Paul Engle

Paul Engle (October 12, 1908-March 22, 1991), whose lasting legacy is the shaping up of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the foundation of the University of Iowa International Writing Program, joined University of Iowa faculty as a professor of English in 1937. Wilber Schramm had begun the Writers’ Workshop in 1936; Paul Engle joined him teaching it in 1941, then, took over as its director in 1942. Years later he said: “When I took over the Writers’ Workshop it was one little class and there were eight students. All of them, brilliantly untalented … I had an absolute vision after the first workshop meeting. It was a conscious thing. It didn’t just happen by blind chance.”

Engle was the third of four children of Thomas Allen Engle, a horse trader, and Evelyn Reinheimer. He was born and raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and his literary imagination was shaped by life in a small city and on the family farm outside Marion, Iowa. “All poetry is an ordered voice,” he said, “one which tries to tell you about a vision in the un-visionary language of farm, city, and love.”

“We were devout Protestants who believed that people were put on this earth to work and to pray,” he wrote. And work was a constant in his life. He was writing poetry by the time he entered Coe College. After graduating from the University of Iowa in 1932, he was awarded a fellowship to Columbia University, which was followed by a Rhodes scholarship to Merton College at Oxford University: the first of a series of decisive encounters with foreign societies, some of which he recorded in his third book of poems, Break the Heart’s Anger (1936).

In Berlin, in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power, he met a Jewish bookseller, who gave him a shelf of fine editions by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and asked him to help secure his teenaged daughter’s escape from Germany. But Engle’s letter to him was returned stamped, Disappeared—a failure that haunted him. For he would make his mark on the literary world not only through his writings but also by helping writers at every stage of their career, some of whom were in grave danger.

In 1936 he married Mary Nomine Nissen, and after their honeymoon in the Soviet Union he wrote a long poem, “Russia,” in which he described some of the consequences of the Bolshevik Revolution—its anger, shadows, and “grim birth.” The Engles had two daughters, Mary and Sara, and upon their return to Iowa he took a position in the English department at the University of Iowa.

During his 25 years-long tenure as the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—a job he resigned from in 1966—Engle lured some of the finest writers of the day to teach in the Workshop. Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Kurt Vonnegut, and many other prominent novelists and poets served as faculty under his directorship. He lured the talented young with the money he raised from foundations, enterprises, and individuals. He oversaw numerous students of future fame and influence, including Flannery O’Connor, Philip Levine, Donald Justice, and Robert Bly. He raised millions of dollars in support of the Writers’ Workshop, whose shape and direction became the model for the hundreds of writing programs that have mushroomed across the country.

Paul Engle began to admit foreign writers to the Writers’ Workshop around 1960. Among them were Richard Kim from Korea, Bharati Mukherjee and Sunil Gangopadhyay from India, and several Chinese writers from Taiwan. In 1963, he received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for a two-month visit to Asia to get acquainted with the Asian literary scene. There he met Hualing Nieh, Chinese fiction writer, who came next year to the Writers’ Workshop as a visiting writer with seven books published in Taiwan. Then, she registered with Nelson Algren’s Fiction Workshop in 1965 and earned an MFA in 1966.

Paul Engle started the International Writing Program with Hualing in 1967. They were married in 1971. Paul directed the Program until 1977, and Hualing took over as the director, with Paul as the Program’s consultant. For twenty-one years (1967-1988) they hosted what one writer affectionately called “a narrative nursery,” providing space and time for writers to do their own work. Thyagarajan (1973-74, IWP) and U. R. Anantha Murthy (1974-75, IWP), fiction writers of India, had a long dialogue about their experience in Iowa City published in Span, New Delhi, in 1977, in which they said: Something very much like what Hemingway said of Paris: If you are lucky enough to have lived there, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for it is a movable feast.

For their efforts on behalf of oppressed writers, and for the common ground they discovered with writers from every land, Paul and Hualing were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976.

Who Paul Engle Was—in His Own Words


Iowa City
Paul Engle with Writers' Workshop students, ca. 1957

Written on December 27, 1959 for an unknown purpose and sent with a photograph to a Mr. Knight.

Born, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1908. Public school there, working as newsboy, gardener, paper carrier, chauffeur, the usual things all future candidates for President in this country do when they are boys.

My father’s business was horses, first racehorses, trotters, then coach horses, then workhorses and finally saddle horses, gaited animals of considerably more quality than are usually found for rent at a stable. I grew up in the prolonged survival of the great age of the horse, with harness and saddle and sleigh bells and horse pictures, not as antiques but the facts of our lives. A sleigh (*we called it a “cutter”) was what my father used to drive back and forth from house to barn with in the winter, and not a curiosity you parked in the lawn and used as a flowerbed. I rode five-gaited horses all the year round; we had one horse so trained that you could put it on a fast single-foot, tuck the reins under your leg, put your hands in your pockets when it was 15 below zero, and ride down the road on a steady gait. Try it some idle February. I also had the use of a year of my uncle’s pacing mare; uncle Glenn drove harness horses at fairs until he was 80. His was a rangy, white-grey animal with a record of 2:041/2. A boy on top of such a creature, with a light saddle and a straight, hard-sand road ahead, has a greater sense of speed and motion than a jet can give. The live power seems faster than the mechanical, and you have your hands on the reins, which transmit the feel of the sensitive mouth.

There were two great photographs in my childhood—my grandfather Jacob Reinheimer, who had been a cavalryman in the Civil War, one of those many Germans who left the Rhineland after 1848; he rode against the Sioux in Dakota Territory, a tall, erect, white-bearded, gentle man who used to give me nickels from his little pension (buffalo-Indian nickels only, the other kind didn’t seem like real money to him). The other photograph was of Dan Patch, the greatest horse of his day, whose pacing mile of 1:551/2 was for thirty years the record. Other kids knew big league battling averages, I knew trotting and pacing records. Other families bought automobiles, we had a horse-headed hitching post in front of our house and drove horses. It was the luckiest thing that could have happened to a boy, although on bitter mornings when I would drive one horse and lead another, each hitched to a wagon loaded with telephone equipment, and take them across town to the telephone company before school, I didn’t look on it as luck.

