”
“No” was the unanimous response.
There was a lot of thinking and talking amongst themselves. Finally someone said, “It doesn’t rhyme.”
This turned out to be a nearly absolute rule: a cowboy poem has to rhyme. The few that don’t are the exceptions that prove the rule. In the early twentieth century, American poets mostly threw rhyme out. It was a time of social upheaval: the First World War, the worldwide flu epidemic, anti-immigrant hysteria. To poets, rhymed poetry reflected genteel Victorian artifice and class barriers. They got rid of rhyme in part to throw off elitism, to bring art and daily life together. But for the group in Rock Springs, rhyme was what made a poem both legitimate and down-home. By using rhyme, cowboy poets and their audiences said no to the bad news of the twentieth century and said yes to a better time in the past.
A man who hadn’t spoken before raised his hand. “It’s not just rhyme,” he said. “The Snyder poem doesn’t go beyond the pain of work. I grant you that ranch work is demanding, dirty, and ordinary, but it’s more than that. It’s gotta be more than that, because it’s what we’ve given our lives to. You see, you can’t give your life to something unless there’s some meaning to the giving.”
I knew what he meant: castrating calves, shearing sheep, fixing fences, bucking hay — these gritty, demanding daily chores can, paradoxically, be transcendent.
“Do you think doing ranch work makes us better human beings?” I asked.
The man shrugged.
I went on: “If certain kinds of work make us better people, what about the people who don’t do that work?” The moment I said that, I realized I had often imagined myself to be better than others because I chose to do the low-paying (but important) work I did. No wonder I felt like an outsider.
An older woman in the front row raised her hand. I knew this woman. She’d attended a writing workshop I’d directed at the local senior center, and she’d written a poem about the garden she and her husband grew. Each winter they read through seed catalogs and made their orders for the spring. As soon as the soil was warm enough to work, they began planting. All summer they weeded and watered. Then, come fall, they harvested, canned, and froze the produce they didn’t immediately eat. In late October, when the nights turned cold, the woman and her husband mounted pumpkins on the fence posts around the garden, drawing faces on the orange globes and putting hats on them.
The woman’s husband had died the previous fall, just before the harvest. When October came, the widow put the pumpkins up. She drew her husband’s face on the pumpkins and put his hats on their heads. She felt him watching her. When she made the pumpkins into pie for Thanksgiving, she ate her husband and brought him inside her. All of this she had written in her poem.
“The main problem,” she said when I called on her, “is that ‘Hay for the Horses’ is set in California. You can’t have a cowboy poem set in California.” There was a gleam in her eye. “You know what Mark Twain said when asked if he’d ever been to Wyoming? He said no, he’d never been farther west than California.”
Twain’s joke took me back to another time when I’d run into this attitude about the geography of the West. I’d gotten into an argument about environmental politics with a Wyoming native who felt my view could have been held only by a non-Westerner. When I defended myself by saying that I was born in Portland, Oregon, his reaction was “There you have it.”
In this view the West Coast is “the West” by geography only. And I understand. Culturally, places like Portland or San Francisco, where Twain lived for several years, are as far from Wyoming as London, England. Still, part of me wanted to insist that Portland was in the West. Why did I care so much whether people in Wyoming or Montana saw me as a Westerner? Because I wanted to belong.
My father-in-law’s ranch, Four Mile, is a sprawling chunk of dry ground forty miles from town. No one lives there. We commute to be ranchers. There’s a two-room cabin with no electricity and no running water, a potbellied stove in one room and a cookstove in the other. There’s a propane-powered refrigerator that we fire up in the summer. When it rains, the water drains off the tin roof of the shearing barn, down a drainpipe, through a filter, and into a trash can. Then it passes through another filter, and finally into an underground cistern about a hundred feet from the cabin. On the opposite side of the cabin, a similar distance away, is an outhouse. There’s a deck made of scrap two-by-six boards. In the afternoon, when we’re through working, we fill a galvanized tub with water and bathe on the deck. Whoever’s not in the tub drinks bourbon or a warm beer. We’ve got one large tree next to the cabin and a smaller one — a Russian olive I planted a few years ago — next to the propane tank. Other than that it’s dirt and, in the good years, enough grass to feed a few cows.
