A New Yorker told me that he never uses the words Texas and poetry in the same sentence.
He thinks Texas poetry is an oxymoron because he doesn’t see how such a refined art form could be produced in a macho culture. But he is wrong. Cowboys and vaqueros were reciting poetry in the warm glow of firelight on the Texas plains hundreds of years ago.
A modern inheritor of this tradition is Walt McDonald. He gives us this poem that celebrates country music in Texas. It’s called “The Waltz We Were Born For.”
“I never knew them all, just hummed
and thrummed my fingers with the radio,
driving five hundred miles to Austin.
Her arms held all the songs I needed.
Our boots kept time with fiddles
and the charming sobs of blondes,
the whine of steel guitars
sliding us down in deer-hide chairs
when jukebox music was over.
Sad music’s on my mind tonight
in a jet high over Dallas, earphones
on channel five. A lonely singer,
dead, comes back to beg me,
swearing in my ears she’s mine,
rhymes set to music that make
her lies seem true. She’s gone
and others like her, leaving their songs
to haunt us. Letting down through clouds
I know who I’ll find waiting at the gate,
the same woman faithful to my arms
as she was those nights in Austin
when the world seemed like a jukebox,
our boots able to dance forever,
our pockets full of coins.”
Here is another one I enjoy from well-known Texas poet, Chip Dameron. It is printed in the shape of Texas. You begin in the Panhandle and work your way down to the Rio Grande. The words celebrate the part of Texas in which they reside. It is called “A State of Mind.”
Last, here is Violette Newton, Poet Laureate of Texas in 1973. She wrote this humorous poem which speaks directly to the problem of getting respect for Texas poetry:
Up East, they do not think much
of Texas poetry. They think Texans
have no soul for aesthetics, that all
they do is pound their own chests,
talk loud and make money.
But every time I’m nearing Austin,
I look up at a painted sign
high on the side of the highway
that says, “Bert’s Dirts”
and to pyramids of many-colored soils
sold by Bert, and I swell with pride
at that rhyming sign, I puff up
and point to that terse little title
and wish we could stop
so I could go in
a spondee of sand
to make a gesture of my support
for poetry in Texas.
Take that, New York.
W.F. Strong is a Fulbright Scholar and professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. At Public Radio 88 FM in Harlingen, Texas, he’s the resident expert on Texas literature, Texas legends, Blue Bell ice cream, Whataburger (with cheese) and mesquite smoked brisket.