The sound of a fast trotter on a good springy track is still a sweeter sound, and a more exciting one, than the Vienna Staatsoper playing Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which is certainly next. I began to write poetry in high school, and would ride miles over sandy roads in the fine hills around Cedar Rapids, repeating the lines over and over until I had them right, making some of the rhythm of the horse help. (Contrary to slanderous Eastern opinion, much of Iowa is not flat, but rolling hills country with a lot of timber, a handsome and imaginative landscape, crowded with constant small changes of scene and full of little creeks winding with pools where shiners, crappies and catfish hover.)

My BA was taken at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, a Presbyterian-related small college, which had its troubles paying faculty during the years 1927-31; plenty of students had trouble paying tuition, too, and some brought in farm produce to help. I had the Bible hard for two years, thank God (the proper source to thank for such a chance), preached a little at a remote part of Cedar Rapids called Stumptown, then gave up my ambition for the ministry in favor of Geology, which I took with great seriousness, collecting fossils from the rich Devonian limestone which underlies the fat corn fields of eastern Iowa, and mapping the glacial moraines and outwashes. I had superb instruction in French, in American history and, astonishingly enough, in anthropology. I wrote poetry steadily, worked in a drug store nights, the best possible place to observe the local scene. You come to know the aches and vanities and tastes and intrigues of an entire neighborhood at a drug store. In the late hours, there was ample time for study, and my boss was a generous man who gave me a shelf behind the soda fountain for my books, so that I could catch a few minutes of French symbolist poetry between making fancy items for the gay young kids in from the school dances. BA Magna cum Laude, 1931.

One year graduate study, English and History, University of Iowa. Working evenings as tutor to a fraternity. First volume of poems, winner Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize; book submitted as thesis for MA, perhaps the first volume of original poems ever used as a thesis for an advanced degree.

One year of study toward PhD at Columbia University, specializing in Anthropology, English, and the NY stage.

Received Rhodes Scholarships to Oxford, 1933-36; Merton College, very small, very old, very pleasant, on Christ Church Meadows running down to the Thames. Tutor, the English poet Edmund Blunden, a wonderful man whose “Undertones of War” is still probably the best book out of World War I. Played one term on college cricket team, as wicket-keeper, having caught a little American baseball and being accustomed to handing a ball behind a bat (but not one which normally came up at you off the ground, as in cricket). Rowed for Merton College Fight; won oar in my last year for being on crew which made five “bumps” out of six in the annual trinity Term Fights on the little river which winds so tightly that you have to row in single file and win not by passing another crew but by bumping them from behind with the bow. Rowed in the International Regattas at Henley and Marlowe the same summer. Traveled much on Continent: France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland. Learned a great many things in Nazi Germany besides the language. Took degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, after one year of literature.

One year as public lecturer coast-to-coast on modern literature, on the nature of poetry, and on American women.

University of Iowa 1937 to present [end of 1959], latter years as director of the extensive program in creative writing, which draws students form all parts of the USA and from around the world. A strong conviction that in the wide range of the country the writer must be given alternatives to New York and Hollywood, and that universities offer one solution. Find a really talented writer under fifty today and the chances are that, unless he is a commercially successful novelist or playwright, he is at a college or university. At the University of Iowa we have made a community of young people who believe intensely in writing and learn far more from each other than we can teach them. Many find for the first time that it is perfectly right and acceptable to commit their lives to poetry. We have had them from South Korea (a wonderful fiction writer, Kim Yong Ik, who published in The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, etc.), Japan, Formosa, the Philippines (many talented and such fine people, so very loyal to the United States), Canada, Ireland, England (Oxford, Cambridge), Sweden, India. All of these, along with students from Oregon to Florida, are trying to write poetry or fiction as an art, rather than as a commercial product. Many of them succeed, and publications in the two forms are constant in most of the literary magazines of the country. In 1960 we will publish (Random House) a large anthology of poetry and fiction by writers who have been here, as evidence that the imagination certainly can flourish on a campus, which is supposed to kill it. This University of Iowa has all the arts creatively active, too, painters, printmakers, sculptors, composers, theatre people. This spring a student of composition is putting on his brief opera based on Santa Claus, a play by E.E. Cummings.

My books are—Verse: Worn Earth, 1932; American Song, 1934, Corn, 1959, West of Midnight, 1941, American Child, 1945, The Word of Love, 1950, American Child (enlarged edition), 1957, Poems in Praise, 1959; Novel—Always the Land, 1941.

Poems in Praise contains a sequence of 22 sonnets written as an elegy for the Iowa dead, some of them having been set to music as a Requiem by the University of Iowa composer Philip Bezanson.

I have published in The New Yorker, Holiday, Life, Mademoiselle, American Heritage, Horizon, The Ladies Home Journal, The Kenyon Review, The Sewanee Review, Poetry, Botteghe Oscure, the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s. I have lectured at Town Hall N.Y., The Library of Congress, Harvard, Yale, Amherst, Wellesley, Columbia, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Louisiana State University, Colorado, Stanford, and scores of other places.

Married, two daughters, one a freshman at Radcliff College, other a freshman at University High School, Iowa City.”


A prophetic paragraph from the Dedication to A Lucky American Childhood, written in Iowa City in 1985, when Engle was 77:

"This book is dedicated to my daughters, Mary, Sara, Wei-Wei, and Lan-lan, and to my grandchildren, Mary, Christopher, Sara, Anthea, and Christoph Paul.


You ask if my old love for you
Can grow stronger.
It will through all eternity,
And light years longer.
Then longer, longer, longer.

I had a lucky life. Such a way will never be lived here again.