One day I was working on a windmill, one of several on the ranch. I was on top of the tower, changing the oil in the sump and greasing the moving parts. On the ground, my father-in-law sniffed the air and squinted. Rain was on the way, and he was worried about lightning. He’d been hit by it when he was a young man. It had made his entire body ache for three years, he’d told me. The wind suddenly shifted 180 degrees.
“Come down from that mill!” he shouted.
“I’m almost through!” I yelled back.
“No, come on down now! It’s not worth it. We can always fix it another day.”
I started gathering tools from the platform and putting them in my belt. My father-in-law walked over to the pickup and grabbed the phone to call home and say we were quitting for the day. And I’ll be damned if he didn’t get hit again. I was still on the tower. The lightning went right by me and knocked him out. When he came to, the phone was melted, and his hand was burned black. One of his shoes had flown off and landed thirty feet away in a clump of sage. He had a fierce headache.
The doctor told him to take it easy for a week, maybe two: stay inside, sit around, don’t do anything. A working man, my father-in-law quickly grew restless and bored. I gave him a poetry anthology. Since the headache made it hard for him to read for very long, I thought poetry might be good. His only alternatives were reading every catalog in the house and learning a whole lot more than he needed to know about barbecue grills, foundation garments, and computer add-ons, or else rereading several years’ worth of back issues of the Wyoming Woolgrower.
A week later I asked him about the poetry anthology. He said he’d looked at it. . . . His voice trailed off, and he shook his head. I was embarrassed. Working at the ranch, I felt close to my father-in-law. But when it came to poetry, I felt far away.
“I’m feeling about good enough to get back to work,” he said, handing me back the anthology. “Won’t have much time for reading anything.”
I did a two-week Poetry in the Schools residency in Jeffrey City, Wyoming, a small town along the Oregon and Mormon Trails, not far from Independence Rock. Jeffrey City had been called “Home on the Range” until the townspeople decided to rename it in honor of the local dentist, Charles A. Jeffrey. In the 1960s, Jeffrey City was a uranium boomtown. It grew rapidly but was never incorporated. Everything was owned by the uranium company, Western Nuclear. The company built dormitories for the unmarried workers and modular houses for the families. It set up trailers in the scrub desert. It built roads and tennis courts. The state of Wyoming built a new school for nine hundred students.
Then came the bust. The workers left. The windows of the dormitories were boarded over with plywood. The trailers were hitched up to trucks and hauled away. The modulars were ripped from their foundations and loaded onto flatbed trailers. All that was left of Western Nuclear was a lone caretaker at the mine.
It was winter when I got to Jeffrey City. Sage was growing out of the cracked pavement. The tennis courts had no nets and were half covered by shifting sand, dirt, and snow. Torn chain-link fences, their gates either gone or swinging from broken hinges, marked where the houses had been. Pipes stuck out of the ground, and electrical wires spilled upward as if ready to be plugged into the sky. Empty foundations were gathering garbage: disposable diapers, broken furniture, puddles of oil, plastic buckets. The only business left in town was a bar with an attached cafe. The residents had to drive sixty miles one way for groceries. The school had fifty-five students.
There were no apartments or motels in town, so I stayed in a trailer behind the school building. Each day after I finished work, I took a walk out into the scrub desert and hills. After a few miles, I’d turn and walk back to the trailer, where I made dinner, prepared the next day’s poetry lessons, and felt the winter wind rock the flimsy structure. In the morning I’d find a line of fine sand just inside the door. I’d sweep it back out onto the dirty snow and start the day.
