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Paul Engle - Poet and Advocate of Iowa Writers' Workshop

posted on November 24, 2008 at 4:52 PM


Iowa City, Iowa has been named one of three "Cities of Literature" by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It could be said that the city's literary reputation began in 1936 with the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and was promoted to world prominence by poet Paul Engle.

Iowa Public Television had a long relationship with the poet and author as shown by excerpts from several programs produced about Paul Engle. This compilation and tribute first aired on Friday, March 28th, 1991, just after Engle's death. 

Paul Engle: “Growing up in Iowa makes you a practical person but it doesn’t mean you can’t also be a visionary person.”

Morgan Halgren: “Friday, March 22nd, 1991 we were saddened by the loss of one of Iowa’s most precious artists.  Many of us at Iowa Public Television had a long and cherished relationship with poet and poet grower Paul Engle.  So, in his memory tonight we will dedicate the entire program to reliving the times we spent with him.  For those who knew Paul we hope these reflections bring fond memories.  For those who didn’t know him, please allow us to share a rare individual.  Paul was more than just a famous Iowan, his life was a work of art.  But most of all Paul Engle was one of us.”

The following is from: “Paul Engle Country” Documentary, 1984

Paul Engle: “A work of art is work and you must keep manipulating the language until it expresses the primal feeling you want it to express.  The job of a poet is to put into intense language those things in his life which move him intensely.

“It is not what you write about, it is not the theme of the poem, love, sorrow, pleasure.  It is the motion of the language that expresses the emotion you felt.  And the emotion must be controlled into a minimum of a form or it would not have intensity and therefore it will not prove your emotion.”

Doug Brown: “He was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa soon after the turn of the century.  Learning from the farm and other colorful boyhood occupations Paul shaped his sense of reality. 

Though these are but memories of times past they live on in the consciousness of his mind.  In the dedication of “Engle Country: Memoirs,” Paul recounts many of these moments.”

Paul Engle: “I had a lucky life.  Such a way will never be lived here again.  It is gone with the wild buffalo skinners and the Indian fighters, with my mother’s hand whose tough calluses tore the sheets as she made my bed. 

“Father, working hard from six a.m. to nine p.m. seven days a week, never made enough money in one year to pay an income tax.  Nor did we feel sorry for ourselves living by a simple and ancient principle, people were put on this Earth for work, horses, each other and God in that order. 

“Save for some shoemaker ancestors in the black forest of Germany all of our families had been farmers until our father Tom began dealing first with work horses and carriage horses and finally gated saddle horses. I could put a high spirited horse through five gates before I could drive a car. 

“Here I am coming out of the world of the horse, of selling newspapers in the street and delivering them to houses, of clerking a drug store with an old fashioned soda fountain, all jobs done afternoon and evening, seven days a week after a full day of school and college.”

Doug Brown: “After graduating from Coe College in his hometown Paul Engle pursued a higher degree at the University of Iowa.  There he compiled a selection of his poetry to be used in place of a thesis, possibly the first time a creative work was accepted as such.  This collection entitled ‘War on Earth’ won the Yale Series of Younger Poet’s Award.  After a year at Columbia University he was appointed Rhodes Scholar and went on to study in England.”

Paul Engle: “When I arrived at Oxford as an American Rhodes Scholar I had a male scout, a servant to bring breakfast and lunch to my room, to make my bed, to clean and shine my shoes.  The first time he took away my shoes there was a little bit of horse manure on them.  When I remembered that I was embarrassed. 

“When Burt brought them back he said with great pride and respect, sir, I see that you have horses.  He did not know that I was not a gentleman rider, I was a guy who shoveled out the stalls of a poor man’s barn, that my father kept them as a tough way of keeping his family alive.”

Doug Brown: “Engle’s second book, “American Song,” was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times, July 29th, 1934 and he was called a new voice in American poetry.  Paul was 26.” 

Richard Lloyd-Jones, Colleague (1991): “I think Iowa was so fully in his blood that to have gone somewhere else would have cut him off from his nourishment.  He lived in this state, on this soil. He lived up at Stone City because it was a part of the place that he could see this ground.  When he came back to Iowa City to live they live over the river in a beautiful spot that keeps reminding them that this is a beautiful land.”

