[Photograph scanned from the 1978 Fordham College yearbook, The Maroon.]
I learned today that my favorite professor has died. Jim Doyle, James P. Doyle, was my teacher at Fordham College, Bronx, New York. He later taught at Lyndon State College in Vermont. His years at Fordham matched mine--he started in 1974 (when I started on my B.A.) and left in 1980 (the year I finished my M.A.).
Jim was the best teacher I ever had. He was the teacher who made the why of poetry clear to me, who made it clear that poetry was an urgent human enterprise. I had a class with him in my and his first semester at Fordham (drama), and it was not great, as he agreed. He was learning, I think, and he was facing a group of mostly uninterested and wary freshmen. But when I took his courses on modern and contemporary British poetry as a junior, I began to understand what literature was all about. Jim brought poetry to life, by any means necessary, often with humor, and always with absolute dedication and integrity. He was never ironic or glib about the works he was teaching. He was the real thing, and he presented tremendously difficult poetry (e.g., David Jones, Geoffrey Hill) to undergraduates in all its difficulty, without apology. I remember how several of us treasured our copies of Four Quartets, every page covered in notes from class ("the Doyle edition"). I still have my copy. I remember going to an optional review class during reading days before finals and coming in very late (after a grandparent's funeral, believe it or not), which prompted Jim to just keep going, out of kindness. What a teacher! I'm glad that I told him how much his teaching meant to me.
When I started on an M.A. at Fordham, I sat in on the modern British course I'd already taken, to get all the notes I'd missed the first time around. Here too, in that more leisurely world of reading days, there was an optional extra class, hours long, to get through Four Quartets. It was in mid-December, at night, in a more or less deserted classroom building. The room was packed, people listening intently, coats piled everywhere. There was the strangely magical feeling that sometimes comes from being in a classroom at night--brilliant fluorescent light inside and the black winter night in the windows. The class suddenly became very moving, as Jim stopped what he was doing to talk about the difficulty of the works we were reading and of how they wouldn't really become clear to us for years. It was an intensely human lesson about the whole project of living and learning.
I have so many memories of Jim. He once told us that he'd gone to church that morning (during Easter week, I think) and that he was the only person there--so it was a good thing that he went! I remember his hilarious account of trying to explain to a prim Fordham girl what a phallic symbol was. He brought one (or both, I can't recall) of his children to class--the only time in all my years as a student that I ever saw a professor open up his family life in that way (I'm proud to say that I did likewise when my two children were younger). He took me out of my graduate cubicle once with the invitation, "Come take a walk with me," and we went out to Fordham Road and had ice cream. I also remember a completely casual aside that Jim made while teaching "Prufrock." Many years later it came back to me when it was exactly what I needed to remember in my life, and I'm glad I was able to tell him so. I feel lucky to have some books that he gave me before he left Fordham, and some letters and cards from over the years.
Jim's obituary has something of his gratitude and humor in it: "Jim lived a wonderful life and was happy that it was long enough to see the Boston Red Sox win the World Series."
[December 11, 2007: A fair number of people have been finding this post by searching for jim doyle. If you've been looking for Jim online, do read the comments that follow, and please consider sharing your memories there too. Thanks.]
A Jim Doyle story