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Jewish World Review June 4, 2001 / 14 Sivan, 5761

Bob Greene

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'Now that my ladder's gone, I must lie down...' -- THE satisfactions of being a university professor probably, of necessity, differ from those of being a high school or elementary school teacher. Teachers of children and teenagers become part of the perpetual gauzy haze of those children's growing-up memories once the children are children no more. University professors, though...

Well, by the time young men and women arrive at college, they are often either in a hurry to get on with real life, or are so involved with their friends and their freedom that the people who teach them form a different kind of backdrop. It's just the way the world works.

About 15 years after I was out of college, I was working on a newspaper story and I remembered, from somewhere, that there was a beautiful quotation that summed up what it is like for a person to reach the heights, to lose everything, and then to have to start over. I thought it might have been written by William Butler Yeats.

I called Northwestern University; I was told that the man I should speak with was professor Donald Torchiana. He would know, the person on the phone said.

I knew Torchiana's name. As a student who had no real interest in poetry, I had sat in a big lecture hall when I was a student at Northwestern, and had listened to Torchiana teach. I remembered him as a fiercely intelligent, no-nonsense, passionate professor who knew his subject cold. But I hadn't thought of him since.

So I called him. I said: "There's this line I'm looking for, I think it's from Yeats. It has something to do with a ladder and starting over. . . ."

Torchiana interrupted me. He said:

"`Now that my ladder's gone, I must lie down where all the ladders start, in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.'"

I said to him: "I think that sounds right."

There was silence on the other end of the phone.

"I want it to be exact," I said. "Do you want to look it up or something?"

"It's correct the way I gave it to you," Torchiana said.

After we got off the phone, I found myself thinking about him -- the seriousness with which he obviously approached his work, the academic discipline it must take to be a superlative university professor, the way students -- students who are just passing through -- sometimes barely pay attention. A man's life's work. . . .

Several months later I went up to Evanston to sit in on a night class Torchiana was teaching. I wasn't certain why I was there; I just wanted to see him teach again.

There were 10 students in the room: 9 women, one man. Torchiana had a cold; he was coughing and sniffling. He was reading aloud from W.H. Auden. Then he switched to Wallace Stevens; he read from Stevens and asked the class:

"Now, what does he mean by `the barrenness of the fertile thing'?"

When no one answered, Torchiana said, softly:

"Ultimately our world is barren."

I sat through the class, and when it was over I introduced myself. I asked if he had some time; he said we could go have a drink. We walked through the snow.

At the bar where we ended up, he told me about his life. He had been a B-17 pilot in World War II, flying 24 missions over Germany and Austria. He had come home to go to college, then had been hired -- as an instructor, initially -- at Northwestern.

He had read the poetry aloud with such energy and care, I said -- both on this night, and when I had been one of his students 15 years earlier. Where did he find the inspiration to give each word meaning?

"It's a performance," he said. "It doesn't matter if it's the thousandth time or the 10th time. The kids are out there. They've paid their money." He said he worked constantly on writing poetry of his own: "I don't go to the movies. I don't own a TV or a radio. They don't interest me." When I asked him who got to read or hear his poems, he said: "Nobody." I asked if he ever read them to his students. "No," he said. "They're not paying for that. They're there for Joyce and Auden and Yeats and Stevens . . . they're there for the curriculum. They're there in good faith."

I'm writing this today because Donald Torchiana died this month at the age of 77 in an assisted-living facility in Connecticut. A memorial service will be held for him at 3 p.m. next Saturday in the Alice Millar Chapel at Northwestern.

I remember two things especially from that night. One was what he said to the class about Wallace Stevens: "In a funny way, Stevens is telling us that we love living in a world of illusion. It is an illusion that we were ever alive."

But the other thing was what he said about poetry itself. He had quoted from Auden: ". . . for poetry makes nothing happen."

I asked him if he really believed that.

"If it doesn't make anything happen, then at least it teaches man how to praise," Torchiana said. "Maybe that's enough."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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