Paul Engle (reading):

“There is a spirit in us that has sprung from the nostalgic memory of the race, the feel of certain words under the tongue, the infinite features of the human face, remembrance of wind, cool, cold in the bold, the songs of men and all their wailful crying, the strange thoughts of a child left all alone, a long eternity of birth and of dying.

“We live by no mind, it is only reason for there are in us strengths older than thought, memory of moon, Earth, seeds the treason of spring in our hearts, old family named corn lands, eternal in us as ancestral wrought curve of our thigh and the gripped shape of hands.”

Quotation: “I was his worst student. It was simply shocking. I couldn’t draw or paint.” Paul Engle commenting on his 8th grade art class with teacher Grant Wood.

Morgan Halgren: “Paul Engle was an Iowa by birth and by belief.  He never forgot the faith and dedication Iowans had in him and he returned that gift of faith by founding the world acclaimed Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  It was based on the principle of the helping hand.”

The following is from: The “Assignment Iowa” classic series with Mary Jane Odell, 1975

Paul Engle: “I had some help from people, a school teacher without my knowing it secretly sent $50 a month to Coe College to help me and I never knew it until she had died. 

“I was helped to go to England for a summer by people in Cedar Rapids who felt, well, Paul is writing poetry, they write poetry in England, why doesn’t he go to England? 

“And gradually so many people helped me, an elderly Jewish invalid in Cedar Rapids named Gabriel Newburger who gave me the clothes I wore when I walked into Oxford University.  With a background like that you feel you must help somebody else. 

“And so I came back to this country after three years of Europe and came to the University of Iowa and discovered there a way.  It wasn’t being done but the University of Iowa let me have enough rope and about 90% of the people hoped I would hang myself.  But enough believed and so I’ve helped all of these young writers I could bring here.

The following is from: “Iowa Heritage” documentary, 1978

Paul Engle: “This was the first university to state in its catalogue that the thesis for an MA could be a contribution to scholarly knowledge or a piece of creative work in poetry, in fiction, in the theatre, in music, in painting and suddenly we had the breakthrough, we had the legal justification for bringing all of the young talent of America here.  There was no place else for them to go.  We benefited from that.”

Frank Conroy, Director, Iowa Writers’ Workshop, 1991: “In a certain sense he didn’t bring anything to Iowa because he was born in Iowa and raised in Iowa but he could bring very good writers, very good writers to Iowa because they trusted him.  He was a poet as they were.  He was a writer, he was an artist as they were so they trusted him.”

Quotation from “Poetry, People & Pigs” by Paul Engle, 1955: “This combination of pigs and people is important, for the animals pay the taxes that support the stage where young men and women act.”

The following is from: the “Take ONE” series, covering the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, 1986

Paul Engle (giving a speech): “The writer was the person, is still the person for whom universities weren’t really prepared because with a writer it is write or die.  This is an intensely emotional art.  You deal with other people’s emotions, you deal with your own. 

“But if you’re studying geology it is very difficult to get emotional about worms and the glacial drift.  But for the writer it is like Kafka who said, ‘Go to your room and think hard enough of the world and it will spin in ecstasy at your feet.’ And the writer’s job is to record the ecstasy. Thank you.”

Marvin Bell, UI Poet/teacher, 1991: “People always remember the institutions long after they remember the people who made them possible.  So, people will remember Paul primarily for being a moving force on the original National Council of the Arts, for creating the Writer’s Workshop in of all places Iowa, but of course he was an Iowan and he knew something Iowans know and that is you can stay home.  He created it here.”

Quotation from the forward of “Worn Earth” by Paul Engle: “Engle wrote the poems in ‘Worn Earth’ on the backs of prescription blanks from the drugstore he worked at while attending Coe College.”

Morgan Halgren: “Paul and his wife Hualing Nieh co-founded the International Writing Program.  In 1975, one year before they were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, they told us the story of the acclaimed program’s conception.”