With so few students, the school was practically empty. To conserve funds, the school district decided to heat only the portions of the school that were being used. When students finished band, they put their instruments away, got on their coats, scarves, gloves, and hats, and stepped into the freezing hallways. They walked long corridors of cold to reach isolated pockets of warmth. It was like working at an arctic research station. I dreamed of air locks and solar collectors, spinning devices recording temperatures that approach absolute zero, calendars in the coffee room with large Xs crossing off the days.
On Wednesday of my second week, the principal, a short, round, friendly man who always wore a suit, told me that the school schedule would be disrupted that day because of an accreditation review. Classes would be only twenty minutes long. “It might be better if you didn’t try to have the students write poetry today,” he said.
“Maybe I could read some of my own work to them,” I suggested. “Sometimes they don’t quite understand that the person visiting their school is actually a writer. They think all writers live far away in big cities, or are dead.”
“That would be OK,” the principal said.
I assumed he meant it would be OK for me to read my poems, and not for all writers to be far away or dead.
The residency had not gone well so far. The students seemed worn out or beaten down and hadn’t expressed interest in poetry of any kind, cowboy or otherwise. Even the sky over Jeffrey City looked depressed, as if it were hanging on and hoping for a better day.
I remembered a poem called “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” by the English Romantic poet John Keats. In this poem Keats wrote about the expectation in his day (the early nineteenth century) that an educated gentleman would have read Homer. Keats hadn’t, because he didn’t know Greek, and he felt foolish. Then Chapman translated Homer into English, and for Keats it was as if a curtain had been lifted and a new world opened up to him.
I wanted to lift that curtain for the students in Jeffrey City. I should have talked to them about the Keats poem. Instead, I read my own work.
The hallways were colder than ever that day. All afternoon I read my poems to high-school students. That night the wind rocked my trailer.
Early the next morning I heard a knock at my door. I opened it, and there was the principal. He was wearing his suit, and, for the first time, he appeared uncomfortable in it. He looked down at the usual pile of sand on my floor. Then he explained that he had received a call from the chairman of the school board. They were ending my residency early. I would be paid for the full ten days, though I had worked only eight. I could leave whenever I liked.
“Wait a minute. What happened?”
It seemed that a student at the high school had gone home and told her father, who was on the school board, that the visiting poet had read a poem about massaging a horse’s penis. Her father called the principal, and the next day I was removed.
“Doesn’t the school board meet to discuss this kind of thing?” I asked.
The principal looked increasingly uncomfortable.
“Can you tell me more about the student’s complaint?” I asked.
“There’s nothing more I can say,” he told me.
The poem I’d read was titled “Our Distance,” and it came from my book How Many Horses. It’s one of a series of poems about a man who moves to a ranching community. He loves his new home, but he doesn’t fit in. He writes letters to a person named Belem, whom the reader never meets.
Dear Belem, Great time and far places since we were one. Remember? I am happy now in this vast empty land made of dust. Even without water and under the incessant blue sky into which everyone squints. I am riding horses, great monstrous friends who I would swear, Belem, know the most sealed places of our damaged hearts. At first I feared the horses. I could not, as any child here comfortably can, hold a handful of corn under a horse’s mouth. Now that fear is gone. I rub their black nostrils, press my cheek to theirs, lift their feet to remove a stone, comb out their tails. One horse — Trouble — I especially care for. As I brush him, he begins to relax. His head drops and his eyes half close. Fully at ease, his penis falls out of its foreskin in a great pink arc. This is true life here, Belem. It’s funny — all I tell you must seem trivial, but it is trivial the way water is, flowing in a stream, and the stream is always leaving home and coming home.
When I’d finished reading the poem, one student had asked why modern poems don’t rhyme. Two others had said that they liked the poem. No one had mentioned the word penis.
I imagined the student who’d talked to her father. It had been late afternoon, and maybe she’d been tired and had let her mind drift. She heard some words — horse, brush, relax, drops — and then the word penis, ringing out in the still air of the classroom. The order of the words got mixed up in her head. She went home, told her father what she thought she’d heard, and I was finished as a visiting poet.
