Liz’s Weekly Poetry Series: Douglas Ernst And Liberal Arts

by lizard

During my long-gone undergrad days at UM, the professor who most influenced my development as a poet was Joanna Klink, so I was delighted to read in the paper a few days ago that Joanna won the Letters Award in Literature. Congratulations Joanna!

My advocacy for poetry sometimes puts a target on me. Douglas Ernst, the conservative blogger I linked to in my previous post, took some shots at me recently. Though poetry certainly wasn’t the topic being discussed, it was included in Doug’s personal attacks against me for having the audacity to describe his blogging as partisan.

The post itself was another iteration of the conservative obsession with the debt. Using a tumor metaphor, Doug goes after Dick Durbin and liberals, at one point stating:

Liberals are masters at twisting and contorting language until people throw up their hands in frustration or simply go along with whatever definition they’ve come up with on that day.

Pointing out things like the corrupting influence of Wall Street on both parties is not something Doug likes to acknowledge, so when I bring up stuff like that, comments like this start flying:

I guess we’re all not as smart and wonderful as you. Science, Technology, Politics, Poetry (Where can I buy your award-winning poetry? Or are you another failed, angry and bitter artist?). You can do it all! But the world hasn’t properly rewarded you, I guess. So you go around bashing other people, making condescending comments, and generally just being a c**k.

In a later comment, Doug indicates it’s not poetry he despises, but liberal poetry taught by liberal professors in the dreaded liberal-infested college campus environment. After declaring Rage Against the Machine’s frontman, Zach De La Roca, is not a poet, Doug moves on to a broader attack on liberals and poetry:

There’s plenty to be said for Zack’s sad line breaks, or the cliche crutches that allow him to hobble through it all until the big “Do not be afraid” conclusion, but that’s for another time. Instead, I’d rather focus on the liberal reflex to substitute poetry and song for coherent public policy alternatives to the grievances they’ve worked themselves up into a drum circle over.

Years ago, when I was at USC, the anti-war movement was in full swing. I had college professors give extra credit for anti-war poetry and attendance to Michael Moore movie screenings. Students gathered on campus dressed in black for “die-ins”. (They represented dead civilians, perhaps the human shields that shilled for Saddam…) War was “wrong” under any circumstances. When asked about the culpability of brutal dictators who respond to challenges to their authority by wiping out entire villages—silence. When asked how one practices diplomacy with an adversary who starts the negotiation process with calls for the end of Western Civilization—silence. And yet, it is the conservative college student who is looked at as somehow lacking in the intellectual chops department.

I have news for our liberal friends: Not only do young conservatives have the intellectual goods, but there’s a few of us who can go toe-to-toe with you in the creative realm. Perhaps one day Zack De La Rocha and I will have a poetry smack down here in Washington, DC. Busboys and Poets, De La Roca? I’m game if you are. Mano-e-mano. I’ll even let Alan Colmes be one of the judges.

The liberal/conservative binary is a very narrow lens through which to view poetic expression.

That said, I think there’s an interesting dynamic exposed by this young conservative’s desire to engage culturally with the perceived liberal dominance of the performing arts.

Doug is representative of a generational shift happening among younger conservatives right now, especially conservatives with libertarian leanings. I think that’s been evident with the increasing reluctance of even establishment conservatives to fight the anti-libertarian sex wars against the LGBT community.

But there is also a lingering cultural insecurity it would seem among young conservatives like Doug.

It’s too bad his college experience in a poetry class resulted in so much personal disdain against what amounts to a liberal caricature of “anti-war poetry”.

The most powerful anti-war poetry, IMHO, comes from people who have actually experienced war. This isn’t the cliche, anti-war sentiment being expressed by liberal cartoon characters. It’s poems that come from poet’s like Brian Turner, who write lines like these:

The shocking blood of the men
forms an obscene art: a moustache, alone
on a sidewalk, a blistered hand’s gold ring
still shining, while a medic, Doc Lopez,
pauses to catch his breath, to blow it out
hard, so he might cup the left side of a girl’s face
in one hand, gently, before bandaging
the half gone missing.

(from Here, Bullet; Alice James Books, 2005)

Also, Carolyn Forché, herself a phenomenal poet, edited an anthology titled Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. I think it’s one of the most important collections of poems that exists in the English language. It’s worth checking out.

Anyway, for this week’s poetry post, I would like to reproduce a poem by Douglas Ernst, titled “Model Student”. It can be read in the full context of his blog post by following the “liberal poetry” link. I think it’s a fine poem for being an undergrad poem (most of my stuff from the undergrad days are pretty terrible). Enjoy!


Model Student

Tenured professors offer anti-war protests as extra-credit
Handing me a map, I appear the eager young adult,
Daddy Warbucks, spoon fed, next generation USC grad
Paid for in handsome contributions.
Never knew I was infantry,
Witness to bloated bellies on starving children.
Effects of chemical and biological weapons:
That’s real,
Classmates, eager for the grade or blinded by credentials
Soak it up like a pressure dressing applied to a flesh wound.
Apparently my friends overseas are murderers.
Only burn-outs enlist in the Armed Services.
Red Neck, racist, slack jawed, gun toting
Republicans fill our nation’s ranks—
According to my professor.
Only misfit kids and has-been jocks
Attend community college—
According to my professor.
Only the crème of the crop attend USC.

What does that make me?

Douglas Ernst

  1. Big Swede

    When I was a child, my family would travel
    Up to Northeastern MT where my parents were born
    And there’s some abandoned old towns that off remembered So many times that my memories are worn

    And daddy won’t you take me back to Phillips County
    Down by the Milk River where paradise lay
    Well I’m sorry my son but you’re too late in asking
    The XL’s Pipeline has hauled it away

    Our Senators came with usual promises
    ‘Bout green energy and Corporate shills
    But their vote didn’t lie and betrayal came easy*
    Backstabbing hustlers from Capitol Hill.

    And daddy won’t ya take me back to Garfield county
    Down by the Red River where paradise lay
    Well I’m sorry my son but you’re too late in asking
    The XL Pipeline has hauled it away.


  2. Steve W

    Doug, my dad is a WWII vet. He was an Army radioman in the Pacific, and he attended USC on the GI bill. My dad still follows Trojan football. He’s very liberal. He’s generally anti-war. Me too as far as liberal and anti-war. I’m not a Trojan fan except for my dad.

    It’s true that USC is more expensive and more exclusive than state run community colleges. It’s a private 4 year school after all. So maybe your professor was doing some up-selling for the non-profit corporation who runs USC.

    I think the volunteer army is a bad idea. I’d prefer a 2 year national service obligation that also includes the military as well as other service options such as conservation corp, senior services, housing corps, etc. The military could offer either more pay or shorter time obligation to keep it’s numbers viable.

    Everyone who participates in service would get paid college and housing loan assistance government benefits. I think it would be good for the country as a whole and for the people directly involved.

    Did you ask your professor if you could get credit for attending pro war rallies? I’ve had professors that would give credit regardless of issue preference considerations. They just wanted students out getting exposed to the real work of politics.

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