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