I went to see a biker show
As far away as Toronto
And when I got there, what did I see
But Biker Ladies reading Poetry
Or so might write a Biker Poet. This is a genre that does not exactly value originality of form but scores high on the comfort metre. It doesn’t necessarily rhyme but it does value the abstract ideas of travel and adventure and tends to the corny and romantic. It exists online, and has a following that has no contact at all with the worlds of publishing or academic study.
You will find examples of it as the Toronto Spring Motorcycle Show, a trade show occurring April 6 and 7. This convention comes complete with a poetry contest. “Biker-themed” poetry has been submitted to organizers (in three categories – Biker Men, Biker Ladies and Biker Kids) and three finalists in each category will be selected to receive free tickets to the show and to read their poetry on stage. A winner in each category will be announced at the show.
Biker poetry is similar to cowboy poetry, which has a huge following in the United States, complete with festivals and anthologies and online communities. Biker poetry tends to a little less interesting than cowboy poetry – it tends towards the inspirational, like the aphorisms of Rupi Kaur and her school, and so lends itself to Instagram, where it appears laid over pictures of Harleys on mountain roads. Biker poetry extols the joys of freedom, adventure, solitude, the open road, non-conformity generally (although to be accurate it is quite a strict and narrow definition of nonconformity – as the Men’s and Ladies’ categories for the competition demonstrate). Despite its scorn of rules and civilization, it is essentially conservative, often nostalgic for some golden age of “old school” bikers with a greater sense of honour and purity. (“It was the time of Freedom,/ And the wind in our face,/ Together roaming the highways,/ And riding at our own pace.”)
Nostalgia is also a frequent feature of cowboy poetry, which tend to be more rhythmically polished and amusing. It tends to require tight metre, as here: “What does Reincarnation mean?/ A cowpoke asked his friend./ His pal replied, “It happens when/ Yer life has reached its end./ They comb yer hair, and warsh yer neck,/ And clean yer fingernails,/ And lay you in a padded box/ Away from life’s travails” (from Reincarnation by Wallace McRae).
Cowboy poetry, while having been invisibly widespread since the 19th century in the United States, has been coming in for some highbrow analysis recently, partly owing to the interest of a New Yorker writer called Carson Vaughan. He put out an essay in that magazine in 2016 about his forays into the friendly and sentimental world of cowboy poetry (which is where I read the lines quoted above), and the following year published a follow-up in the equally eggheaded Paris Review about his helpless adoration of the genre, called How A Godless Democrat Fell in Love With Cowboy Poetry. Vaughan points out that public reading and socializing is essential to the genre. Many practitioners are actually ranchers. He is not. He has a degree in creative writing. But he loves the idea of “horse shit and poetry side by side.” He explains: “Surely I’m romanticizing a bit, but that’s the gist of it, and I find it astonishing when juxtaposed with the popular culture today, in which poetry has retreated to the catacombs of academia, viewed colloquially as the domain of the effete, the feminine and the mystic.”
Vaughan is not the first U.S. intellectual to admit a sheepish interest in this cozy, feel-good genre. Paul Fussell, the historian, poetry scholar and social analyst, wrote a book called BAD or, The Dumbing of America (1991) that attacked falseness and pretension in popular and high culture, blaming it largely on the language of marketing. In it, he made a distinction between bad (honest) and BAD (pretentious). Cowboy poetry, being sentimental and sincere, was merely bad, whereas fashionable political poetry, being smug, was BAD. He quotes from the poem The Two Things In Life That I Really Love by Gary McMahan: “So when I die/ Please tan my hide/And tool me into/ A saddle so fine./ And give me to a cowgirl/Who likes to ride,/ So in the hereafter/ I may rest/ Between the two things/ That I love best.” Fussell calls this “a real smiler and tear-jerker” and praises its lack of political awareness: “Those who dimly remember the poems of Yeats and Eliot, not to mention George Herbert and Robert Herrick, will recall that poetry has nothing to do with ‘broad issues.’”
I probably wouldn’t enjoy being at a cowboy-poetry convention or a biker-poetry convention, as their practitioners tend to be socially and politically conservative and I fear I wouldn’t fit in. But it is still exciting to know that there are large communities of non-university-affiliated people who are gathering to hear rhyming being read for pleasure alone, that poetry still serves a function as entertainment. Reassuring, too, that the technical virtuosity required to make poems that rhyme, in regular metre, is still admired somewhere. I admire this as I admire stone masonry. The phenomenon is an antidote to fears that all verbal art has become obsolete because of its obscurity and inward-looking reflexiveness. People who complain that poetry is not read tend to have no consciousness of these popular movements, and maybe they dismiss them out of nervousness about conservatism generally. But cowboy and biker poetry are in many ways similar to the progressive and feminist Rupi Kaur style: All these genres reflect an admiration for simple and old-fashioned wisdoms – bromides if you prefer. These are both sides of the populist coin.