A few hours after I’d left town, I called the state arts council to explain what had happened. The officials there were upset with me for having left, telling me that in such cases there is a procedure that must be followed — hearings and discussions and so forth. I should have gone to the principal’s office and called from there. The arts council would have sent a staff member out to hold meetings. In twenty-five years, I was only the second artist to be removed from a school residency. The first had been a poet, too. And he’d been teaching in Jeffrey City.
I apologized and went home, thinking that was that.
But when the students came to class the next day and found I’d been kicked out, they asked why. The teachers wanted to know, too, saying that they had not been offended by the poem — but were offended by not having been consulted about my removal. Students protested that they had grown up on ranches. They’d watched the cat have kittens and the dog have pups. They’d seen the bull standing up behind the cow. They’d helped the mother cow deliver her calf, sometimes reaching in to drag the newborn out into the world. They’d all seen a horse’s penis.
One teacher pointed out that the school board could not legally take action without a vote. Another called the Casper Star-Tribune, and the paper ran a story. The letters to the editor were suddenly full of arguments about the appropriateness of a horse’s penis in a poem, and, if such an appearance was appropriate, whether I had been right to read the poem to high-school students. For three weeks, the argument temporarily took precedence over the never-ending debate on abortion.
In Buffalo, Wyoming, the owner of a grocery store put up a large sign that read: “What’s the matter, Jeffrey City, you never seen a horse’s penis?” Everywhere I went, I was the penis poet. A journalist friend told me he was writing an article on the economic decline of the town and planned to call it “The Penis That Killed Jeffrey City.”
For my part, I thought the principal was wrong not to question what he’d been told to do. I was surprised that the teachers and school-board members had been left out of the decision. And, above all, I knew that whoever had me kicked out was a narrow-minded redneck yahoo.
Some years have gone by since then, and I don’t feel that way anymore. In “Our Distance” I’d tried to speak about people’s relationship to the land and to each other. Even though my poem didn’t rhyme, I’d thought it was a cowboy poem. Or maybe it was simply a poem about the West by a beginner cowboy.
That father on the school board had reacted to my poem as unfairly as I had reacted to cowboy poems — two kinds of poetry about the same place: same grass, same sky, same animals; same ranches and same towns; same blizzards and droughts. Yet each presents a picture of the place that is unrecognizable to the other.
When I’d read “Our Distance” aloud, the student who complained had focused on a single word that, to her, seemed forbidden and deviant. At first I was no more sympathetic to her than I was to her father. Now I wonder about her life outside the classroom: her town on the point of collapse, her boredom or anger or exhaustion. What hopes did she have? She could graduate from high school and move to Lander or Rawlins and become a waitress. She could go to the university in Laramie and get a degree, but then what? The most secure job in Jeffrey City was mine caretaker for Western Nuclear, and that job was taken.
So here I came into her classroom: the visiting poet.
My thoughts about her and her father have led me to wonder about the community’s feelings toward outsiders. What have outsiders done for Jeffrey City? Western Nuclear wrecked the land with a lot of cheap, careless construction. They brought in hundreds of temporary workers who had no stake in the place. They pulled uranium out of the earth and made a fortune, most of which ended up in the hands of people far from Jeffrey City. And when the uranium prices dropped, they shut everything down and walked away, leaving the town to try to clean up the mess.
I was an outsider, just like Western Nuclear. A lot of bad things had happened to that little town, and for some people I was one of them. For them, the poetry I stood for was part of the bad I’d done. In Jeffrey City, poetry and I were just two more visitors who wouldn’t do anyone any good.
I see that now, but back then I believed what happened had something to do with cowboy poetry versus real poetry, rather than with the way I judged people. I wish I had spoken with that man who was both a member of the school board and the father of a high-school student. I wish I’d tried to understand his concerns and to explain my intentions. I wish I’d sat down with his daughter, too. I wish I had quit judging them and listened instead. If I had, maybe I would feel like less of an outsider in this world through which I’m passing.