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Cowboy poet ropes range humor

Cowboy poet Gale Patzlaff didn't need a written version of "The Cowboy Poet" to tell it to an audience at the Dakota Discovery Museum Saturday. (Photos by Tom Lawrence/Republic)

Gale Patzlaff doesn't read his poetry, nor does he recite it.

Instead, Patzlaff leans into a rhyme, offering up a humorous tale with a wry expression on his face and a touch of whimsy evident in his eyes.

That was the case Saturday as Patzlaff was one of several local poets who performed at the Dakota Discovery Museum on the Dakota Wesleyan University campus.

He chose "The Cowboy Poet" for his selection and had the audience smiling and laughing as he told the story of his friend Leonard Larson, of rural Mitchell, a cowboy who has poetry in his soul, even when astride a horse. Here's a sample of the poem, which is printed in its entirety on Page 10:

"Now if cowboy poets have a flaw It's in preservin' that perfect verse If there's a choice between a rhyme and the job at hand Sometimes the rhyme comes first"

Patzlaff lives in rural Fulton with his wife Geri, where they own a cow/calf operation. He wore a cowboy hat and other Western-style clothing Saturday but said after the show that he didn't dress up to perform. "What you see is what you get," he said.

Patzlaff, 69, didn't bring a printed copy of his poem with him to the podium, as the other poets did. He delivered the poem in a seasoned, comic pace, nodded his head at the applause, and then sat down to listen to the other poets.

He has been performing his poetry at gatherings in the Midwest since 1996. Patzlaff said he developed his appreciation of poetry from his mother Helen Patzlaff, who loved it and passed it on to her son.

When he was boy, he won a KORN radio contest and met famed singing cowboy Gene Autry at the Corn Palace, which he said reinforced the meaning and importance of the "cowboy code."

"I happened to be one of the lucky six," Patzlaff recalled. "For a 9-year-old kid who was a cowboy junkie it was something else. It was quite a thrill."

Patzlaff said he has written 30 poems and has memorized them all. He said he has lost count of the number of times he has performed.

He had been "dabbling" in poetry for years when he noticed that cowboy poetry was gaining popularity in the 1980s and national gatherings were being held.

"I thought, 'I'm going to give that a try,' " Patzlaff said.

In addition to his skill as a poet, he drafts pencil sketches of cowboy life. Patzlaff said his heroes have always been cowboys, which is one reason he has such a fondness for cowboy poetry.

Other local poets offered their work as well to the appreciative audience.

Dr. Richard Jensen, of Sioux Falls, read poems that touched on his rural upbringing, reading one on drops of rain, rivers and the prairie or another that was a look at barns that lean and how they endure -- or don't.

Mary Wipf and Sandy Krage, both of Mitchell, teamed to read a poem written by their late friend Dolores Van Den Hoek, of Plankinton.

"Here's Where I Am," which reflects on apple trees, butterflies, "little green worms" and the "scent of pear blossoms, lilacs, honeysuckle filling my nose" was the final poem Van Den Hoek wrote, they said.

The event drew about two dozen people to the museum.

Published poets Linda Hasselstrom, of Hermosa, Daniel Snethen, of Kyle, and Michael D. Ryan, of Mitchell, read in the first hour of the event before the local poets took their turn showing the crowd they could also turn a phrase.

Photos by Tom Lawrence/Republic Cowboy poet Gale Patzlaff didn't need a written version of "The Cowboy Poet" to tell it to an audience at the Dakota Discovery Museum Saturday.