The following is from: “Assignment Iowa” with Mary Jane Odell, 1975

Mary Jane Odell: “Hualing Nieh and Paul as co-founders of the International Writing Program, I’m going to ask a very simple question here, all I want to know is the when and the why and the how of the start of this program.  You know, what purpose you have, what you hope to accomplish.”

Paul Engle: “Easy question. It’ll take 60 minutes but easy question. 

“First of all, eight years ago.  Second, because foreign writers had been coming here for many years to the Writer’s Workshop.  And third, because this foreign novelist came from China and said, after she’d been here, ‘You have a program for young American writers, why don’t you have one for foreign writers?’

“So, I made the obvious reply, ‘You’re crazy.  You can’t bring a lot of foreign writers in here.  What will they do to the campus?  What will they do to each other?  And who will pay for all of this expensive air travel?’

“And she made the obvious comment, ‘Let’s try.’ 

“In writing the thing that you try to do is to show the recklessness of human life under control and someone who says a woman speaking to a man and saying,

‘I have such lightness when you come,

hold my hand or

I will blow right off of this wind reckless Earth.’ 

“And it’s this human communication that writing is all about and the International Writing Program is all about.”

The following is from: “Touchstone” interview series with Pat Boddy, 1988

Paul Engle: “There is no other international writing program in the world.  The only one is at Iowa City and the result is that Iowa City is terribly well known all around the world.  So, people go back and write about it.  There is a book about Japanese, a book in Chinese, it’s been written about in German, in Finnish and Spanish and many other languages. 

“So, we have made lifelong friends and we’re going to see a lot of them in Europe just as we saw a lot of them in Asia.  They came out to the airport to meet us always, the airport is a long trip for them. 

“And we landed in Bucharest, Romania.  There were eighteen people at the airport and one woman was being observed by the airport police because she had a badge on her blouse and they couldn’t figure out if she was a subversive element. 

“The badge had a bird and it said, University of Iowa Homecoming, 1970, Go Hawks and you can not explain homecoming.  No other universities have homecomings, only American universities.”

Hunter Rawlings, President, University of Iowa, 1991: “When I travel in foreign countries people come up to me and say, oh you’re at Iowa, that’s where Paul Engle was, that’s where the Writer’s Workshop is located. 

“It’s a program that gives us instant visibility all across the world not only because the Writer’s Workshop itself was built into the premiere program in this country but because the international writing program has attracted writers from all over the world.”

Quotation: “I recruited lyrical poets like Hayden Fry recruits offensive tackles.” Paul Engle

The following is from: “Touchstone” interview series with Pat Boddy, 1988

Pat Boddy:  “Have you often wondered about what rewards you’ve missed out on by virtue of not being able to devote more time to your writing and being a better writer?

Paul Engle: “The shelf of my books would be much longer and I’ve helped an enormous number of people write their books when I would really liked to have done my own.  But that was fascinating too. 

“And some of the poets I taught have since won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Yale Series of Younger Poets.  More of my poetry students have won the Yale Series of Younger Poets than have students at Yale. 

“When I go to New Haven I say this softly but it’s a satisfaction to have been involved with genuine, big talent.  As to myself I’m doing these two books.  One is called “Engle Country Poems”, it’s about done.  And “Engle Country Memoirs” about my misspent life.  And my great-grandfather was the first man ever to put a plow in certain fields. 

“The grass roots were so deep it took twelve oxen to pull the plow through those roots.  And a little farm south of Germany once I learned to drive oxen.  I gave the commands in German and I suddenly felt, my God, great-grandfather is back driving oxen.  And I’ll read a little bit of this.  It’s called “Heartland.”

“Great-grandfather, Peter Reinheimer, broke our piece of Iowa prairie, the first man from the world’s beginning to tear that gold, green grass apart.  In hollow places it grew tall as a horse.  Yelling at twelve yoked oxen bent to a sod busting plow.  Great-grandmother garden, baked, bore kids, slopped hogs, picked corn, fed Indians, seldom cried.  Her spirit smooth as a hickory axe handle.

“From such a mother, such a father I was born in red leaf, dazzling autumn, trees on fire in the little Iowa bedroom in our house.  Mountain to mountain rich fields roll, ocean of soil above an ocean of stone.  Limestone beds that were once a sea bed full of old fossils making a suite of dirt.  Feeding far countries that have never seen it this land rolls onward with the rolling world, a place of trust in the time not to be trusted.”