For many, many years the people of this country could largely ignore other countries, so far away, so little affecting us. Now you will have to worry about what some fool on the other side of the world will do, because today his actions are so close to us and can have so instant a chain reaction. Who knows the fearful world in which your children will live, if they do live? Never before has such a ghastly thought been a part of our thinking. Suddenly mere survival, not so-called progress or pleasure, dominates our future and hangs over our head like a mushroom cloud. We need not only power but imagination, not only to endure but to keep our mortal lives alive.”

Paul Engle: A Poem

(From A Lucky American Childhood, U of Iowa Press: Iowa City, 1996):

The name Paul Engle trembles on his tongue.
Should it be bellowed, sneered, whined, bleated, sung?
Look at his broken (football) crooked nose,
His shifty way of letting his eyes close
When they look into 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.

He likes his liquor, but his hands don’t’ shake.
He talks too much, merely for talking’s sake.
He seldom bores you, but he makes you mad.
He is not really evil, only bad.
He likes all animals, dog, cat and woman
(For whom his love is human—all-too-human).
Some think him worse, now, than he really is.
Some think him better than he really is.
His hands still calloused from his working youth,
His brain is calloused bending too much truth.

Eyeball to eyeball, he and his memory stare
As glittering mirrors into mirrors’ glare.

Let it be said of Engle in his praise:
He loved his life-crammed, people-crowded days,
The rough of rock, the autumn’s hovering haze,
Skin rubbed on skin, the loving, living blaze,
Bird wing far brighter than the air it beats,
Cabbageworm greener than the leaf it eats,
The high hysteria that lies behind
The howling horror of the manic mind.

Let it be stated clearly—he was cruel,
But only to the cruel and to the fool.
He liked to laugh, and yet he laughed too loud.
He loathed the selfish, greedy, and proud
And told them so in language of too much lip.
Each day his eyes run the fast razor’s track,
But see the radiant mirror sneering back.


Ask Engle what he thinks of Paul, he’ll say:
I’m a real bastard with a beautiful way.
For burning thought, I’ll put my hand in the fire
And get down on my knees to blow it higher.
Those who oppose me always hate my guts.
The narrow academics think I’m nuts.
My hand gives you a poem or breaks your jaw.
My head’s grown old, but still my style is raw.
I’m a more troubled man than what you saw—
When a cat bites, I stamp on its small paw.
You will always understand where Engle stands—
I’ll knock you down, then hold your hating hand.
I have the slyness of the not too bright.
I can’t move mountains, but I can make light.

Quick centuries ago I knew this place,
Lazarus looking with his ghost-gray face.
I envy the skilled sculptor, working alone,
Who puts his passion in the passionless stone.
The past is my bandage wrapped around today.
The bleeding wound of everything I say.


Some things I hate and hate them bitterly:
Complaining, whining men of pure self-pity,
Woman who wanders daily not much nearer
To hard reality than her soft mirror,
The hypocrite, without tears, who still cries,
Whose teeth and mean mouth smile, but not his eyes.
Whose arms embrace you in his bold attack
While one hand slips the bright knife in your back.

Some things I love and love them far too much:
The rabbit hopping in his hopeless hutch,
The baby bawling when its pants are wet,
Black cricket chirping till the sum has set,
The man who says—I’m I, but I am yours,
The woman who says—I’m I, but I’m yours,
The salt that burns the bitter child’s cheek, salt
That stings as child howls, No, it’s not my fault.

Although my cunning triumphs by itself,
Sometimes my sneaky way defeats itself.
Although my male physique won’t make you blink,
My skinny arms are stronger than you think.
I’ll give the time of day, time of my life,
To poets, children, animals, my wife.

I write this poem-frantic, rough, loud, firm,
A cowboy robin wrangling with a worm,
And while I watch the quarreling language squirm,
I drag it up from the resisting ground,
Word against wordy man, without a sound.

At seventy, beat-up, jailed for the crime
Of beating horror, beauty into rime,
I walk the blackout cell block of my brain,
Sure I am mad, but sure I am sane,
A cornfield kid, crazy for English words,
Old scarecrow lonesome for the screaming birds.

Words of Friendship and Praise by Fellow Writers

14 February 55

Dear Paul,

I must thank you and Mike for the kind words you put in the O. Henry collection about my stories. I have been trying to get it across to my kin folks for years that when I go in my room every day and shut the door, I am not going to sleep in the chair but am busy on a Body of Work. I certainly do admire the phrase, Body of Work, and am very much obliged to you for using it. Because I got in the O. Henry collection, everybody is thinking I must be as good a writer as O. Henry, so the Atlanta Branch of the Penwomen have asked me to breakfast next week to be introduced to the club. I will be introduced 16th on the program like General Tennessee Flintrock Sash. The two main features are to be Mr. Max Hyman (a Georgia boy) and your old friend, Long John Selby. I don’t know what kind of cold eye Long John will cast on me. In March I am going to Greensboro to be on a panel at the arts conference. I figure the company will be more high-toned there; however, I go wherever I am invited so as to see how the other half lives. I even lectured to the Milledgeville Book Club where one lady told me that the kind of book she liked best was books about Indians.

The best and many thanks,

[signed] Flannery


Robert Lowell
33 Commonwealth Ave.
Boston, Mass.

February 8th, 1955

Dear Paul:

This is just a line to get in touch with you again and make arrangements about next year. If it would suit the University, I would like to return next February, a year from now (so stated this sounds like an age away and rather blasé, but we are rather imbedded, if not incrusted, here with an apartment lease and various small plans.) I’d like your advice on courses. Gerald Else and I have been toying with the idea with something along the line of our Homer in either Horace or Sophocles. In addition to this, if you feel in the mood for a change, I might take the poetry workshop again, and give a companion course, which would have the puzzling title of Imitations. I’d have the students go through a series of acrobatic stunts by writing in modern idiom, say sonnets patterned on Wyatt, Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Hopkins; then do the same with blank verse and couplets; then lyrics in every stanza, meter and rhetoric I can find think up as a chance to take a shot at it, and put myself in harness too and provide examples.

