Under the ground floor dome in the Flint Hills Discovery Center, seven contestants performed their poems at the annual Kansas Cowboy Poetry Contest on Friday.
The contest, which is now in its eighth year, featured two categories of country-style poem recitation: the serious poetry go-round and the humorous poetry go-round.
After a welcome from Ron Wilson, Kansas Cowboy Poetry Contest Committee chair and poet lariat, the six contestants in the serious poem contest shared their works, with topics including local history, faith, loss, celebration and reflection.
The discovery center’s image projections on the domed ceiling and the accompanying sounds of songbirds, prairie fires and crickets added to the atmosphere of historic oral storytelling. Notably, as first contestant Danny McCurry delivered the last line of his serious poem “Cowboy Cellphone,” a thunderclap sound effect gave some unintended punch to his poem’s conclusion.
The audience was spurred to laughter as the poets retold tales of growing old, parenthood, a very large cow pie and a rambunctious Shetland pony. Each poem followed the cowboy poetry style of a strong meter, simple rhyme scheme, an animated delivery and a story which may or may not be entirely true.
Between each contestant’s recitation, Wilson engaged the audience while the judges cast their ballots. Among the judges were some notable Kansans: Senator Tom Hawk, Manhattan Mayor Linda Morse and Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt.
“Poetry is, you know, what you make it or what you want it to be or what you perceive it to be,” Morse said. “I’m not much of a writer of poetry, but I think we all appreciate what these writers, you know, they shared a lot about themselves and their stories, the stories that take place in their lives.”
While the results of the contest were tabulated, Jeff Davidson and Brad Hamilton entertained the audience with a gun spinning demonstration and some songs, including renditions of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “Home on the Range.”
McCurry took the first place prize in the serious poetry go-round, and Tim Keane won the humorous competition with “Comin’ Apart.” Each winner received a trophy belt buckle; second and third place recipients were awarded gift cards from the event’s sponsors as their prizes.
Betty Burlingham, Manhattan resident, competed in both go-rounds of the contest and placed second in the humorous competition. Burlingham said she graduated from Kansas State in 1977 with a master’s degree in molecular biology.
“We ranched for, well, since we got married in 1980,” she said. “We’ve been ranching ever since. I, as a molecular biologist, had no idea I would ever be a full-time rancher.”
As a rancher, it was the “incredible experiences” that got Burlingham interested in cowboy poetry.
“My desire to start doing poems was to retell those stories of things [that] have happened,” Burlingham said. “I like to tell stories of contemporary ranching experiences, because in a hundred years, they’re going to be old, and people will still be interested in what happened now.”
She said cowboy poetry is a unique art form.
“People love poetry, and especially I think cowboy poetry is real popular because of its real strong meter and rhyme, it’s not abstract or unusual in any way and it really tells a complete story in a poem,” Burlingham said.