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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Engle, Paul Hamilton
(October 12, 1908–March 22, 1991)

–poet, writer, translator, professor, and director of the Writers' Workshop and the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa—was the third of four children of Thomas Allen Engle, a horse trader, and Evelyn (Reinheimer) Engle. 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 unvisionary language of farm, city and love."

    This is the language of his memoir, A Lucky American Childhood, in which he paints a vivid picture of his early years—his mother splitting cherries picked from the tree in their backyard; his father breaking a wild horse with nothing more than a look into its eyes; the odors of curing meat, linseed oil, and kerosene lamps; sleigh bells, and the ice wagon's big brass bell, and bells announcing the arrival of the steam train. He reenacts his newspaper route through the story of his plunge into the icy Cedar River: after drying out in the pressroom, he delivers the rest of his papers, and at each house he glimpses the mystery of lives remote from his own—a bickering couple, an insurance agent who reads him a new poem, three girls dancing. The last stop brings him face to face with a beautiful, naked woman, who thanks him. For what? He cannot say.

    "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. While attending public schools in Cedar Rapids, he earned money in a variety of ways, including a seven-year stint as a soda jerk in a drugstore, which carried literary journals for him to read when there were no customers. He was writing poetry by the time he entered Coe College, from which he graduated in 1931. In 1932, at the State University of Iowa, he became one of the first to submit a creative thesis for his master's degree—a collection of poems, The Worn Earth, which won the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. In the same year, 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 teenage daughter's escape from Germany. But Engle's letter to him was returned, stamped Disappeared—a failure that haunted him. Engle would make his mark on the literary world not only through his writings but by helping writers at every stage of their career, some of whom were in grave danger.

    In 1936 he married Mary Nomine Nissen. 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 were more fortunate in their offspring; they had two daughters, Mary and Sara. Upon their return to Iowa he took a position in the English Department at the State University of Iowa, and in 1941 he became the director of the Writers' Workshop. In his 25 years at the helm—during which he invited such notable writers to teach as Robert Lowell, John Berry-man, and Kurt Vonnegut—he pioneered the teaching of creative writing. Indeed, he claimed to have helped, "with money and sympathy, more young American and foreign writers than anyone else in this country."It was not an idle boast. Among his students were Flannery O'Connor, Phillip Levine, and Donald Justice. The spectacular growth of creative writing programs in this country and abroad is his legacy to the world of letters.

    In 1967 he and his future second wife, the Chinese novelist Nieh Hua-ling, founded the International Writing Program, which brings well-known writers from around the world to the University of Iowa for a unique residency. For 20 years they hosted what one writer affectionately described as "a narrative nursery," providing space and time for writers to do their own work. For their efforts on behalf of oppressed writers, and for the common ground they discovered with writers from every land, Paul and Hua-ling were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976.

    Writing in what he called the "long trade winds of American speech," Engle published volumes of poetry, a novel, a libretto, and hundreds of articles and reviews. He also edited important anthologies of poetry and fiction, translated many poets, and gave lectures and readings around the world. He died in Chicago's O'Hare Airport, on March 22, 1991, en route to Poland to receive an award for his contributions to literature. In 2000 Governor Tom Vilsack proclaimed October 12 to be Paul Engle Memorial Day.
Sources Included among Engle's many works of poetry and prose is a reminiscence of his childhood years in Cedar Rapids, A Lucky American Childhood (1986). For his role in the development of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, see Robert Dana, ed., A Community of Writers: Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers' Workshop (1999).
Contributor: Christopher Merrill

Cite as: Merrill, Christopher. "Engle, Paul Hamilton" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 December 2017