Morgan Halgren: “In 1990 Engle received the award for Distinguished Service to the Art thus becoming one of only 30 American so honored by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.  Engle’s contributions to the arts include the lyrics to an opera, Golden Child, which was broadcast as a Hallmark Hall of Fame Christmas Special on NBC in 1960.  30 years later he was combining his talents with those of his daughter, dancer Laulan King.  This was documented in our final program with Paul in May of 1990.”

The following is from: “Studio III,” arts stage series, 1990.

Paul Engle: “And this is a wonderful thing for me to have as a record of our life together.  Also I’ve found that the motion of dance is very much like the motion of a line in a poem.  They are both arts of grace and rhythm so that it was a natural combination.  And when I read the poem which she choreographed I try to make certain of the lines almost like a person moving, not just words moving, but like a dancer moving.

‘Pity the poor furred cat who needs four feet to do, such leaps across the floor as dancer does with two. 

‘Dance poem 2.  Pity the pour snow that only drifts, envy the lucky dancer when she lifts an arm that circles up, down, left and right like snow she turns, the colorless air to light. 

‘Dance poem 3.  Her life is moving through unmoving air by a hard discipline and a light chance.  Watch in wonder as her lifting arms open a window to her house of dance.’”

Clark Blaise, Director, UI International Writing Program, 1991: “I think the overall effect of Paul having been here is to have made Iowa City the narrative capitol of the world.  I mean, this is the place where writing poetry and fiction is centered and this is a place that is synonymous with writing.  When one says Iowa one thinks writing.  For one person to have been able to do something like that is extraordinary and this is why we honor him.”

Paul Engle (reading):

“The name Paul Engle trembles on his tongue.  Should it be bellowed, sneered, whined, bleeted, sung.  Look at his broken football crooked nose, his shifty way of letting his eyes close when they look in to your own eyes, too grim.

“How could you buy an old used car from him?  Yet, as a father what he gave was love.  Yet, as a husband what he gave was love.  At 70, beat up, jailed for the crime of beating horror, beauty, into rhyme. I walked the blacked out cell block of my brain. 

“Sure, I am mad.  But sure that I am sane.  A corn field kid crazy for English words, old scarecrow lonesome for the screaming birds.”

Morgan Halgren: “Our final thoughts tonight come in the form of questions.  Are there talents as great as Paul’s in the new generation of artists and writers in Iowa?  If so, are there people like Paul’s school teacher who will silently give of themselves in the name of nourishing that talent? 

Do we as Iowans value the arts enough to foster and encourage artists in our own backyards?  If so, let us find and nurture them in Paul’s memory and for our own good.

Until next week, remember if you’re living in Iowa you can be proud and thankful that Paul Engle was one of us.

The following is from: The “Assignment Iowa” classic series with Mary Jane Odell, 1975

Mary Jane Odell: “What would be your idea of how to spend a perfect evening?  What would it be to you?”

Paul Engle: “One evening only.  This is the last evening of my life?”

Mary Jane Odell: “Not necessarily.  What would be a perfect evening in your mind?”

Paul Engle: “I would like some fresh ocean fish cooked in the Chinese manner to begin the evening.  I would like some, you know, pea pods, bean sprouts cooked the way she cooks them.”

Hualing Nieh Engle: “Then he washes dishes is what I hope.”

Paul Engle: “That’s her hope, it’s not my hope.”

Hualing Nieh Engle: “That’ll be perfect evening for both of us.”

Paul Engle: “And then we talk a little as we do every night about what happened during the day and what we’re going to do next day. 

“And then she goes to her study and I go to mine in our house and I write something better than I’ve ever written before and so does she and then evening ends by my showing her that I did write something better than I’ve ever written before and she tells me she wrote something better than ever before but it’s in Chinese and I can’t read it. 

“Then a small refreshment together and that is to me a great evening… overlooking the Iowa River.”


Tags: Iowa Iowa City literature poetry poets United Nations writing