Many thanks for your Christmas note and sonnet. I undertook to offer an occasional poem for a Christmas Eve party, and was sorely tempted many times to steal from you. Sorry not to have seen you in New York. We seem to have left almost sooner than we arrived. You must week-end with us this summer when you are at Harvard.

Today we are holding our breaths and waiting for the reviews and publication of Elizabeth’s Simple Truth. Or rather, I am, E. [Hardwick, Lowell’s second wife] is typing a mile a minute, and launching off simultaneously into a book, an essay and a short story.

Best to Mary and all my friends at I.C.



Robert Bly:
REMEMBERING PAUL ENGLE IN IOWA CITY. When Literary Life Was Still Piled Up in a Few Places

[…] When [in 1954] my $65 dollar car finally approached the center of Iowa City, I was astounded. The buildings were two stories high only. I guess I must have had in mind some sort of image as that I've just given, an image that associates literary intensity with physical heights, which may have translated itself into high buildings. I felt dismayed. I knew Robert Lowell had been teaching in Iowa City, and I said to myself, "What kind of country is this in which a poet that great is teaching in a town with two story buildings?" There's a lot wrong with my perception, but I was so self-centered and full of fantasies that there's not much use going into the inaccuracies. One could say that it wasn't as if Lowell had been exiled. Paul Engle, with his useful and intelligent impulse toward concentration of literary intensity, had called him there, and Lowell understood. Lowell's acceptance was a compliment to Paul's grasp of the way literature proceeds. A year or two later Engle brought in John Berryman; and Phil Levine's marvelous essay about Berryman's teaching in The Bread of Time suggests perfectly the way the physical presence of one superb writer, in this case Berryman, can change the life, and restructure the body cells, so to speak, of a younger writer ready to be made more intense.

I had come to Iowa hoping for a writing grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, but when I arrived, I heard it had gone to another, and so there I was in Iowa City with no money and no life. I went to see Paul Engle, and after some conversations with Ray West, and the head of freshman English, I was allowed to come into the workshop and given two classes to teach, one in freshman English and one called "Greeks and the Bible." The salary was $100 a month for each, as I recall, so there I was. I could get by on $200 a month, living in a tiny room and eating at a boarding house. Paul was generous, straightforward; he loved poetry, knew good poetry when he saw it, and was no slouch at building a program.

[…W]hen I sat down in Paul Engle's workshop, it was the first time I had ever seen that strange thing, blue dittoed poems. I was amazed. It seemed beneath the dignity of art to mimeograph poems. We didn't attack the teacher this time; in general, the aggression went against each other. Everyone knew that W. D. Snodgrass, the graduate of an earlier workshop and still hovering in the neighborhood somewhere, had done something introspective and important in poems later called Heart's Needle.

The workshop discussions were actually a little pedestrian; certain fads among the poets would dominate for a while. That's always the case with workshops. At the end Paul would come in and say rather sensible remarks. Given my history with MacLeish [at Harvard], whose lofty pronouncements floated down from some earlier heaven, this workshop was my first experience of literary democracy, even perhaps of that horizontal and envy-ridden culture which I later called sibling. The literary excitement and dedication we all experienced was due to Paul's sagacity. The teaching most of us did made our lives rather hectic, and I commented in my diary, "In such a hectic life no large work can be conceived." I wrote in my diary one day, "I could work today only from 2:45, when I got back from a conference with Paul Engle, till 3:30, when I had to go to Muncie. Then I worked again from 5:30 to 5:45, hardly one hour altogether. I wrote the poem for Paul Engle, or rather attempted it. How wonderful it is to write poems for someone who cares about you!" So it was clear that I felt a lot of affection and support coming from him.

I also found notes from a conversation I had had with Paul, in which I remarked, "Paul's greatest need is precisely to be needed." So he and I were much alike in that way. He gave me advice on a group of poems I showed him, poems full of Ideas for poems and Possibilities for inner life. To me he always talked straight; he warned me about my grandiosity and my tendency to live six lives at once. His advice was very good: "Do one thing, not many." […]

Paul and Mary would have big parties up at their stone house in Stone City, and I became fond of their children. These adventures, these meetings with writers, this gathering place for people sick of small towns, all rose from Paul's sagacity. It was Paul who asked Marguerite Young, that amazing poet, essayist, raconteur, surrealist, fictionalist, to come to town. In my last dip into my diary, I'll put down a few sentences about her:


Tonight I met Marguerite Young and once more the real world returns. Words, vision, meditation, the incredible greatness and sweetness of those on the limb of words. It is all words, and how the whole world dissolves away and leaves in its place the love for those people, and these people, who so love and in return are loved by words. Look into your heart; disregard the world of classes and deadlines and the blue world crossed with red that entices and takes all away, that one cannot love. Love those who love words, and restrict your friendship to those.


From the Foreword to A Lucky American Childhood (1996) by Albert E. Stone:

“Paul Engle’s A Lucky American Childhood, the twelfth volume in Iowa’s Singular Lives series, differs from its predecessors in many respects, most notably in being unabashedly a paean to childhood and adolescence. There is, in addition, the matter of fame. The young Paul, though born to a working-class family in a modest neighborhood of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, became the future Paul Engle, an American poet of international renown, especially in the thirties (Worn Earth, American Song, Break the Heart’s Anger) and forties and fifties (Poems in Praise and other collections). He was as well the famous director of the Writers’ Workshop and The International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. The list of leading authors who counted him friend and literary equal is indeed impressive. Even more than Ray Young Bear and Gary Gildner, poets and author of Black Eagle Child and The Warsaw Sparks in this series, Paul Engle earned fame by celebrating his mid-western roots. Iowa now stands in his lyrics as “the great west country of our destiny.” Now in a posthumous memoir he matches in prose the nostalgic energy that once made him the younger colleague of Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg.”


