The Power of Poetry

Sometimes the power of poetry is literally a life or death situation.

Poetry, Vietname War

To Douglas Arnold, who knew how to rhyme poetry with philosophy earlier than anyone.

When W. H. Auden read at Bartley College in 1967, he said “Poetry makes nothing happen.” This pronouncement so distressed David Ramsdell he made plans to burn his own poems on Payne Hall’s front steps. But would there be enough of them for a decent fire? Should he, instead, write Auden? Demand how the famous poet could thrive in such futility and when the great man wrote back, David could tack up the response on his door. But flaming poems would be so much more dramatic. He could stoke the fire with textbooks and term papers, and later tack up the newspaper photo of himself getting arrested for arson. Both were great ideas. Why not do both?

He did neither. By the end of May, his academic standing was stumbling. His first year and he’d received F’s in Chemistry and Biology, D’s in everything else but World Literature. It was such a shock — he’d never failed anything before. He’d always gotten good marks, partly because his father encouraged him in the sciences, even gave him educational kits: the Visible Man (and Woman), a skull with a rubber brain, a bony hand that clenched when you pulled its rings. Sometimes, when bridge partners inquired about the boy’s future profession, Dad replied, “A doctor,” then added with a wink, “a gynecologist.”

Dean Roberts called David in. Because of the A in World Literature, he asked the young man if he was just having first year adjustment problems. David replied yes and stared at the prismatic paper weight with no rainbow shining through. The Dean said he’d give him another chance and suggested less challenging courses for the summer term: Religion 101. Sociology 101. Ancient Philosophy. The condition? David must pass them all.

Religion 101’s professor was a closet agnostic whose waverings between faith and despair were so entertaining that David learned the blustery biblical quotes. Sociology 101 was tricky but manageable, its textbook a farrago of complex charts and common sense.

Ancient Philosophy terrified him.

“Cliff Notes will not help you with Plato,” Dr. Stepanos warned the class on the first day, arms folded in front of his chest. “Neither will Monarch Review Notes. When you read the Republic, you must absorb the nuances and ramifications of Plato’s thought.” He paused and stared at the class through glasses so thick his eyes looked like Silly Putty. “You will be tested accordingly.”

David dreaded Plato’s arid prose and lumbering categories and found Aristotle no better — too logical, too profound. He flunked most of the weekly quizzes and, as the final drew nearer, had nightmares about Gordon Russell.

Gordon, his childhood rival for Pamela Quigley. Gordon, who did so well in high school he entered college a year early. Gordon, who flunked out his freshman year, lost his 2-S student deferment, got drafted and shipped to Khe Sanh. When David hadn’t heard from him in six months, he started dreaming about whistling bombs and sniper attacks. As he sat on the banks of College Pond with the Republic, he wondered what Plato said about nightmares. He was slogging through the index when his girlfriend Rachel arrived, on time as usual. He closed the book, marking his place with a “Draft Beer Not Boys” sticker.

“How are ya?” she said.

“Fine . . . wait a minute, no, I am not fine. I am almost fine, I could be finer.”

“Oh, poor boy.” She squeezed him so hard behind the neck, he turned around and grabbed her, toppled her to the ground. Her miniskirt slid over her hips. “Oh ho,” he said, “nice underwear — grass-stain green. What’d you think of my latest?”

“Excellent! I read it twenty times,” she said, tugging the skirt back down. “You just crank them out, don’t you?” In the last three months, he’d written her a notebook of poems about her Hebrew hair, her coffee-bean eyes, her cello figure. He called this latest ode “Botticelli Belly.”

“How’s Plato?” she asked.

“Plato is fine. He’s under control.” An edgy fiction. Last night he dreamed the philosopher was stalking him like a hit man, Socrates at his side with a syringe of hemlock. When he hid in an alley, Stephanos yelled from a fire escape, “He’s down there!”

“Why don’t you go after class and ask Stephanos for help?” she asked.

He laughed, a short, choppy “har har.” Most of the suggestions she had made — what courses to take, how to make money, what felt good in bed — were reasonable, sometimes they even worked. But asking Stephanos for help was outrageous, completely off the wall. Each day the man wore the same gray jacket with leather elbow patches. He spoke without inflection, like an official droning on about how to fill out a form. He kept his arms clipped to his sides — would they ever fly off in a gesture? — and in two months, he’d smirked only once, when a student compared Socrates to Herbert Marcuse. Worst of all, he used multiple choice questions on quizzes, many of which were flanked by those two thugs, All of the Above and None of the Above.

David got up and started peeling bark off a birch tree.

“I’ll leave so you can study,” she said.

“No, it’s all right,” he said, trying to tuck the bark back on. “Don’t go. Oh shit, here he comes.”

