Joe Kreger wrote his first poem in response to hardship. Fellow cowboy poet Wallace Moore created verses in his head while on the job at a factory. Eventually their work was “discovered” by friends and relatives, and their performing careers were launched.

A cowboy poet, Moore says, “is someone who believes that he or she has a story to tell. It’s a story about some portion of the Western adventure, be it the old days or current Western days. Cowboy poets are romantic, they believe in the cowboy way of life and they know quite a bit about it.”

After he retired from the U.S. Army, Moore took a job at a Goodyear factory.

“At the factory, it’s loud and it’s hard to talk to co-workers,” he says. “So you are basically trapped in your own little cocoon. In an 8-hour time period, I would write a short poem, memorize it and rush home and put it on paper.”

He boarded his horse at a ranch near Lawton, and “the wife was a school teacher, and a nosy woman by nature,” Moore says with a laugh. “She saw several pieces of paper on the seat of my truck and asked what it was. Then I caught her correcting my poems.” 

Her name was Marcia Peppel, and she eventually became his program director.

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After Moore recited one of his early poems during a workshop, the instructor suggested he focus on his heritage. Moore is a Muscogee (Creek) citizen whose Black and Native ancestors came from Alabama with the tribe.

“He told me that a great deal of Black American Western history was being overlooked,” says Moore. “After that, the subjects changed.”

Kreger, a Tonkawa cattleman, was 56 and tired of battling the elements when he first put rhyming words on paper.

“That was in August of 1995. We had had devastating floods. I got a poem running through my head and started writing it down,” says Kreger, who is serving his second appointment as Oklahoma Poet Laureate.

Kreger “grew up in the pre-television era, at least as far as Tonkawa, Oklahoma, went,” he says. “Families would do a lot of reading. Somebody gave me a book by Carlos Ashley, the poet laureate of Texas. I loved his poetry.”

He graduated from Oklahoma State University and worked toward a master’s degree while teaching at Northern Oklahoma College. But his poetry, he says, is not difficult to decipher.

“Most of the poets laureate have been more academic English types, and I kind of write in the vernacular, I guess,” he says. “If I have something bothering me, I will write a poem. You can get a thought out and look at it and examine it a little better.”

His poetry helped him find comfort after both his daughters were killed in a traffic accident. “The Girls on Loan from God” describes his faith journey after their deaths. “The Windbreak” is about a row of pine trees that bordered his yard.

“We had a family tradition out on the ranch; we would buy a living Christmas tree with the roots balled up in burlap,” he says. “After New Year’s, I would plant it.”

One evening, he was out feeding cattle “and the trees were blowing in the wind and the memories came flooding back. It represented a bridge to the past, when the girls were growing up.”

What is Cowboy Poetry?

Cowboy poetry is an outgrowth of the singing and storytelling that went on around the campfire during trail drives, says Michael Grauer, McCasland chair of Cowboy Culture and curator of Cowboy Collections and Western Art at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. 

“A lot of times these were just kids,” Grauer says of the cowboys who made the long, dusty journeys. “They were teenagers, and they were homesick. It made them emotional. When you are in pain, you create better.”

Storytelling themes included hardship and surmounting that hardship.

“There was a lot of humor, but also a lot of melancholy,” says Grauer. 

Painting courtesy Wallace Moore