The celebrated cowboy poet wrote with a style that was uniquely unromantic and undoubtedly authentic.
For several days in January each year, the cow town of Elko, Nevada, swells in population. This is due to the annual pilgrimage of the faithful to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, with this year marking its 33rd anniversary. Elko’s music and spoken-word event is the “daddy-of-em-all” and helped initiate many other poetry gatherings around the West. The early gatherings of the 1980s were very casual affairs and primarily populated by the “real deals”–cowboys and buckaroos from the surrounding sagebrush of Nevada’s high desert and surrounding mountain states.
All sorts of poems and songs were performed, but it became apparent that a favored source was the body of work by a deceased poet named Bruce Kiskaddon, a Los Angeles bellhop who had been a cowboy early in his life. Born in 1878, he quietly and persistently wrote poems—over 480–until his death in 1950. He wrote of the authentic cowboy experience in a style and tone that was uniquely unromantic. His writing carried an unflinching realism that still set it apart from other works of poetry, making his work relevant for even modern readers.
Little was written about Kiskaddon, although his poetry was published regularly in a variety of livestock publications, including the Western Livestock Journal, a weekly Los Angeles periodical published in the early part of the 20th century. There, his poems were accompanied by charming pen and ink line drawings by a young, unknown illustrator named Katherine Field. Field was self-taught in her art, growing up on her family’s New Mexico ranch. Although a victim of polio, it did not stop her from being horseback as much as any ranch kid. Her artwork was so authentic it has been compared to the works of Will James and Edward Borein.
From 1919 to 1959, Kiskaddon’s poetry continued to be published in a variety of books and publications. In 1947, he self-published a volume entitled Rhymes of the Ranges and Other Poems which contained many previously unpublished writings. The book was re-published in 1987 through Western publisher, Gibbs Smith, and under the watchful editing eye of folklorist and historian, Hal Cannon. Cannon, a cowboy poet himself, was largely responsible for shining the spotlight on Kiskaddon’s work. While Kiskaddon’s poetry continued to be remembered and spoken by the faithful, it wasn’t until 2007 that a true history and collection of Bruce Kiskaddon’s life work became available. Enter Bill Siems.
The term “passionate collector” could aptly describe Mr. Siems. He is a true patron of the poetry and life of Bruce Kiskaddon. I learned of his efforts reading a rare book catalog from a dealer in San Francisco. It seemed an extensive collection of fine Western books was being sold to enable the Washington-state collector to pursue his next project—that of a major book on the life and range poetry of Bruce Kiskaddon. The project took Siems all over the country in search of Kiskaddon’s trail. This passion-based, publishing effort brought a broader audience to the poetry of an authentic westerner who, as Cannon described, “lived the last third of his life as a bellhop in Los Angeles, going to work each day at the Mayflower Hotel. Between calls, he sat in the corner of the lobby with a stubby pencil and opened up a world of memory—of cow camps, horses, and open land.”
With only 300 copies printed, Siems’ book, Open Range, features the first complete collection of Kiskaddon’s poetry ever seen, let alone published. All 481 poems are printed in the 609-page book. It includes 242 pen-and-ink line drawings by Field—rejoined to the poems for which they were created. Siems’ incredible achievement in bringing together Kiskaddon’s life work is underscored by the remarkable modern grass-roots revival and artistic expansion of rangeland poetry that continues to thrive around the country today, and most certainly every January in Elko, Nevada.
The poem that follows is classic Kiskaddon. It is a favorite of those who know his work and has been recited at countless cowboy poetry gatherings and in the quiet of a solitary ride.
The Time To Decide
Did you ever stand on the ledges.
On the brink of the great plateau,
And look from their jagged edges
On the country that lay below?
When your vision met no resistance
And nothing to stop your gaze,
Till the mountain peaks in the distance
Stood wrapped in a purple haze.
On the winding water courses
And the trails on the mountainsides,
Where you guided your patient horses
On the long and lonesome rides.
When you saw Earth’s open pages,
And you seemed to understand
As you gazed on the work of ages
Rugged and tough, but grand.
There, the things that you thought were strongest
And the things that you thought were great,
And for which you had striven longest,
Seemed to carry but little weight.
While the things that were always nearer,
The things that you thought were small;
Seemed to stand out grander and clearer.
As you looked from the mountain wall.
While you’re gazing on such a vision
And your outlook is clear and wide,
If you have to make a decision,
That’s the time and place to decide.
Although you return to the city
And mingle again with the throng;
Though you heart may be softened by pity,
Or bitter from strife and wrong.
Though others should laugh in derision,
And the voice of the past grow dim;
Yet, stick to the cool decision
That you made on the mountain rim.