“Who?” She turned around. “Stay,” she said, touching his arm. “He’s not going to bite you.”

Stephanos walked up to them, carrying a slim book with a red ribbon bookmark. “How are you two on this gorgeous day?”

“Too nice to be indoors, isn’t it?” she said.

“Yes. Yes, you’re right about that,” he said slowly, as if words were steps he had to take with a trick knee. “There’s so little time to enjoy it. These Maine winters . . . .” He walked off, looking at the sky.

“Did you see that?” said David. “He just gave me the evil eye.”

“No he didn’t,” she said, poking his side. “You should have said something about the weather.”

He grunted.

“I know how you can pass the test.”

“No you don’t,” he said, tickling her.

“Yes, I do,” she said, laughing so hard she snorted. “David, c’mon, stop. Stop!” She caught her breath. “Okay, listen. This isn’t going to be hard at all.”

“What isn’t?”

“Writing a poem.

“A poem.”

“A final exam poem.”

“Oh,” he said, fingering his turquoise ring, “A final exam poem. Excellent idea! But what kind? A sonnet, round and luscious as a ripe peach?” He got up and walked around her. “A villanelle, dipping and gliding like, like a stately minuet? How about a squad of quatrains, marching with military precision?” He saluted. “Or . . . .” He paused and squeezed his head.

“Keep going. More, more!”

“A swatch of free verse, careening like a souse . . . stripped of punctuation!” He swooned and fell down.

“Bravo,” she said, clapping. “Then you’ll do it?”


“Why not?”

“Because,” he said, “I may be foolish, but I’m not stupid. I’m in the cauldron up to my neck. There’s no way on earth I could ever write a poem in the middle of an exam. It’s too, I don’t know, it’s too challenging.”

“No, listen, you don’t —”

“Why bother? The game’s over. Where do you go to try on bodybags?”

“Will you let me finish?” she said.

“I want a purple one.”


“All right, all right, finish. But hustle, will you? I’ve got to read this again. And again and again.” He brushed Plato off.

“Do what you can on the exam. At the end, when you get to the essay question, answer it with the poem you’re going to write. And memorize.”

“A poem about what?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe go through the philosophers and find some famous quotes, then write about them. You’re the poet.”


“What have you got to lose?”


“Hey, do what you want. Tackle that essay question, bop it on the head with your golden shovel.”

“I’ve got to go.”

“Tell me you’ll think about it.”

“Why bother?”

For two days, he stayed in the dorm and talked to no one, not even Mike Roommate. He slept and paced and ate Cheese Whiz on Ritz Crackers. On the third evening, he heard Rachel calling David, David, like a moan across a frozen lake. He scuffled to the mint green wall, pressed his forehead against it, but she kept calling David, David, nothing but David. When he looked out the window, he saw her gazing up. Could she see him? She looked like Keats’s Belle Dame San Merci with wild eyes. Herrick’s Julia in a liquid white maxi-dress. Dante’s Beatrice, leading him out of . . . “Honey, I’m David,” yelled a guy from somewhere. “What’s your name?” She stared at him, this false David, stared above his head for one singeing minute. He closed his window and turned off the light.

David watched her leave and didn’t answer. Later, he could pretend he didn’t see her, but she’d know. Anyone who could wail like that knew everything. He wished she would leave him in peace and not come back, but then what if she didn’t? Sitting in his desk chair, he shook his head and swigged an Orange Crush. It was time to pull an all-nighter. He clutched a yellow marker and highlighted Introduction to Philosophy, squeaking up and down the pages like a white-knuckled field mouse. The next night he twisted in bed and woke up Mike. He claimed he couldn’t help it — Rachel had impregnated him with a wild seed from which he was now giving birth. He got out of bed and typed while Mike ducked under a pillow.

Socrates was rather bold —

He saw the man beneath the mask.

Dissection of the human soul

Was Plato’s neatly noble task.

But Aristotle probed and poked

The realm of basic premises,

With Art and Language as his joke

And Passion as his nemesis.

He memorized it, used it instead of the impossible essay question.

Back at home two weeks later, he opened the thin leafy envelope and found out he’d passed. The poem. It must have worked, it shouldn’t have, but it did. He called Rachel and when he heard her voice, yearned to squeeze her through the phone lines. When he asked how she knew, she answered, “Remember when Stephanos came over, carrying that little book?”


“Did you catch the title, the handwritten title?”


“On the book.”

“Yes of course.”

“You did? So what was it?”

“I mean, no, not really. What title?”

“Poems!” she said. “Poems.” And the two words struck like notes on a kettledrum.

First published in The Potomac Review, Spring 1995

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Author: Peter Bates

Peter Bates is a writer and photographer living in Florida. He is the administrator of this blog and runs the blog The Bodega Project.

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