From A Delhi Poet in Iowa, by Shrikant Varma, SPAN, August 1973:

"Paul Engle is a leading American poet. But he is more than that. He founded and built Iowa’s famous school of letters—the International Writers’ [Program]. This is a unique manifestation of the American academic community’s willingness to honor the world’s literary talent irrespective of ideology. Year after year Paul Engle brings together writers, poets and playwrights from all continents, provides them with a creative leisure they badly need, and expects nothing in return save the little pleasure of conversation with creative people, most of whom hardly know English."

Man On A Mission

Interview with an anonymous foreign writer, a participant in the first IWP residency:

How did the idea of our Program occur to you?
(Engle laughs for a few uncontrollable moments.) I directed the Creative Writing Workshop of the University before this, as you know. It was during a summer, and while Hualing and I were swimming in the river, I thought what would it be like if we tried in Iowa City that older idea of mine that writers can understand one another in spite of linguistic barriers, and that the literary imagination lives in all languages. It would be a program of individualities in which the writers would be respected as persons, and in which they would be able to write in peace, and feel more like themselves. People suffer so much through the fact that they do not understand one another; what would it be like if I showed that they are able to understand one another if they respect one another. I would set up a Program with just this single rule: that you respect yourself equally as you do all others. I had given thousands of scholarships to young American writers before, suppose I gave foreigners a few, creating, thus, the possibility for the most diverse men, coming from different parts of the world to come closer together. You see, the madness of it was that I gave no thought to the immense financial difficulties that would entail, so now I am running around all day to find money for you. (Engle laughs again and slaps me on the back with the force of a football player.) Writers, he says, are difficult creatures. If they can live together, what should we say about the others? They should be like brothers! (I laugh also.) It is still very difficult for us who populate this deeply-tried planet. In two hundred years it will be possible to live a wonderful life. I believe in people, in their destiny.



from an interview with Paul Engle: New York Herald Tribune, May 12, 1963

    The three most famous residents of Iowa City, Iowa—a university of 33,500, surrounded almost completely by cornfields--are Forrest Evashevski, James Van Allen, and Paul Engle. That one of the three should be an athletic director and quondam football coach and another the discoverer of heavenly radiation belts is not surprising; sport and science are two of the chief exports of the modern mid-western state university.
    But Paul Engle is a poet. At 54, he has spent the bulk of his life in Iowa, and he has made the University of Iowa one of the best known (and possibly the best) centers for the teaching of creative writing in the United States. The Writers' Workshop, which he heads, has helped to train Wallace Stegner, W.D. Snodgrass and Donald Justice. It has employed as teacher Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell, Philip Roth, and Vance Bourjaily.
    Engle is at once poet, teacher, administrator, and crusader; he has convinced young writers of the worth of Flaubert and mid-western businessmen of the worth of young writers. (The University of Iowa has the only Natural Gas Fellowship in the world, underwritten by the Northern Nature Gas Company of Omaha, Nebraska.) He writes 3,000 letters a year to prospective students, former students, and potential patrons. Yet in the quarter century since he returned to Iowa City from three years as a Rhodes scholar, he himself has written half-dozen books of poetry, a novel, a book of reminiscence, opera libretti and critical articles.
    Four times a year, Engle comes to New York—because, he says, "there are certain things one can't do anywhere else." On his most recent visit, he was interviewed by R.W. Apple, Jr., of NBC News, a regular contributor to BBOKS and other periodicals.

 Q. Why don't we begin with the cliché: can you teach writing?
 A. You can teach writing to someone who has writing talent: we do not pretend to be able to teach writing to anyone. No one is allowed to register for any writing course at the University of Iowa without submitting manuscripts in advance. We read these, and if they are bad, or obviously the work of someone with a meretricious mind, or a dabbler, we simply say, "you can't come." We have to assume that it is possible to read a piece of writing and discover whether the writer has talent or not. This is done every day by critics of books—they read a book and then they write a review of it.
 Now, in the world of art, there have been schools for thousands of years; the young artist goes and becomes in effect an apprentice. Many people object to us on the ground that it is wrong to do this with a writer. I don't think that is in any way consistent. I think, if you can help a young composer or painter, you can help a young writer. Furthermore, the young writer is more vulnerable to help because he has to some degree a greater need for it. That is to say, there are in music certain established things that no one differs about—a fugue is a fugue. Writing is a good deal less technical than that; therefore, it is an infinitely more personal thing; therefore, to teach it, you must affect the person.

 Q. Does that mean that you try, for example, to teach a young poet to be more sensitive?
 A. So often when you criticize a writer, you're not just criticizing a moment in a poem or a story, you're actually criticizing a man; his perception was inadequate to the scene. So we try to persuade our students of the necessity of developing a much higher awareness of the circumstances of life—the presence of the simple sunlight and the presence of the most complicated human relationships. This is a tricky area, and obviously there is a limit to what you can do, but we try.

 Q. What are the mechanics of all this?
 A. Every Friday we have mimeographed a group of poems or a short story or a chapter of a novel. The students read it over the weekend. On Monday afternoon, it is discussed in the workshop by the students and the staff. In addition, after the student has written a good deal, there are individual conferences, where we go into the total evidence of his work and the direction it is taking. The students are also required to read in the literature of the past; we think they can learn a lot about writing poetry from reading Andrew Marvell and Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot. It is the most fluid arrangement I know of in this country.
 Above all, we try to persuade the students that this is an art, that there is craft to it, that it's a serious matter, and that you cannot merely indulge your own gentler emotions under the pretense that you're writing poetry. You've got to take a hard-boiled attitude toward your own writing. If you don't, some one else will—a critic or a publisher.

 Q. Isn't there some danger that the writing taught in universities will become sterile in the way the academic art of the nineteenth century did?
 A. I think the degree to which teachers in the past have always been classicists and conservatives is probably much exaggerated. Even if it was once true, it's no longer true. In this country, I would say that one of the principal contributors to a new way of approaching the writing of poetry is Robert Penn Warren, who has been teaching in American universities for all of his career.
 The English critic V. S. Pritchett said that the danger in the writer being around the college was that he would lose his native vulgarity. I know a great many writers at colleges, and as far as I can tell they're just as vulgar as they ever were. Yet this is a real risk. If writing is taught by people who are not themselves truly talented and practicing writers, you're liable to get a very pallid product.

