I Guess It Must Be Up To Me: Larry Beckett’s Western Cries, and Whispers

Paul Wilner

Portland poet, musician, and polymath Larry Beckett’s work explores the narratives which help define, however imperfectly, our history.

American Cycle, a 600-page labor of love he has been working on for forty-seven years, tentatively set to be published in the Fall by Running Wild Press, encompasses characters from Paul Bunyan to John Henry, Chief Joseph to P.T. Barnum and Amelia Earhart.

His current collection, Wyatt Earp – Poetic Narrative of a Wild Life in the Wild West (Alternating Current Press), pays homage to the reluctant lawman, offering an elegiac mash-up of the conflicting accounts of Earp’s life and legend.

Fade in:

Wyatt Earp rides in, night without stars, Tomb

stone, dismounts in Dodge City, trail’s end, in the

buffalo grass, dust blowing in his face, loops his

black racehorse to the hitching rail.

Beckett knows his poetic method, and inspirations, may be out of style, but he also makes clear that he doesn’t much care.

The code of the West, or at least that of Wyatt, still holds. He refuses to shoot Ike Clanton because “he wouldn’t jerk his gun,’’ but his response to Buckskin Frank, bartender at the Cosmopolitan Hotel, is classic:

ever lose a fight Wyatt


Beckett explains his preoccupations.

“In my young days, in the 1950s, heroes were a way forward: Davy Crockett, Elvis Presley. Though antiheroes were appearing, I was looking to the heroes for the radiance of their lives and for how to live. I’ve ignored the current culture, writing long poems instead of lyrics or sequences of lyrics, when this was long out of fashion.

“But in the end, the sins of the past showed up in American Cycle: the crimes of slavery in John Henry, sheer greed in P.T. Barnum, gun violence in WyattEarp, oppression of women in Amelia Earhart. With Wyatt Earp as hero, some indulge in the pleasures of iconoclasm: they feel that nobody could be that upstanding, and enjoy dragging the hero down. For evidence, they rely on the slander of those he defeated or of their descendants. After intensive research, I found that none of it was true.”

Beckett experiments with different methods of narrative storytelling–legal documents of disputes Wyatt had with crooked judges and sheriffs, short lyrical ballads, epic descriptions of the famed O.K. Corral showdown with the Clanton and MacLaury brothers, and an affectionate portrait of the ever-elegant Doc Holliday, who allows, when wrongly imprisoned:

if this is to be my roost I swear if Tombstone

can’t afford it I’ll take up a collection for an actual jail.

It may not be a stretch to compare these laconic, defiant stanzas to William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, Pound’s Cantos or Charles Olson’s work.

In any case, they stand on their own. The characters, points of view, bits of dialogue loop over and around each other like an Altman film, to create a greater whole.

“I first encountered the Quentin memory sections of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in an anthology of modernist poetry; the editor, Selden Rodman, considered the sparse sensual detail, unattributed speech, no punctuation, as prose poetry,” Beckett says. “[It] had more immediacy than anything I’d ever read. It made Joseph Conrad’s dream, ‘to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see,’ come true.

“I tried different variants of it through American Cycle. As an example, there’s the poker game before the O.K. Corral gunfight,’’ he adds. “It’s possible by inference to reconstruct who’s at the table, and who says what, but that’s asking too much. But writing that makes everything clear is false to the mystery of our days. If you were in the Occidental Saloon that night, you couldn’t see everyone’s face at once, in the circle around the table, and you might not know all of them, and or recognize who spoke. The way the scene’s written, you should feel somewhat lost, and like you’re there.’’

With devotional respect, Beckett found a daguerreotype of Earp online, “dimmed by age, but not lost,’’ which the poet’s wife, Laura Fletcher, was able to restore for a cover image. And for an added fillip of authenticity, Leah Angstman turned Wyatt’s actual signature into a distressed font, in homage to Wild West posters of old.

It’s been a life-long odyssey for Beckett, who somehow also finds the time for musical collaborations on reimagined versions of “Song to The Siren,” the classic tune he co-wrote with high school buddy Tim Buckley and is collaborating with the Portland band, The Eyelids, on their new album, The Accidental Falls.

And he’s working on yet another ambitious project.

“In order to stay in shape for composing poetry, I work on translations on Sunday,’’ he allows. “Over the years, I’ve translated the Tao Te Ching, reconstructed as The Way of Rain, poems by Li Po, Li Shang-yin, and attributed to Orpheus, reconstructions of The Logos by Heraclitus and The Book of Merlin, and complete versions of East-West Divan by Johann Goethe and Heroic Sonnets by José-Maria de Heredia. I enjoyed translating Heredia’s French so much that I chose the next book as Guillaume Apollinaire’s Alcools, which I render as Spirits. Poetry is a world, and American heroes and French modernists are side by side.”

As for Wyatt Earp, the American Cycle and the obsessive need to make sense of the past in the present, Beckett says his research into rivers and roads, heroes and villains, has led him inexorably forward.

“After reading all those American tall tales and biographies, I looked around for our epic poem, and didn’t find it. As Dylan says: ‘Somebody has to tell the tale: I guess it must be up to me.’”

Fade out:

Wyatt Earp, followed by his posse, following no-

body, rides north into the desolate playa, no life,

not even vultures, for miles across the dead lake,

to the edge and saltgrass, in the distance between

desire and consummation, on a chance horse, its

hooves lifting alkali dust.

He takes up the old trail, into the back country

ah god, that blood, at morning, red, unknown, the

sighs, the blood, downpouring: and it’s no good,

can’t dream, with a dead soul. What’s the differ-

ence? Murder, everywhere, on this ball, here or

across the line, in the high plains.

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