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A bard on horseback

Cowboy poet Tom Swearingen may be coming to a campfire near you

by: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Four years ago Tom Swearingen had never written a single poem. Today he has put out a CD of his poetry and is performing it to fast-growing acclaim.

When it comes to cowboy poetry, Tom Swearingen rides tall in the saddle.

The Lake Oswego native has lived and breathed the cowboy life ever since he was knee high to a calf, but it was only four years ago that he wrote his first cowboy poem. He has been writing them ever since, and he has a rapidly growing reputation as a performer and poet. This is starting to land him appearances in some unlikely venues, such as a recent gig at the Oswego Heritage House.

“That went great!” Swearingen said. “There was a full house. I usually perform in gatherings of other horse people, so it was really nice that things went so well at the Heritage House.”

The reason Swearingen has such instant credibility as a cowboy poet is that he looks just like a cowboy. At a long, lean 6 feet 2 inches, he looks like a deputy sheriff. He always dresses like a cowboy, with a big cowboy hat, which sometimes confuses people.

“They ask me if I’m going to a rodeo or something,” Swearingen, who now lives in Tualatin, said. “I tell them, ‘No, I always dress this way.’”

Yes, Swearingen’s profession is not punching cattle, it’s running an ad agency. But his heart is in the Old West. That becomes obvious with the zest and talent be brings to his performances. Sure, the words are fine on plain paper, but Swearingen can bring them so easily to life, instilled with humor, sadness and nostalgia.

One of his poems is a sad one about a fellow horseman friend who passed away. Another is a funny one about another friend who survived being rolled on by a horse and was sitting on a porch allowing his injured posterior to heal. Another is about the awesome mystery of Superstition Mountain in Arizona.

Rhymes, rhythm and wit come so easily to Swearingen that it inspires laughter that is accompanied by awe. He makes even a city boy want to saddle up and ride toward the western stars.

It might seem that Swearingen should have been born in 1853 instead of 1953, but he has always lived close to the tradition that has inspired his poetry. He is just a generation away from family members who farmed or performed in rodeos, and little Tom made like a cowboy himself by playing and riding horses on his grandparents’ farm. America was still enveloped in the cowboy worship that arose in the late 19th century, through silent movies, talking movies and the westerns that dominated TV in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

“I grew up playing cowboys and Indians,” he said. “I still like playing cowboys and Indians.”

But Swearingen said he embraced the entire legend of the Old West, not just Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Wyatt Earp. He loved the legends, stories, history and meeting the old-timers who had actually helped tame the wild frontier. Most boys leave cowboys behind, but not Swearingen.

He met and married a lady named Carla who, fortunately, loved horses and riding just as much as he did, and the couple found a lot of friends who liked to ride horses, too.

Swearingen is always careful about making too much of his cowboy credentials (“I don’t want to claim more than I can claim”), but he admits, “In a lot of ways I am like a cowboy.”

It was a good life, and for many years never was heard a poetic word from Swearingen. But just four years ago one of his fellow riders died, and Swearingen, who had read the classic poets like Charles Badger Clark, Bruce Kiskaddon and Curley Fletcher, felt moved to write a few lines about the passing of his close friend.

“I wrote a few verses in his memory,” Swearingen said, “and shared them with his wife and friends. I didn’t expect much reaction. But I got a real favorable response. People told me, ‘You should write some more.’ I did write some humorous poems, and people laughed at the right parts.”

Swearingen did write more poems, of course, and he would share them with his comrades on horse rides through the mountains.

“It was the whole romantic cowboy thing,” Swearingen said. “Stars, crickets and the crackling of the fire.”

Friends would always ask him, “Got a new poem, Tom?”

A year ago, however, he suddenly found a real career as a cowboy poet.

“I got a call from the people who run the St. Paul Rodeo,” Swearingen said. “They were interested in having a cowboy poet. I did a couple nights of performing there in 2013.”

From there, Swearingen’s poetic career spread like a wildfire on the prairie, and he has since made 30 appearances over the past year. He found himself being part of the trend of renewed interest in cowboy poetry that started four years ago in Elko, Nev. Now his work is published in cowboy poetry anthologies and publications like “Cowboys and Indians Magazine.” He has written more than 30 poems in all, has his own website, and recently recited 11 of his poems for a CD called “Horses and Happiness.” He is excited about future opportunities for using his talents for fundraising by the Rotary Club of Tualatin.

Swearingen’s career is going so well that he now has a new title for himself: Oregon’s Cowboy Poet. For more about Tom Swearingen go to his website at oregoncowboypoet.com. This week, April 20-26, is Cowboy Poetry Week in Oregon.

When I write cowboy poetry

The lines connect me to the West

Remind me of my heritage

And how richly I’ve been blessed

To how my roots are planted deep

In common ground, my love of land

And in kinship with the cowboys

Past and still riding for the brand

When I put my pen to paper

Like when I saddle up to ride

The rhythm of words are hoof beats

The sound of history and pride

— “History and Pride”

by Tom Swearingen

by: REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Horses are a constant source of inspiration for Tom Swearingens poetry. Here he finds a fine equine specimen while visiting Lake Oswego Hunt.

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