 Q. The Times Literary Supplement once said that were Shelley to come to Iowa City and preach Marxism he would soon be dismissed. What is your reaction to that?
 A. Immediately after WW II, there was a very fine American poet. We had an opening: he needed a job. We went to see the president of the university and said this is the best man for the job, but in the past two years, he has been in federal prison and a psychopathic hospital. Now these are normally not regarded as the highest recommendations for life on a campus. Yet he was hired, and we were proud to have him. If Shelley came to Iowa and started talking Marxism, I do not believe he would be thrown out. If the effort were made I would oppose it.

 Q. Is there any conflict between the writing teachers and the literature teachers at Iowa?
 A. All of us who teach writing at American universities have a few colleagues who hope that on any given day we will step out in the street and fall down a manhole. Fine. This gives an opportunity to express our own candid view of a great deal of the scholarship done in the field, which does not strike me as terribly good. So much of it deals with absolute trivia, so much of it deals with ground that has been worked over before and so much of it treats literature as if it were nothing but social history.

 Q. A great many good writers have studied at Iowa. How did being there help them become better writers?
 A. That's a good phrase—“better writers." We don't say we can make them into writers, but only that we can help them mature faster than they might have elsewhere. In this country, as scattered as we are, there has been a great problem for the writer, especially when very young--where should he go? Is it proper to write? Is this not a suspicious activity? The presence of a community where a writer can go and immediately be involved with a group of people who are seriously trying to be better poets and fiction writers has been of great benefit.

 Q. W. D. Snodgrass, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960, was at Iowa. How did it contribute to his development?
 A. It is my impression that W. D. Snodgrass found a very congenial atmosphere at the University of Iowa. I hope he doesn't mind if I say he was rather shy when he first came, and here were other poets with whom he found a good deal of sympathy. Furthermore, I think the criticism he had there—and not merely from me, but from, for example, Robert Lowell—was very useful to him. His first book was a remarkable collection—all these poems were finished poems. One reason they were, I think, is because Snodgrass adopted an attitude that is in the writing program—that is to say, you work at a poem until it is absolutely as good as you can make it. Almost all of those poems had been criticized in the poetry workshop; we were not responsible for their quality, but we were responsible, in part, for the fact that Snodgrass was so eager to go back and get them right.

 Q. In a sense, your function is that of a critic. What are the most common faults in student writing?
 A. I would say that the largest single fault is a poor command of the language. By poor I don't mean hopeless; I mean inadequate for the job he's trying to do. The second largest flaw lies in the failure of the writer to realize the form he must make out of this material. Too much of the writing is mere material. After World War II, for example, we had an enormous number of boys writing accounts of experiences in the war. Now it was very difficult to persuade them that because it was dramatic or occasionally frightful for them it was not enough to put down that fact; there had to be some craft involved or it would not be dramatic or frightful for the reader.

 Q. Why Iowa? Do you subscribe to a sort of corn-belt Gestalt, as some of your critics have suggested?
 A. As an environment, I think it's a very good one—a small university town, full of huge elm trees, and close to the sort of life that goes on around it. In the middle of Iowa City, you may be off in a euphoric state because you've just written good poems, but then the trucks full of squealing pigs go by and remind you of the real world. The real world of Iowa is on the whole often more attractive than the world of the dirty street and the dark alley, although these are by no means hostile—remember Baudelaire's remark, "I have taken your mud, oh Paris, and made from it gold." But there are definite, definable advantages to Iowa City. For one thing, what else is there to do but write? It isn't full of distractions. Furthermore, I think the medium way of life there is a good one for the writer—I don't say forever, but for a year or two.

 Q. In what way is the atmosphere at the University beneficial for the writers who go there to teach?
 A. I have several answers to that. One: they are extremely well treated when they come. They are given considerable leisure. They are treated like artists, on the assumption that it is wrong to bring a man to the University as a writer and then to so overload him with work and courses to teach that he can't write. All this is enormously attractive to a writer. Two: the presence of students of real talent is a very attractive thing, too. Three: the University gives the writer a certain sense of community. One of the great literary themes of the century has been the alienation of the artist, including the writer, from society. To a great extent, we've broken that down; the writer feels that he's really welcome at the University of Iowa.”



May 30, 1960

Charles F. Schwep [director and writer: Creation of Woman, 1960, Oscar nomination]
Trident Films, Inc.
510 Madison Ave.,
New York, N.Y.

Dear Charles:
    This letter expands our conversation about the freedom of the individual in a world where his submersion in the mass is an imminent possibility.
    It seems to me likely that this problem is the basic issue for the rest of the twentieth century. The profound struggle in which we are engaged really comes down to the place, the honor and the importance of the individual in a time when the massive weight of the mass threatens to overwhelm him. The test of a nation’s greatness surely is not the value of its gross national product, but the extent of individual freedom it allows its people. Speaking from a state whose whole purpose is the production of food, I feel strongly that there is little point to having well-fed people if they are no free to act in the way they wish (up to the point of menacing society) with the energy, which our nourishing food gives them.
    It is conceivable that the state itself could raise enough food to feed its people, and to clothe them. Yet I suspect that the government, which would put food in my belly and shoes on my feet, would also put an iron band around my mind.
    Now my reading of American history suggests that this country, more successfully than any other, has given the maximum freedom to the individual, consistent with the survival of society, (I took much of my undergraduate work in American history, much of my M.A., and even did a good deal of American history at Oxford. The latter is unusual, since it is the usual Oxford view that this country has no history, at least, since that unfortunate error in our manners which took place in 1776). Sometimes, of course, giving man freedom is like giving them rope; a few will always hang themselves. This is because the most dangerous doctrine in the world is the freedom of the individual. This is why so many countries are busy suppressing it. This is also why we must be aware of any push in this country toward interfering with the right of the individual to live freely. This is our one unique and invaluable distinction. Other countries are industrialized, other countries can float hardware in the astonished skies, but we alone have a defined set of human rights as the basic authority under which we call ourselves a nation.
    Recall the wonderful moment in Concord, Massachusetts, when Henry David Thoreau went to jail rather than pay a poll tax, which he considered an interference with his free right to vote. Ralph Waldo Emerson visited him in jail and asked, “What are you doing in there, Henry?” And Thoreau asked the superb question, “What are you doing out there, Ralph?” By allowing himself to be deprived of his freedom for the time he was in jail, Thoreau advanced the cause of freedom.
    Thus the matter is of extreme importance to all of us, but of especial importance to those (I am one, you are another) who want this century to produce not a suppression of individuality but an expansion of it. A good case can be made for proving that the glory of our own history lies in the privilege we have given to so many people to live as freely as they breathe.

