Marilyn Nelson reads Badger Clark’s “A Cowboy’s Prayer”
Poetry of American Identity: A Collection of Field Recordings by Award-winning Contemporary Poets
A Cowboy’s Prayer
(Written for Mother)
Oh Lord, I’ve never lived where churches grow. I love creation better as it stood That day You finished it so long ago And looked upon Your work and called it good. I know that others find You in the light That’s sifted down through tinted window panes, And yet I seem to feel You near tonight In this dim, quiet starlight on the plains. I thank You, Lord, that I am placed so well, That You have made my freedom so com- plete; That I’m no slave of whistle, clock or bell, Nor weak-eyed prisoner of wall and street. Just let me live my life as I’ve begun And give me work that’s open to the sky; Make me a pardner of the wind and sun, And I won’t ask a life that’s soft or high. Let me be easy on the man that’s down; Let me be square and generous with all. I’m careless sometimes, Lord, when I’m in town, But never let ‘em say I’m mean or small! Make me as big and open as the plains, As honest as the hawse between my knees, Clean as the wind that blows behind the rains, Free as the hawk that circles down the breeze! Forgive me, Lord, if sometimes I forget. You know about the reasons that are hid. You understand the things that gall and fret; You know me better than my mother did. Just keep an eye on all that’s done and said And right me, sometimes, when I turn aside, And guide me on the long, dim, trail ahead That stretches upward toward the Great Divide.
Marilyn Nelson on Badger Clark’s “A Cowboy’s Prayer”
Transcription of Commentary
This is Marilyn Nelson, reading “A Cowboy’s Prayer” by Badger Clark.
That was “A Cowboy’s Prayer” by Charles Badger Clark. This poem was first published in 1906, but it was published many times as anonymous. It had a life of its own without the name of its author. Badger Clark was so charmed by this that he had a collection of anonymous publications of his poems. He collected them—he had sixty copies of poems that had been—or, at times, that this poem had been published anonymously.
Badger Clark’s dates are 1883 to 1957. He was, and is, one of the classic cowboy poets and made a major contribution to the literature of the west. He was the first poet laureate of South Dakota. He was named poet laureate in 1937 and served, I think, 20 years as poet laureate of South Dakota. He lived alone in a cabin with no electricity, running water, or telephone, on land that is now a state park. He travelled as a young man, however, and this poem, “A Cowboy’s Prayer,” was written during the time he was living in Arizona. I think you can hear the “Westernness” of this poem. Badger Clark wrote poems that were very popular during his lifetime. One of his poems was recorded by the singing cowboy star Tex Ritter. Another was set to music and recorded by the Fred Waring chorus. Bob Dylan recorded one of Badger Clark’s songs or poems as a song. And Johnny Cash recorded a version of this poem, “A Cowboy’s Prayer.”
I think that to really appreciate this poem, we may have to set aside political correctness and ethnic sensitivity. This poem was published in 1906 during the ascendance of the American myth which, of course we know, refused to confront for many years America’s history of genocide. This was the myth of an America which is big, open, honest, clean, and free. I think this poem is related to Woody Guthrie’s song, which we all know and love, “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land.” Like that song, this poem expresses a reverence which is evoked by the land. It’s an ecological poem, I suppose one might say . . . one might say it’s a green poem. It’s a poem about loving America as a land. As a landscape. I think it has something also in common with Emily Dickinson’s poem, 236, which begins “Some keep the Sabbath going to church / I keep it staying at home.” It is easy to think, because of Emily Dickinson’s life, that when she said “at home” she meant indoors, but a close reading of the poems makes it clear that she meant out of doors. At home, she’s at home in an orchard. It’s a poem that takes place in an orchard with a bobolink as a preacher. So it’s a poem also about land reverence, nature reverence. Loving the land. Loving the landscape.
I first encountered Badger Clark’s poem in a tourist gift shop, somewhere on a highway—probably Route 66. My family stopped at, somewhere out West, on one of several cross-country driving trips we made during the 1950s. I remember picking up the poem as a postcard in a postcard rack, and I believe it was identified as being anonymous. I remember reading this poem and being deeply moved by it. I must have been maybe nine. I begged my parents to buy it for me and for years I kept it in my box of childhood treasures. I liked then, and still like, the poet’s sense of reverence without dogma. The fact that this is not a poem that takes you to any particular religion. I liked its simple ethical values. Its hope to be clean and honest, sort of, Boy Scout values/Girl Scout values. And I also liked its humility. Its confession of failures, of faults. And I also loved—as a child, I loved the speaker of this poem as I loved all those painfully honest, tough but gentle, big, open, honest, clean and free movie and television cowboys, who populated America’s dream of herself when I was a child during that first half of this last century.
This poem is in the public domain.
Marilyn Nelson (1946- ) was born in Cleveland, Ohio and educated at the University of California, Davis, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Minnesota. She is the author of sixteen poetry collections as well as a translator and author of children’s literature. The recipient of the 2012 Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, she has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Nelson is a professor emerita at the University of Connecticut at Storrs and was Connecticut’s poet laureate from 2001 to 2006. She serves as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Photo credit: courtesy of Blue Flower Arts.
Learn more about Marilyn Nelson at The Poetry Foundation
Badger Clark (1883-1957) was born in Iowa and briefly attended Dakota Wesleyan University. Known as a “Cowboy Poet,” Clark spent time in Cuba and Arizona before settling near his family in South Dakota. He is the author of Sky Lines and Wood Smoke (1935), Sun and Saddle Leather (1919), and two posthumous collections. Clark was a popular public speaker, and served as the first poet laureate of South Dakota in 1937. His estate still stands in the city of Custer.
Learn more about Badger Clark at The Badger Clark Memorial Society