Paul Engle



"I suddenly realized, look, you can’t leave it to chance. If you want talent, you got to find out where talent is and then go get it, and for that, you need money. I established a chain of friends all around the country. Wally Stegner in Stanford, John Crow Ranson at Kenyon College, Allen Tate at Suwani, somebody at Columbia, somebody at Harvard. They didn’t have openings for writers. Every year, I would write to them and they would send me the names of their best people who had finished with work at those institutions. And I would bring them here. It’s all fashionable now. We were the first. So gradually word got around: Iowa is the place.

That is why I began, if I may mention a subject many people don't like, why I began to raise money. I realized if I didn't raise money, most of that talent would not come to the Workshop, because it was a small university. There simply was not enough money within the University. The reason that the Writers' Workshop succeeded was largely due to the Graduate Dean, George Starddard, with whom I worked very closely. And the head of the English Department, Baldwin Maxwell, both of whom supported me, gave me such money as they could spare. Without them, the Workshop wouldn't have gone along, being a little tiny class without talent. So, every year I had some scholarships and gradually a few research assistantships and then a few teaching assistantships. Now the teaching assistantships have grown into a major funding part of the Writers' Workshop. All of this is not merely history. It was because in the '40s and '50s I had managed with the help of these people to get the Workshop to bring terribly talented people, many of whom later went on to win Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, The Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. One year, 1962, I was in New York in the autumn, and I said to the officer at the Foundation, "You know why I am here." He said, "Yes, you're looking for money. And you won't take no for answer." I said, "Maybe I will this time, if you're not clever enough to say yes." He said, "Well, look, why don't you have a look at writers in other places. I know you had three years in Europe, and you met all the new English writers, so famous. I feel you ought to expand your horizon by going away from a semester in particular to Asia." So, I went to Asia.

When I was the director of the Writers' Workshop, I took intense interests in the residents’ lives, not only their writing. I was constantly meeting strangers, whom I had admitted to the Writers' Workshop. They had to submit writing in order to be able to come. At the bus station, at the railway station. They didn't come by plane, there was no plane at that time. Furthermore, they couldn't have afforded it. And I got them rooms. I got some of our writers, after they had been here a year or two, to manage rooming houses; they would put up the young writers coming in, who had no place to stay, in the basement on a mattress behind the furnace.

For example, a young poet from Pennsylvania, his name was W. D. Snodgrass. He had just come back from the Navy in the South Pacific. I got him a little grant on the basis of one poem he sent. It was obvious that he had talent. I had, if I may say so, a nose for sniffing out talent. The way a dog sniffs out a bone. And so he came. He turned out to be an absolute talent. He won the Pulitzer Prize for a book of poems called Heart's Needle. He had written all of those poems while he was in Iowa City. Of course, for all of the incredible number of writers who came to Iowa City, whom I brought, I don't take credit. I didn't give them the talent. I gave them a chance. That's really all a person with talent needs. A chance.”

A Fine Poet


I walk around with a door in my hands.

It opens in all directions.
Whenever I want to go through,
I gently open it with my key.
The key is lovingly notched like a liar's tongue.
It turns without a sound at the softest touch.
Without the key, I would have to throw away my door.
In my pocket, the key beats like a living heart.

Sometimes I hear growling on the other side.
I never find a dog there.

Sometimes I hear weeping.
I never find a woman there.

Sometimes I hear rain.
Nothing is ever wet there.

Sometimes I smell fire.
Never smoke. Nothing burns there.

Sometimes I even knock on the door myself.
My key caresses the lock.
I never find myself there.

Sometimes the door is hard to hold,
Wanting to run away,
Haunted by its memory of hinges.

I hear a small sound, and one more time
I put the patient key in the lock.
The door trembles as it opens:

A boy's shadow grieves on the bare ground.
When I start to close the door,
Its dark hand reaches toward me.
I bang the door on the hand.


I walk around
With a drop of water in my hand.
It looks at me with loathing.
I stare at it in fear:
It is so deep I cannot see bottom.
I hold it carefully:
If I dropped it to the ground,
It would be too wide to swim across.
If I dove into it,
I would frighten fish.
A rainbow edged with red glitters in it.
My hand trembles:
Angry waves drive through the drop of water.
I watch each little stick and stone.
If I stumble and fall, I will drown.



(written over Paul Engle’s trip to China, 1978, after the end of the Cultural Revolution)

My hand picked up a stone.
I heard a voice inside
Crying: Leave me alone,
I came down here to hide.


At the top of my neck there is a time bomb
Named Paul Engle's head.
It is set to go off when it doesn't see you
It gets tired of exploding. Don't go away.
Its eyes can look through your eyes,
They can scratch your face.
Its mouth can bite you, damn you,
Or lovingly beg you to come, come.
Its ears can hear you walking around a corner,
Its nose catches your scent around a corner.
Its cheeks can talk to your cheeks.
This head belongs to you
As your hand belongs to your arm.



You taught me to make wood out of a fire.
You showed me all these fabulous facts of love:
High in the moving wind, hawks hang unmoving.
Love is door opening on many doors.
Love, when you enter, puts locks on your locks.
Love is a mirror reflecting endless mirrors.
Love can transform a rock into a heart--
My bare hand feels it beating on bare ground.


Here on these strange streets in old Henan
Love seems familiar as a household cat
Which purrs and rubs against the stroking hand.


I give you this book because you gave me yourself,
Because you watched me scratching and muttering when I wrote it,
Because between the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers
You showed me the heart of China.

Because you are China.

Paul Engle’s Great Vision


This [workshop] is the result of a vision.
By vision I do not mean the abrupt and ecstatic experience of Saul on the road to Damascus, blinded by a light “above the brightness of the sun,” and startled by a voice speaking from heaven.
By vision I mean the steady development at the University of Iowa of the conviction that the creative imagination in all of the arts is as important, as congenial, and as necessary, as the historical study of all the arts. How simple, and yet how reckless.

The story of how the International Writing Program was conceived, narrated by Paul Engle, can be read here: International Writing Program.pdf


Worn Earth. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932. [vi] 7-51p. 19 1/2 cm. (The Yale Series of Younger Poets, XXXI) Also London: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1932. 36 poems. Dedication: To My Mother and Father and to Mr. and Mrs. L. A. Brewer.

American Song; A Book of Poems. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1934. [xviii] 3-102p. 19 1/2cm. Also London: Jonathan Cape, 1935. 112p. 30 poems. Dedication: For Stephen and Rosemary [Benet]. M

Break the Heart’s Anger. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1936. [xii] 3-195p. 24cm. Also London: Jonathan Cape, 1936. 16 poems. Dedication: [An 80-line poem to America].

Corn. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1939. [x] 11-105p. 22cm. At head of title: A book of poems. 20 poems. Dedication: To Mary who knows that the living is all, and the writing but a little thing. [Awarded the Johnson Brigham Plaque by the Iowa Library Association, 1940.] Always the Land. New York: Random House, 1941. [viii] 326p. 21cm. Also Toronto: The Macmillan Company of Canada, 1941. Novel. Dedication: To Chuck and Jim Hearst, good farmers, good friends.

West of Midnight. New York: Random House, 1941. [x] 11-96p. 23 1/2cm. Also Toronto: The Macmillan Company of Canada, 1941. 50 poems. Dedication: To Albert and Bertha Johnson Friends in the West. [Awarded $1,000 by Friends of American Writers, Chicago.]

American Child; A Sonnet Sequence. New York: Random House, 1945. [x] 3-66p. 19cm. Also Toronto: Random House of Canada, 1945. 64 poems. Dedication: For Margaret Stoddard.

The Word of Love. New York: Random House, 1951. [viii] 39p. 25cm. Also Toronto: Random House of Canada, 1951. 23 poems. Dedication: To Mary who lived it.

American Child; Sonnets for My Daughters, with Thirty-six New Poems. New York: The Dial Press, 1956. [x] 3-102p. 19 1/2cm. 100 poems.

Poems in Praise. New York: Random House, 1959. [xvi] 3-97p. 23 1/2 cm. 30 poems. Dedication: To A. and M. [a 12-line poem follows].

Prairie Christmas. New York, London and Toronto: Longmans, Green and Company, 1960. [x] 51p. 22cm. Also with imprint: New York, McKay [1962]. 5 essays and poem, A Christmas Child.

Golden Child; A Christmas Opera, by Philip Bezanson. Libretto by Paul Engle. Telecast: December 16, 1960. New York: Compass Productions, 1960. (Television script; at head of title: Hallmark Hall of Fame.)

----, A Libretto by Paul Engle for an opera composed by Philip Bezanson. With photographs from the telecast premiere on the Hallmark Hall of Fame. Kansas City, Missouri: Hallmark Cards, 1960. [viii] 7-61p.

----. Illustrated by Leonard Everett Fisher. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1962. [x] 11-127p. 21 1/2cm. Also Toronto & Vancouver: Clarke, Irwin & Company, Limited, 1962. Children's Book. Dedication: To A.H.M. who knew this child from the beginning.

Song Cycle, The Word of Love. By Philip Bezanson, text by Paul Engle. (Composers facsimile edition.) New York: American Composers Alliance, 1962. 30p. 32cm.

Who’s Afraid? Illustrated by Ray Prohaska. New York: The CrowellCollier Press, 1963. [iii] 4-63p. 29 1/2cm. (A Modern Masters Book for Children.)

An Old Fashioned Christmas. Illustrated by Eleanor Pownall Simmons. New York: The Dial Press, 1964. [xii] 13-96p. 21cm. 12 poems and 12 sketches. Dedication: This book about the most special day in the year is dedicated to Pauline V. Moore, M.D., of Iowa City, who dedicates herself every day of the year.

A Woman Unashamed and Other Poems. New York: Random House, 1965. [xiv] 3-109p. 22cm. 69 poems. Dedication: To my lifelong friends and neighbors, Owen and Leone Elliott, Marvin and Winifred Cone, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who have also been lifelong friends of the arts.

Paul Engle died in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, on March 22, 1991, en route to Poland to receive, with Hualing, the Medal of Merit for Cultural Service. In 2000, Governor Tom Vilsack proclaimed October 12 to be Paul Engle Memorial Day.

The Engle Plaque

The Engle Plaque on the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk reads:

"Poetry is boned with ideas, nerved and blooded with emotions, all held together by the delicate, tough skin of words."

Text by: Zlatko Anguelov

This presentation of Paul Engle was made possible through the generous guidance of Hualing Nieh Engle who also gave us permission to include letters from her late husband’s impressive epistolary archive. Our gratitude is but a small token of appreciation for her invaluable input and help during the preparation of Paul Engle’s profile.

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